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COMMENTARY: Sleep is finally getting more respect

by Tribune News Service | December 2, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

Sleep is finally having its moment. I'm a sleep researcher and clinician, and it's exhilarating to see broader recognition that sleep is important, yet I am often dismayed about the framing of why sleep is valuable.

Messages equating sleep with laziness have long been woven into our cultural consciousness, with aphorisms such as "I'll sleep when I'm dead" and "the early bird gets the worm" reflecting our fears that sleep is a hindrance to success and accomplishments.

We find inspiration in legends of historical figures such as Leonardo da Vinci whose fantastic achievements supposedly required only a modicum of sleep. These messages characterize sleep as an impediment to productivity; it is encouraging that we are increasingly turning away from that mindset and recognizing the importance of sleep. However, in our emerging embrace of sleep, the end goal often remains productivity, and the shift in perspective is only that sleep is now seen as a facilitator of productivity rather than an impediment.

Sleep does often increase productivity as a byproduct of its many benefits including increased energy, focus and mental processing speed. However, we do ourselves a disservice to focus too heavily on productivity -- especially as it is often narrowly defined by career and financial success -- as reasons for prioritizing sleep.

In a culture that assigns positive moral value to productivity, linking sleep with productivity means sleep is no longer morally neutral; sleep is good only so long as it serves the purpose of increasing productivity. Linking sleep and productivity is harmful because it overshadows the bevy of other reasons to prioritize sleep as an essential component of health. It also stigmatizes groups that are affected by sleep disparities and certain chronic sleep disorders.

We now know sleep is connected with every aspect of our health including our cardiovascular health, pain, mood and immune system. Sleep is a pillar of health but has long been neglected in comparison to its more popular cousins -- diet and exercise.

To bring awareness to this issue, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine published a position statement last year with the straightforward title "Sleep is essential to health." The American Heart Association recently echoed this sentiment, adding sleep to its list of essentials for heart health. The cover of the Sept. 24 issue of The Lancet also highlights the overlooked importance of sleep.

When sleep is as fundamental to survival as water or air, it is strange to see sleep promoted in some circles as a tool for enhancing performance in the workplace. If we see sleep as something to be hacked and optimized to improve performance, sleep can so easily become just one more thing we must perform correctly, something at which we can either excel or fail. Moreover, the onus tends to fall on the individual to have adequate time and resources to implement the proper techniques and buy the right products.

Sleep is also affected by larger societal factors. As we shift toward recognizing the importance of sleep, we must also confront the reality of systemic factors, such as racism, discrimination and neighborhood segregation, that create disparities in sleep. Improving sleep on a large scale will not be achieved merely by convincing individuals to improve their habits or adopt technologies that promise to optimize slumber. As we work to improve sleep for all, we must promote equity by addressing systemic factors that stand in the way of sleep for so many people.

Framing sleep as a means to increase productivity also ignores the reality of chronic sleep disorders that keep many people from conforming to the narrow cultural definition of an acceptable sleep-wake pattern. A CEO or a professional athlete who sleeps 10 hours every night and naps before important events in order to achieve peak performance is lauded, while people with hypersomnia disorders who sleep the same amount continue to face stigma and are maligned as lazy.

The message is clear: You are allowed to sleep as long as there is a payoff in terms of your performance and productivity. This stigmatizing message is also familiar to night owls whose late-night productivity is overshadowed by their perceived morning laziness. If your circadian rhythm is not aligned with standard business hours, you run the risk of being perceived as unresponsive, unreliable and unproductive.

We still have a long way to go in improving our collective relationship with sleep. To fully appreciate the benefits of sleep, we must break away from the view that it is either lazy (bad) or productive (good). Sleep is so much more than a means to increase productivity, and we all deserve to sleep in the way that serves our lives in all their fullness -- our health, relationships and simply our day-to-day enjoyment of life.

The purpose of sleep is not to hustle faster and grind harder during your waking hours. You can simply sleep because your body needs it, and your life will be better in innumerable ways for it.

Dr. Jennifer Mundt is director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Lab and an assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

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