SLEEP: A Human Commodity

Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time by Arianna Huffington, a summarization.

Photo by Twinsfisch on Unsplash

Two years ago, I experienced sleep deprivation when I was onboard a ship as a seafarer. It was my first time to experience sleep problem.

At first, I thought it was nothing. But when I counted the number of hours I had been exhausting my efforts to fall asleep, I totaled about 40 hours. I was alarmed by it that added more stress and made it more difficult to fall asleep.

During the latter counts of those hours, I had problems focusing on tasks I was doing. I did not know what I should do next, I got easily annoyed and disturbed, and I cried to tire my eyes but it did not help. It was an episode of my life I hope to never ever happen again.

When I disembarked, I looked for a book which could explain to me anything about sleep – especially the reason being why people experiences sleep deprivation. If I would be able to find answers myself, I would then be able to share the information with my friends who share on their Facebook statuses that they could not sleep. And with those who send me personal messages telling me they could not sleep either and asking me why.

Waiy. Why me? I also couldn’t sleep.

I went to Big Bad Wolf in 2018. When I came across this book, Sleep Revolution by Arianna Huffington – the cofounder, president and, editor in chief of the Huffington Post Media Group, I did not hesitate to buy it.

She collapsed from sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and burnout in April 2007. Good thing I did not. Although, it took me two years to finally find time, inspiration, and reason to read her book (pardon my laziness Arianna).

In her book she explored many boundaries where sleep could be relevant – the origin of modern 40-hour workweek, the Science of sleep, the benefits of sleep to our performance, to our relationship with others and to our well-being. She also wrote about ideal hours of sleep time to function optimally, some recommendation on how to get more sleep, and the habits which can develop sleep problem and many more. There’s so much in the book. And here are the important points I would like to share with you.

Sleep and the forty-hour workweek

The Industrial Revolution is what truly fueled the sea change in our relationship to sleep. Artificial light allowed the night to be colonized, but mechanization allowed it to be monetized, and capitalism had no use for sleep. Through the nineteenth century, as was the case with factories, machines, and workers, sleep became just another commodity to be exploited as much as possible. Indeed, sleep became not just devalued but actively scorned. After all, every hour spent sleeping was another hour spent not working – therefore another wasted hour (p. 76).

One of the worst industries when it came to sleep was the steel industry. Steelworkers across America went on strike in 1919, demanding a reduction of their working hours, but their efforts failed and conditions remained dismal. Throughout the early 1920s, steel workers endured double shifts every other week, allowing companies to avoid employing an additional shift of workers. The scourge of sleep deprivation from such long days affected entire communities.

Demand for an eight-hour workday had been building in the labor movement. Trade unionists had marched through Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1889 with a banner held high reading “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for What We Will.” But it was not until 1926 that one of the major American Companies, Ford, introduced the forty-hour workweek (p. 78~79).

Why we sleep?

Before I began reading the book, why I sleep is one of the questions I hoped to be answered. This could also be a question that many of us would like to know. And according to the book, there are 4 leading theories as to where the urges to sleep come from (p. 95~96):

  1. The Inactivity theory which holds that sleep is a product of natural selection; our inactivity during sleep allowed our ancestors to hide quietly and go unnoticed by predators. The obvious problem with this theory is that although stillness can be a helpful defense mechanism, stillness coupled with a lack of awareness of your surroundings does not seem like a particularly strong predator-avoidance strategy.
  1. The Energy conservation theory, in which sleep, by putting our bodies into a slower metabolic state, developed as a way to reduce the number of calories, or energy, we need to consume and expend each day.
  1. The Restorative theory, in which sleep is seen as a way of restoring the resources we use during the day.
  1. The brain plasticity theory which holds that sleep is a function of the development and ongoing maintenance of the brain itself. As Allan Hobson of Harvard once said, “Sleep of the brain, by the brain and for the brain.”

Stages of sleep

I am not aware that there are stages of sleep because all I want is to actually get to sleep. But here are four stages of sleep and each stage is characterized by different types of brain waves, which reflect the level of the brain’s electrical activity (p. 99~101):

Stage 1: Light Sleep – A transitional stage between wakefulness and sleep. In this state we can wake up easily and your eyes and muscles are still moving.

Stage 2: Slightly Deeper Sleep – Characterized by the slowing and stopping of eye movement, and a decrease in core body temperature.

Stage 3: Delta Sleep – Slow-wave deep sleep begins. In this stage the brain creates slow, high amplitude delta waves – a departure from the higher frequency beta waves of our waking hours. This is our deepest phase of sleep, during which eye and muscle movements have nearly ceased and it is very difficult to wake us up.

Stage 4: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep – which is characterized by rapid eye movement, starts about an hour and a half after we fall asleep, our breathing becomes shallower and quicker, our blood pressure and heart – which have been slowing in the earlier stages – go back up, and our brain waves become faster in frequency, resembling those of our awake brain. Our muscles are essentially in a state of paralysis. It is in REM sleep that we do most of our dreaming, and if we wake up during this phase, we are more likely to remember our dreams.

What puts us to sleep at night and what wakes us up in the morning?

