home Features Bedtime Reading: The Facts and Fiction of Sleep

Bedtime Reading: The Facts and Fiction of Sleep

By Maeve O’Keeffe

I have yet to seek corroboration from my parents, but from my own recollections, I have always loved going to bed. There were no nightly battles over brushing my teeth, or pleads to stay up late watching TV. I was quite content to be tucked in snuggly, chat to my teddy bears for a little while, or in later years, read a few chapters of a book, and doze off. I maintained this reverence for bedtime throughout my teenage years, even when tempted to stay up late cramming for exams, or scrambling to get homework finished. In leaving cert, I took my study of Shakespeare’s Macbeth very seriously, abiding by the idea of sleep as the “balm of hurt minds;” “Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care […] chief nourisher in life’s feast.” Among my friends, it became a running joke that I could never stay awake past midnight, as the first one to doze off at sleepovers or in the car after a night out. I had a constant appreciation for the value of my eight hours sleep as an absolute minimum, with a regular, reliable, and sufficiently restful sleep schedule that I loved.

Until I came to college, that is, when sleep fell to the wayside for me, like so many of my peers. With quite a shock, I realised I could survive on very few hours of sleep. I discovered the wonders of caffeine, and soon felt dependent on my morning cappuccino to even be able to feign concentration in lectures. I found that an americano after dinner worked wonders in pulling me through a late-night study session in Boole Library, and yes, it was indeed possible to work a full day in my minimum wage summer job having not slept a wink the night before. Don’t get me wrong, I still loved waking up fresh as a daisy after a good night’s sleep, but it was becoming an increasingly rare phenomenon. There were just so many other things to prioritise, that eight hours of sleep didn’t feel all that important.

You see, the benefits of good sleep are largely hidden from us, when compared with alternative ways to spend your time.  When an essay or assignment is due soon, it feels like a better use of time to stay up late working on it, as opposed to clocking out and heading to bed. Similarly, the short-term satisfaction of heading on a night out, binging one more episode on Netflix, or wasting another hour scrolling on TikTok feel more immediately rewarding than sleep.

Depriving ourselves of sleep is one of the most normalised ways in which we neglect our health. Eating an unhealthy diet or not exercising can often be perceived as personal failures, indicative of gluttony or laziness in a culture obsessed with diet. When someone voluntarily  neglects their sleep, however, the fault is not placed on them, but is instead viewed as a benign side-effect of having a fulfilling and busy life. I do not mean to suggest that we should shame people who struggle to meet eight hours of sleep a night, but merely wish to highlight how blasé our attitudes can be when it comes to sleep deprivation.

Perhaps this is down to ignorance. We all know we should try to get enough sleep, but the effects of inadequate sleep are often so long-term that many of us wonder if we really need eight hours of sleep every night. Lots of people fail to realise that sleep is anything more than just a time to rest. Given the fact that we spend about a third of our lives sleeping, it makes sense that our body uses time spent sleeping to maintain optimum functioning.

The brain is reliant on sleep to recharge. When we are sleep deprived, we are increasingly vulnerable to reduced cognition and difficulty paying attention. Sleep deprivation also inhibits the brain’s ability to make new memories, meaning that what you’ve been told a million times by parents, teachers, and lecturers is true; pulling an all-nighter before a big exam is probably not a good idea, even if it feels necessary at the time. In fact, according to Matthew Walker, author of the best-selling Why We Sleep, after 19-20 hours of wakefulness, an individual’s mental capacity has deteriorated so much that it is comparable to being legally drunk behind the wheel of a car. An estimated 20% of car crashes can be attributed to tired drivers. Even after losing one hour of sleep, as we do once a year when the clocks go forward for daylight savings, car accident rates spike. Though it would be practically impossible to monitor the sleepiness of drivers in the same way that breathalysers detect alcohol consumption, the comparison is important to keep in mind. You wouldn’t sit behind the wheel while intoxicated, and we need to view sleep deprivation in a similar light.

As well as this, there has been budding research exploring the relationship between sleep deprivation, a toxic protein called beta amyloid, and Alzheimer’s disease. Accumulations of beta amyloid protein are found in the brains of individuals with Alzheimer’s, but researchers are currently exploring how sleep deprivation can lead to a build up of beta amyloid in the brain. Chronic sleep deprivation is therefore being investigated as a significant risk factor in the development of Alzheimer’s.

The risks of sleep deprivation extend beyond impairing our cognitive performance. Sleep is necessary for our optimum functioning of the immune system too. Sleep deprivation can totally deplete some of the body’s vital immune cells, with the connection between insufficient sleep and the development of the common cold and other ailments is well established.

Of course, I was oblivious of these health risks until I came to college, which, coincidentally, was when I began to neglect my sleep. Perhaps my former prioritisation of a good night’s sleep is down to some of the frequently brandished pearls of wisdom I was solemnly informed of as a child. For instance, I was always led to believe that “An hour of sleep before midnight is worth two after midnight,” and that, “early to bed and early to rise, makes a [wo]man healthy, wealthy and wise.” But is there any truth to these old phrases?

