As important as sleep is -- and the more we learn the more we realize sleep is the glue that holds us together -- it's unlikely it will every achieve equal status with exercise and diet.
How is it that an activity that takes up about one-third of our lives doesn't get more attention? Yes, articles are written about sleep's relationship to a host of problems like fatigue, focus, mood, immune system functioning, overeating and learning. But it never translates into the interpersonal buzz that becomes part of people's everyday conversations. Unlike diets and fitness where there's something new every year, sleep doesn't come in different styles.There is no yoga sleep or lose-belly-fat sleep. Sleep is just, well, sleep.
I did a survey of patients in my practice asking individuals which health behaviors they consider most important and how they rank them. It was hardly scientific, but a useful starting point for discussion. Invariably, diet and exercise were chosen as the two most important with stress management, limiting alcohol use and increasing sleep on a second tier. Half the time I had to bring up sleep and ask whether it was in the mix for them.
With the exception of sleep, health related activities involve conscious decision making. You're aware of your choices and, typically, like to talk about them. Moreover, vanity plays a huge part in all of this. While being healthy is central to these changes, everyone also wants to look good. Vanity is clearly a motivating cofactor. So while losing weight through diet and exercise makes you healthier, looking good fuels your ego.
Sleep, however, is on the other end of the consciousness spectrum. Other than remembering a dream, we're oblivious to what's going on. And while we logically know that enormous amounts of biochemical work is occurring, the unconscious nature of the process clouds our perceptions. Sleep's genius is invisible and, therefore, makes it harder to appreciate.
Despite the public relations problem that sleep has, I held out hope that a piece of research would appear that would grab people's attention and place sleep alongside diet and exercise on health's Mount Rushmore. In October of 2013, I thought it finally happened. A research study published in Science reported a remarkable discovery -- during sleep, the brain cleans itself!
It appears that while we're sleeping, the space between brain cells increases and cerebrospinal fluid pores in and fills these spaces. "It's like a dishwasher," Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Rochester and an author of the study told NPR. This incredible mechanism clears all the waste products that accumulate during the day including beta amyloid protein, the sticky substance that is implicated in the development of Alzheimer's disease.
Could anything be more important than this? Diseases of the body are difficult to cope with, but losing one's sense of self takes fear to another level. And now we discover that something as simple as enough sleep may help prevent this disease. If sleep was ever going to get the kind of profile and respect it deserved, this was it.
And then, nothing. Despite the initial coverage in the media, including The New York Times, the story disappeared like a morning dream right after awakening. Not a single person I've spoken with knew of these findings months later.
Public relations is not the only problem sleep has. Its primary adversary, "digital addiction," is now firmly implanted in our cultural consciousness. If the screens don't turn off at night, any conversation about improving sleep hygiene is moot.
Sleep deprivation is as important a national health issue as obesity and needs to be addressed as such. Both of these issues are about reconnecting with the rhythms of organic intelligence that we were all born with. Infants don't overeat, avoid sleeping or remain immobile.
From the time you were born your brain has been sending you the same message: If you let me do my job, you will be a much happier person. If not, well...