January is sleep awareness month, which some might consider an oxymoron. Regardless of semantics, however, sleep is a very important but often overlooked aspect of health.
When I was an undergrad, I viewed my body and mind as a store. In the waking hours, my body and mind were open, active and productive. Sleep was like closing the store down; nothing got done. With the multitudes of demands on my time as a college student, it seemed like a tremendous waste of time to shut down the store when there was so much to do!
I used to philosophize with my friends about how productive we would be if only we didn’t have to sleep. Sleep was usually the first thing to get cut when time demands got tight.
Scientists have also pontificated as to how sleep came about in organisms. It certainly puts an animal in a particularly vulnerable state in which it could readily satisfy the next passing predator’s desire for a midnight snack.
While the origins of sleep may remain a mystery, its purpose in modern day humans is much clearer. Unlike the store analogy, sleep is actually a very active time for the mind and body.
During sleep, the body’s hormonal system is very active. Testosterone, growth hormone, cortisol and countless others go through peaks and troughs which are instrumental in keeping our bodies running at peak performance. Sleep has a significant impact on learning. It helps take short-term memory files and store them into the long-term memory hard drive.
Back in my Gaucho days, I pulled an “all-nighter” only once. I don’t recall what class it was for and how I wound up doing on the test. I just remember trying to cram as the night wore on and feeling like I wasn’t really getting anywhere. My eyes would read the words, I would repeat them to myself but it just didn’t seem to stick. It was like trying to stuff an item into my already over-stuffed storage container; putting one item in made three others fall out. Replacing the three that fell out would cause three others to fall out.
Basically, I was running to stand still. In fact, sleep is so critical to learning that some experts say that the best way to learn is to study and sleep.
Sleep is also a very important component of emotional health. People who get enough sleep can deal with stress more effectively. Their moods are better overall and they have less anxiety, depression and anger.
Another fascinating – and somewhat paradoxical – aspect of our bodies that sleep affects is weight. People who get enough sleep are more likely to keep a healthy weight. This may seem counter-intuitive since when we’re sleeping we’re not doing anything active. When we’re sleeping, however, we’re not eating, either. In addition, the essential hormonal surges and troughs mentioned above also seem to have a beneficial effect on weight.
As you all are looking at your time budget, I would urge you to keep sleep as a top priority. Sure, the store may be closed, but it’s also getting cleaned, restocked and the computer system is getting updated. Far from being lost time, it’s time invested in making the waking hours more productive and efficient.
If you’re interested in learning more about sleep, try the sleep challenge being put on by our friends at Health & Wellness. You can sign up through the website www.ucansleepbetterchallenge.com
Dr. Ali Javanbakht is the UCSB Student Health Medical Director