March 2020 – Once again, I have summoned up an article from the past, a past that increasingly seems simpler and less fearful. Reports – and, alas, personal experience – show that insomnia is raging among us. This is hardly surprising, given the legitimate fears, uncertainty, and wild speculation about our future brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic which is currently ravaging much of the world even as things appear to be subsiding in China. So, it seems appropriate to bring back an article on sleep. Originally published Feb 21, 2019, the world has changed immeasurably since then.
As we approach the end of winter and the holiday season, we return to our normal living patterns. So, it seems appropriate to review what is most important in our physical lives. One of the basic elements to examine is good sleep, especially since so many people regularly complain about poor or inadequate sleep. This blog article is an excerpt from my next book which will be life lessons in a series of letters written to my son. I hope to have this book published soon.
In this letter, I will talk about physical health. Knowledge about good health practices is an expected part of modern life, although a number of myths and misconceptions persist. However, we often need to be reminded of what we already know but have forgotten or neglected. Health is something that most people assume will be good, dependable, and unchanging. Often, we do not value our health until something changes or threatens it. But we should remember that, even with modern medical knowledge and technology, it is not always possible to restore good health after something has happened to damage our body.
Let me offer a few thoughts about the three major factors – sleep, exercise, and food – that contribute to our good health, either maintaining it or regaining it after it has been damaged.
The first and perhaps most important foundation for good health is sleep. I believe that we can abuse our bodies with inadequate exercise or with poor eating habits for long periods of time and still function at almost normal levels. But the results of inadequate or poor-quality sleep are much more immediate and can be very dangerous to our health. As medical science learns more about sleep and its importance to the human body, we seem to be finding that our genetic-based needs for sleep are not something we can easily modify. In other words, the sleep patterns of ancient peoples were a good model for modern man.
If you have difficulty with getting good sleep, the best and simplest solution is to do as primitive man did in our hunter/gatherer stage of civilization. An old adage I heard from your grandparents was, “Go to bed with the chickens and get up with the chickens”. Perhaps a literal interpretation of those directions is not possible for people living in modern society but it is still the best model to strive for. Any proposed alterations of our genetically-based sleep patterns should be viewed with suspicion if not outright alarm.
Simply put, good and adequate amounts of sleep is a fundamental necessity. Our marvelously adaptable human body which is capable of operating under a wide range of conditions can sometimes make natural sleep patterns seem flexible and almost negotiable. However, modern research now shows that trying to function without good sleep is a poor decision, even for short-term conditions such as staying up all night while studying for an important examination. If poor quality, insufficient amounts, or actual sleep deprivation becomes chronic, our effectiveness and quality of life suffer greatly. And, those damages, if continued for longer periods, can lead to physical and mental conditions that severely affect our productivity, ability to focus, and emotional equilibrium.
Yet, our society is filled with myths and misunderstandings about how we can condition our bodies to override the genetic imperative for getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night. Some people believe that we can condition ourselves or use mental self-discipline to replace the need for sleep. Or, conversely, we attempt to use drugs to force our body to sleep despite any stress and turmoil which can prevent us from sleeping. Son, if you find yourself needing chemical assistance to sleep, I suggest that you should always deal with the cause of the disturbance in your natural sleep patterns instead of trying to minimize the resulting symptoms.
I believe sleep is such a critical requirement that we should make good, restful sleep one of our highest priorities. Yet, many people act as if it can easily be deferred when we have other things we want or need to do. Reducing the amount of sleep below what your body needs is often done these days but I caution you to avoid this practice.
For the blog readers:
Let me suggest an excellent book about sleep which I recently read. The latest scientific research is contained in a fine book, Why We Sleep, by an eminent authority, Dr. Matthew Walker, the director of the University of California-Berkeley’s Center for Human Sleep Science.
I was amazed that many of the ideas about sleep that I had were terribly incorrect, even dangerously wrong. If you want to learn more about the nature of sleep and its importance in our lives, read this book by Dr. Walker. I highly recommend it.