Phelan Gowing-Mikellides

Written by Phelan Gowing-Mikellides

Sleep: more than just sleeping

How, why and when did we stop caring about our sleep?

Today, more than seven and a half billion people populate the earth and, as a species, we are unlike any other in the animal kingdom. We are the apex predator, the crop cultivator, the agricultural innovator. We have developed technology and social organisation beyond the point of recognition and still we continue to push them further. As a result of this, individual people are obliged to become increasingly specialised and expert in what they do. And in an attempt to continue our oldest biological drive (reproduction) human-kind has become more competitive than anything this planet has ever seen. In our frenzied pursuit of accelerated growth, greater productivity, and continual satisfaction, most of the world has forgotten about the one thing. Something underpinning each and every society throughout history.

That thing left behind, is of course sleep.

The imbalance of modern life is seen in no place more clearly than the metropoles that sit, punctuating the post-industrial era. Throughout the Anglo-American world sleep has become synonymous with underachievement while constant busyness now holds a type of prestige among urban populations. Tiredness through over working is to strived for while sleep must be reduced at all costs. The divorce of rest from work unfolds in a kind of perfect paradox.

But does this really matter? Should we care about trying to equilibrate our waking hours with those sacrificed to sleep? Professor Matthew Walker of Berkeley university certainly seems to think so and judging by the success of his internationally acclaimed book ‘Why We Sleep’ so too do his readers.

Throughout the book, Walker encourages us into adopting a more balanced approach to life. He emphasises the importance of those post-lunch slumps, and discusses dreaming and siestas from a scientific point of view. However, his ‘moderation running through the core of life’ doesn’t just stop there. It extends into all parts of being alive; work life, family, social activities, charity, diet, exercise. In a way, professor Walker can be seen to share Erbology’s mission. He acts as our unofficial spokesperson, arguing the fundamental pillar of our company. Where Walker explains balance, we bring it together and package it for you, ready to buy. Every product we create is made in the hope that it will encourage people to consume in a more conscious and balanced way. That’s what motivated Irina and Victor Turcan to found this business and it’s what motivates me to write about sleep.

"Jane Fonda’s evolution from political activist into fitness guru irrevocably changed her lack of control over the reality of being, into a total control over the reality of existing."

To understand how our lives became so devoid of healthy sleep, we should think back to the begging of the 1980’s. I don’t mean the hefty implications of Ronald Ragan and Margaret Thatcher’s blanketing neoliberal policies. I’m not talking about the World Bank’s structural adjustment of Africa or Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands. No, in the timeline of sleep’s history, something far more important happened among the neo leg warmers and new romantics of the 80’s.

The year was 1982.

The instigator – Jane Fonda.

Flung into superstardom during America’s 1960’s counter-culture revolution, Fonda quickly became one of Hollywood’s most beloved sweethearts. She glided effortlessly between stage and screen, awards ceremonies and political rallies, holding a passionate advocacy of American civil rights in one hand and female empowerment in the other. Fonda’s opposition of America’s campaign in Vietnam is remembered by many, in part due to the one notorious photo of her sitting on an anti-aircraft gun in Hanoi. But as young America’s sweetheart passed through her twenties, her sympathy became increasing directed towards the socialist cause. The Cold War standoff between Russia and the U.S. continued to pull the world into its conflicting political philosophies. Filmmaker Adam Curtis even blames socialism’s increasingly complex politics for Fonda’s retreat from activism.

Whether this holds true or not, I’ll leave for you to decide. But what is unequivocal is that Jane Fonda’s evolution from political activist into fitness guru irrevocably changed her lack of control over the reality of being, into a total control over the reality of existing.

In doing this, separation based on simple oppositions was created. On one side, sat an out of control and overwhelmingly complex world. On the other, reduction and a focus on that which was still under the power of individual people.

Jane Fonda opted for the latter.

With the release of her first fitness video, she began the hyper-commercialisation of health and exercise, leaving intellectual activism behind. It was at this point that today’s popular stereotypes of fitness fanatic and intellectual introvert were born. To this day, very little overlap between the two exists. This is true but for sleep.

Resting in science

The science of sleep has been focussed on in greater detail than in the fields of sport and education. International athletes value sleep as much as training, knowing full well the necessity of its restorative powers. So too do academics recognise how important a rested brain is for optimal learning. Despite physical health and intellectual rigor being the two extremes of personal development, sleep has on the most part been disregarded.

We risk serious detrimental effects when inflicting our bodies with long term sleep deprivation, an ailment which roughly one third of American adults suffer from (1). Matthew Walker argues in his book that we are amid a ‘silent sleep loss epidemic’ which poses ‘the greatest public health challenge we face in the 21st century’ (2).

Conventional knowledge tells us that sleep is the state our brains enter into to rest, that it is the opposite of active, daytime alertness. But as Arianna Huffington explains, “the sleeping brain is feverishly busy, and the work that’s being done is as important as anything being done during the daytime. For example, it is during sleep that our brain clears toxic waste proteins – the kind associated with Alzheimer’s disease” (3).

So, below are 3 key reasons we should be getting more sleep.

1. Physical health

It’s no secret that sleep is the ultimate side-effect-free physical enhancer. Huffington says that it’s actually elite sports stars who are helping to break down the delusion that sleep deprivation is macho. “It’s exciting to see more and more world class athletes coming out of the burnout closer to talk openly about how embracing sleep helps them win on the court and in the field” (3). Michael Phelps, LeBron, Chris Hoy, and Shannon Miller all have strict habits when it comes to sleep and the coaches and sleep specialists they employ are at the very pinnacle of physical science knowledge. We should take a leaf out of the books of these athletes.

