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The quality of sleep

We spend one-third of our lives sleeping.

Yep.

You read it right.

One-third.

Let us calculate that the average human lives up to 75 years of age. And if we hypothetically say that we sleep for eight hours per day (which is one-third of a day), that amounts to us sleeping for 25 years or 9,125 days for those 75 years of life on this Earth.

25 freaking years!

Sleep, of course, is an evolutionary paradox. Sleep isn’t simply resting, but a period of adaptive inactivity where we are, in actuality, fulfilling critical tasks – from restoring depleted energy levels to clearing toxins and building memories; from allocating resources and functions accordingly to aid in declarative learning and procedural and implicit memory tasks.

Therefore, sleep is an anabolic process. Sleep is also where our bodies do the bulk of repair work where growth hormones are secreted and muscle tissue is rebuilt.

But the question is do we really need that much sleep?

Sleepless

In truth, high-performance individuals are likely to catch anything between five to six hours of sleep. Seven if they are lucky. We must also bring into consideration that contemporary lifestyles are so fast-paced and rapidly conditioned that we sometimes tend to neglect our sleep or find that our sleep cycles are interrupted by factors and circumstances often beyond our control.

You’ve heard of workaholic billionaires who barely catch a wink for long periods, but instead catch power naps whenever possible.

You’ve heard of people who multitask and are apt to have incredibly demanding and taxing lifestyles where sleep loses its position in the hierarchy of priorities – and they still kick butt.

We’ve all been inspired by high-end achievers, go-getters, and major successful personalities who claim they simply work harder than everyone else and sleep less than others.

Arnold Schwarzenegger comes to mind. Say what you might about the man, but consider that he was champion of five Mr. Universe titles and six Mr. Olympia crowns in his bodybuilding career, challenged himself to learn English and take acting classes while competing in bodybuilding competitions, rose to become one of the biggest Hollywood action movie stars in the world, is a successful entrepreneur, philanthropist, environmentalist, motivational speaker, and bestselling author, and the 38th Governor of the US – not bad for a foreigner who was born and raised in the tiny village of Thal, Austria, and migrated to the US in 1968 when he was 21.

Now you can’t tell me that’s not bl**dy impressive? His speeches and life lessons are some of the most inspiring you can hear.

Famously, he gave a speech saying how if we sleep for six hours, then we have 18 hours left to get things done. And he chided that whoever claims they need more than six hours sleep and that they sleep for eight or nine hours must simply learn to sleep faster!

While we cannot reproach the man for his commitment to achieve excellence, his goals and vision may not wholly align with our own. 

What we can agree with is that even six hours of solid uninterrupted sleep has served Arnold well, after all, he is living proof of that.

Rest, repair, and rejuvenation  

Without proper sleep, our thinking, reasoning, and calculating ability is stunted. Our cognitive processes are dulled with deprived sleep. Sleep deprivation takes a toll on creative minds. We are prone to make more errors professionally, be grumpier and moodier in our personal lives, and be awkward and belligerent socially due to not receiving adequate sleep.

The brain is an engine that needs to be replenished.

Sleep deprivation also affects us physically – we are not at our level best and tire soon, while fatigue hits us faster. Our efficiency and sense of co-ordination suffers. Haven’t we all lost our ability to be agile and sturdier, and more active when we lose sleep?

There are significant differences in immune responses with a lack of proper sleep.

Haven’t you noticed how people who have skipped or missed out on sleep tend to lose their sense of humour, becoming swiftly irritable, and easily intolerant? Parents who have their sleep patterns and rest interrupted by young children are victims of this.

In fact, the ability to function with swift alacrity and excessive levels of energy during our teenage years and even in one’s 20s depletes rapidly after passing our 30s. We become unfocused, not as resourceful, unproductive, less cognitive, and incoherent. This causes lapses in judgment and in daily function, affecting our processes and activities needlessly. To cut to the axiomatic chase, as it were, with age and life’s intricacies and complexities woven into the fabric of our being, we require more psychological, physiological, and physical rest, repair, and rejuvenation to be at our best day after day.

The health benefits of sleep are legion. Sleep gives our bodies the necessary time it requires to repair itself and be fit and ready to face the challenges and obstacles of another day. Adequate sleep will aid in preventing heart disease, excess weight gain, and help combat illnesses. Sleep improves memory, boosts the immune system, and increases performance and productivity. Sleep heals muscles and tissues while repairing blood vessels.

The dying winter sleeps    

Some of us study, work, write, or find ourselves at our creative peaks late at night and at the wee hours of the morning (like yours truly penning this article at 1.14 a.m. for example). That is not to say I have the luxury of sleeping well into the next day. My day starts fairly early consisting of daily chores and responsibilities, work projects, band stuff, meetings, creative pursuits, tending to my furry kids, grocery runs, my daily gym round, and then more work, followed by lectures in the evenings etc.

Uninterrupted sleep is nearly mythical sometimes, but I do try my best.

Thing is, I have found a balance where I catch five to six hours of sleep, but keep fit and eat as healthy as possible. On seven hours of sleep, I am a beast. On six, I am more than capable. On five, I am able but with serious limitations.

It does help that I love what I do, and do what I love professionally. I attack each day with a Stoic philosophy and Spartan attitude.

I have learned to trust my instinct and intuition. I know my mind and body fairly well, where I don’t push it past a certain point when it starts to feel like I am no longer at the peak of my capabilities, when I am beginning to slip into inefficiency. I can tell when the engine is starting to murmur and hum and the warning of the fuel is a lowlight starting to flicker.

I wasn’t always this attuned to myself – and found equilibrium in life through experiences; in much loss, great sacrifice, immense patience, reasonable compromise, and learning from my mishaps.

It’s taken me three decades to finally appreciate the things in life, to not be bitter about my life choices or circumstances, and to discover truth in life’s ambivalent moments, learn from experiences past, and happiness in pursuits that are meaningful.

With the right amounts of sleep and a balanced life, I now have better focus to fight the good fight.

I try to not take for granted how important rest and sleep is – especially if I am to tackle and seize each day and night on my terms without cutting corners.

The reason I shared this is not to canvas braggadocio rights for myself, but rather to hopefully inspire some of you out there.

To those among you who may feel that you are too old or not in a position to make any positive changes in your life to improve your well-being… 

It’s only too late if you don’t try

Conclusion 

It is believed that, as we age, sleep becomes less of an integral factor in order for us to function at our optimum. However, the average amount of sleep a person requires finally varies from one individual to another. The point is, what works for you may not work for me, and vice versa. We need to figure out what our strengths and weaknesses are, understanding our limits and the extent of our total potential. How else can we ever grow, improve, and evolve in life?

Sleep is a component that is pivotal for our overall performance, efficacy, productivity, health, and wellbeing. Whatever your age, profession, calling in life, whatever motivates and drives you each day, whoever or wherever you are, remember that you can only function at the apex of your capabilities, talents, and skills if you let yourself have a factory reset and recharge your batteries.

It’s not necessarily the quantity of sleep, but the quality of sleep that finally matters. 

If one-third of our lives consists of sleep, then perhaps we should sleep well and make every moment of rest count.

Suresh de Silva is the frontman and lyricist of Stigmata, a creative consultant and brand strategist by profession, a self-published author and poet, thespian, animal rescuer, podcaster, and fitness enthusiast.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.