 Research suggests that some of us are indeed night owls or morning larks by nature. While the majority of us will fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, it is genuinely more difficult for a night owl to go to sleep early, whereas morning larks find it unnatural to lie-in. As well as this, one’s preference can change throughout the lifespan, with research also indicating that many adults of college-attending age are more likely to find a later bedtime more comfortable, so you’re not alone if your best-laid plans for an early morning library session often fall through in favour of the snooze button.

These differences are due to your circadian rhythm, or your body’s internal clock, which runs on a 24-hour cycle. This internal clock is in synchronisation with the rhythms of our environment. Cues such as daylight cause us to be alert and wakeful, and as the sun sets and daylight fades in the evening, the pineal gland in the brain releases melatonin, a hormone which makes us feel somnolent and sleepy. This explains why navigating a nocturnal schedule, due to shift work, for instance, can be challenging. Equally, many of you might be familiar with how jet-lag can throw your circadian rhythm into revolt, and make synchronisation of one’s circadian rhythm more difficult than usual. On a more day-to-day level, however, sleeping in for hours longer on weekends compared to weekdays is not helpful for the maintenance of regular sleep-wake cycles, and so trying to maintain routine in your sleep schedule is advised. Of course, this is easier said than done, particularly if you work night shifts in a hospital, or behind a bar, or are caring for a young baby who awakens frequently during the night.

Overriding one’s internal clock and circadian rhythms can not only cause insomnia, or make us feel drowsy during the day, but it also meddles with some other aspects of the body’s natural functioning. For instance, weight gain has been recognised as a potential consequence of insufficient sleep. When we are sleep deprived, our body may secrete the hormone ghrelin, which can lead to increased appetite. One’s metabolism can also be affected by restricted or disordered sleep, which may also contribute to weight gain. Aside from these explanations, some researchers proffer the simple explanation of how fatigue caused  by sleep deprivation may render an individual too tired to engage in physical activity, leaving them susceptible to weight gain and its associated health implications, including increased risk of coronary heart disease.

Another more overlooked consequence of sleep deprivation is poor mental health. After even a single night of poor sleep, an individual can be left feeling angrier and more anxious, with poorer impulse control, all of which can adversely affect how they engage with friends and family every day. Our circadian rhythm plays a role in regulating some of the neural systems that influence emotion, so changes in mood and the exacerbation of mood disturbances is a natural consequence of neglecting your body’s circadian rhythm.

One of the most fascinating aspects of sleep is the study of dreams, and understanding why we dream. Dream interpretation is often used as a psychoanalytic technique, with the aim of uncovering how dreams reflect the individual’s unconscious drives, thoughts, and fears. In Sigmund Freud’s famous “The Interpretation of Dreams,” dreams were described as “disguised fulfilment of repressed wishes.” Though many psychologists since then have disputed the claims made about dreams by Freud, there is still little consensus over what precise role dreams play. Some argue that dreams have no real function, others understand their function as assisting in the consolidation of memories and processing of emotions. This might explain why so many people report having stress dreams before important moments in life, like dreaming that you lose all of your teeth while going through a break-up, or tumbling off a mountain the night before a big exam. Thought of this way, we can understand sleep as helping us work through adversities and stressors, as well as regulating our body’s physical functioning.

Perhaps the frightening potential consequences of sleep deprivation may seem like drastic scaremongering, rendering my insomniac readers even less likely to get any shut-eye, due to preoccupations with the ramifications of their sleeplessness. Of course, this is not my intention. The effects of chronic sleep deprivation accumulate, but that does not mean that one cannot improve their sleep quality and duration. Aside from just avoiding all-nighters, the practice of what is known as sleep hygiene can help us reach that coveted eight hours of sleep each night. Sleep hygiene can mean different things for different people, so you may need to try out a few different steps before you find something that works for you.

  •   Experts recommend having a fixed wake-up time and a nightly routine. Setting aside even thirty minutes before bedtime to engage in a relaxing activity like meditation can be particularly useful.
  •   While many of us are prone to the pre-bedtime TikTok scrolls or Tinder swipes, looking at your screen right before bed causes mental stimulation which is not constructive to winding down, and the blue light emitted from the screen can inhibit melatonin production.
  •   As well as this, getting outdoors and exposing yourself to natural daylight can help support your circadian rhythm.
  •   Try to make your bedroom as calming as possible too, investing in black-out blinds and earplugs can help if you’re living in a noisy College Road house.
  •   It may seem obvious, but cutting down on caffeine is one of the best ways you can possibly improve your sleep, even by limiting yourself to one cup of coffee a day, taken before lunchtime.
  •   Though it might feel like you sleep like a baby after a few pints, in reality, alcohol can decrease the quality of sleep, so reducing alcohol can benefit your sleep.
  •   Experts have also identified dining late as a barrier to good quality sleep, as the body is still digesting the food when you go to bed (so those vodka RedBulls followed by curry chips at 2am are probably not as good an idea as you might think at the time).