2. Brain health

Sleep improves both memory and mood. In 1959, New York DJ Peter Tripp promised millions of his listeners across the U.S that he would stay awake for 200 hours during what he called an “awakeathon”. As minutes turned into hours and hours into days Tripp, a man usually described as cheerful and upbeat, became increasingly agitated and unpleasant to be around. Towards the end of the awakeathon, he was causing considerable offence to even his closest friends, exhibiting paranoid behaviours and even signs of hallucination (4). Since that time, studies conducted in laboratory environments have produced remarkably similar results. If Tripps challenge tell us one thing it is that sleep deprivation has seriously negative effects on your ability to behave normally and should be respected as much as diet, and exercise. But, if you don’t like taking advice from the results of an eccentric DJ’s social experiment, here are a number of studies that back up the same claims.

1) Sleep deprivation in chronic somatoform pain—effects on mood and pain regulation.

2) Mood and metabolic consequences of sleep deprivation as a potential endophenotype’ in bipolar disorder.

3) The neuroscience of visual hallucinations.

3. Learning new things

The part of the brain responsible for our ability to take in new information is called the hippocampus. Much like our body’s physical demand that we avoid sleep deprivation the hippocampus also stresses that we provide it with sufficient rest time. This region of the brain is critical for the storage of new memories and its ability to perform suffers significantly after just one night of interrupted sleep. This leads to sleep deprived learners being unable to retain new information at the capacity they should. This study on picture memory conducted by the American National Institutes of Health, shows how impairment of proper learning often comes from a sleep deprived hippocampus. So, if you’re yet to be convicted you should be upping your sleep quota have a look at these results, they’re pretty staggering.

Many of the explanations for why we sleep cycle around the common and perhaps erroneous idea – that sleep is the state we must enter into in order to fix that which has been upset by being awake. If sleep is so useful, and so physiologically beneficial to every aspect of our being, the real and fundamental question is why did life ever bother to wake up at all?

Since the birth of our kind humans have pondered over the reason for sleep. But, considering how biologically damaging the state of wakefulness can often be, that is the true evolutionary puzzle here, not sleep. With this perspective, I propose a notably different theory. Sleep was the very first state of life on earth and it was from sleep that wakefulness emerged. Not the other way around.

To take control over sleep is to bring a more conscientious and thoughtful attitude into the management and health of your own body. It also dispels the popular portrayal of the thoughtless fitness enthusiast while at the same time breaking down the physically neglected intellect. Sleep management is central in humanities movement towards constant improvement.

Where Jane Fonda began the separation of consideration and health in the public sphere, the likes of Walker and Huffington and their science-based approaches are bringing to two back together. Sleep is becoming an ever more important consideration in the lives of people striving for personal growth and a healthy, balanced way of life. It’s time we all to start taking sleep a bit more seriously and managing it like we do with all other important things we do.

The journey to better sleep begins here and it’s going to be a comfy ride.

3 bedding ideas we love that can help you sleep better

Jayne Harvey says that it was the difference in her view of success posed against that of other people’s that led her to establish Lily & Mortimer as one of the world’s most luxurious bedding companies. If you’re looking for a little more comfort check out the range of products listed on their website. Side note – L&M is also 100% sustainably sourced, which we think is incredible. You can read more about Janye and the company in the Pebble Magazine.

Considering that a clear conscience is the best way to ensure a great night’s sleep, I suggest you have a look at the Fine Bedding Company’s Eco Duvet. As is stated on their website, FBC have revolutionised the bedding industry by introducing a duvet, the first ever, to be made using 100% renewable energy. They even have something called an ‘Eco Factory’ which is apparently award winning. They “transform plastic waste – that would otherwise end up in landfill – in to a luxuriously soft, light and fluffy fibre filling”. The cover of the duvet is also made from completely recycled materials but this doesn’t affect the quality of the soft, hypoallergenic feel. Sound appealing? Absolutely.

Finally, why not consider completing your ultra-comfortable, hyper-sustainable night’s sleep by checking out Happy Beds Room in a Box? It’s an eco-friendly bed you can assemble and dismantle in no time at all (just a matter of seconds, apparently). It has a beautifully minimal stripped back design. You can read more about the company in the Pebble Magazine.

 

References

(1) Christine Hsu, Nearly a Third of Americans are Sleep Deprived, 2012, https://www.medicaldaily.com/nearly-third-americans-are-sleep-deprived-240273. 

(2) Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams, 2017, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322724321_Why_We_Sleep_The_New_Science_of_Sleep_and_Dreams_by_
Matthew_Walker_PhD_Scriber_An_Imprint_of_Simon_Schuster_Inc_New_York_USA_2017_368_Pages
.

(3) Natalie Clarkson, Three reasons we all need to sleep more, 2018, https://www.virgin.com/entrepreneur/three-reasons-we-all-need-sleep-more.

(4) Jakke Tamminen, how a lack of sleep affects your brain, from your personality to how you learn, 2016, https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/how-a-lack-of-sleep-affects-you-brain-from-your-personality-to-how-you-learn-a7366216.html.

(5) Busch et al, Sleep deprivation in chronic somatoform pain—effects on mood and pain regulation, 2011, https://www-sciencedirect-com.libproxy.ucl.ac.uk/science/article/pii/S0165178111005257.

(6) Aydin, et al., Mood and metabolic consequences of sleep deprivation as a potential endophenotype’ in bipolar disorder, 2013, https://www-sciencedirect-com.libproxy.ucl.ac.uk/science/article/pii/S0165032713002620.

(7) Yoo SS, et al., A deficit in the ability to form new human memories without sleep, 2007, https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.libproxy.ucl.ac.uk/doi/book/10.1002/9781118892794.

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