Sleep and wakefulness are regulated by two complementary systems (p. 96~97):

  1. Our sleep/wake homeostasis which responds to the body’s internal cues. It describes an intuitive process: the longer we stay awake, the sleepier we get; the longer we sleep, the more likely we are to wake up. Scientists call this “sleep pressure” which builds up as you stay awake and releases when you go to bed.
  1. Our Circadian Rhythm ­– comes from Latin circa (around) and dies (day) – and is a cycle that roughly corresponds to one day. In humans, circadian rhythm is governed but a small group of brain cells located in the hypothalamus. It is dipping and rising at different times of the day, needs constant input in the form of natural light to be calibrated properly and interacts with the buildup of sleep pressure from being awake to regulate our sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day. The circadian rhythm cycles downward in the late evening, dovetailing with the high sleep pressure built up throughout the day.

At this point, we have read the overview of sleep – its history and Science. They are essentially important to know even though they – except the 40-hour workweek – do not have practical utility to us. These are half of the information I find interesting while reading the book. The book gave ample avenue for the readers to know how and why we get to sleep.  So, the other half will focus on the information that has direct utility to the readers.

How much sleep is enough?

A minimum of seven hours of sleep a night is essential for optimal health. And since age is a determining factor for how much sleep we need, the National Sleep Foundation has broken it down accordingly (170):

Newborns (0-3 moths): 14-17 hours

Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours

Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours

Preschoolers (3-5 years): 10-13 hours

School-age children (6-13 years): 9-11 hours

Teenagers (14-17 years): 8-10 hours

Young adults (18-25 years): 7-9 hours

Adults (26-64 years): 7-9 hours

Older Adults (65 years +): 7-8 hours

Benefits of Sleep: Brain Development and Dopamine Activation

The benefits of sleep are mentioned all throughout the book. Mostly, they are the suggestions, results and/or conclusions of studies all around the world.

A sleep researcher Allan Rechtschaffen from the University of Chicago said, “If sleep does not serve an absolutely vital function, then it is the biggest mistake the evolutionary process has ever made.” And science is now showing just how vital it is. Sleep involves a range of complex functions associated with memory, our ability to learn, brain development and cleaning, appetite, immune function, and aging. And that does not even begin to scratch the surface of what it does for our mood, our well-being, our creativity, and our relationships (96).

Another one is from Canada and France which found that consistent early bed times may reduce the risk of mental illness. The underlying mechanism involves our Ultradian rhythms – cycles within our body’s twenty-four-hour circadian day – which governs our body temperature, hormone regulation, and appetite. These rhythms are regulated by dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with the reward and pleasure parts of our brain. Sleep disturbances interfere with our dopamine levels, leading to an imbalance associated with bipolar and schizophrenic disorders (106).

A study found by the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, “Sleep almost doubles our chances of remembering previously unrecalled material (110).”

Sleep is a time of intense neurological activity – a rich time of renewal, memory consolidation, brain and neurochemical cleansing, and cognitive maintenance (18). Even the author claimed that once she started getting seven or eight hours of sleep, it became easier to meditate and exercise, make wiser decisions, and connect more deeply with her inner self and others. We may be what we eat, but also, to be sure, we are how we sleep (12).

Sleep Deprivation: its Cause and effects

This is the part where my questions were answered as to why people experiences sleep deprivation. I extended this part to give emphasize on the effects of sleep deprivation to a person. (Well, not to lengthen this already long blog, but to spread awareness.)

In its most common form, insomnia is called psychophysiological insomnia, which means having difficulty falling asleep because of worry, anxiety, stress, and having the resulting inability to calm the mind (122). This is what happened to me and highly likely to most number of people who experienced and still experiencing sleep deprivation. I cannot sleep and I am stressed about not getting myself asleep which added another reason to be stressed about. Stress after stress and worry after worry disabled me to rest my mind and sleep.

Duke Medical Center Researchers found that women are at a greater risk for heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and depression. “We found that for women, poor sleep is a strongly associated with high levels of psychological distress, and greater feelings of hostility, depression and anger,” said Edward Suarez, the lead author of the study, “in contrast, these feelings were not associated  with the same degree of sleep disruption in men (24).”

While a Russian study found that nearly 63 percent of men who suffered a heart attack also had a sleep disorder. Men who had a sleep disorder had a risk of heart attack that was 2 to 2.6 times higher and a risk of stroke that was 1.5 to 4 times higher (26).In a study by the Mayo Clinic, sleep restricted subjects gained more weight than their well-rested counterparts over the course of a week, consuming an average of 559 extra calories a day. People who get six hours of sleep per night are 23 percent more likely to be overweight. Get less than four hours of sleep per night and the increased likelihood of being overweight climbs to a staggering 73 percent. That is due in part to the fact that people who get more sleep produce less of a hormone called Ghrelin – the “hunger hormone” – which increases our appetite. The sleep-deprived group also had lower levels of the hormone Leptin – the “satiety hormone” – which lowers our appetite. Other research points to the role of sleep in the production of Orexin – a neurotransmitter that normally stimulates physical activity and energy expenditure – but is reduced when you are sleep-deprived (27).

The relationship between sleep deprivation and stress is also profound. Sleep deprivation results in higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol the next day. And many of the genes affected by lack of sleep are involved in processing stress and regulating our immune system. Researchers from the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom found that lack of sleep actually changes the gene expression of more than seven hundred genes and increases the activity of genes linked to inflammation. This shift takes place after just one week of getting too little sleep. Sleep deprivation “puts the body on alert for a wound but no wound happens.” said Malcolm von Schantz, a researcher on the study. “This could easily help explain the links between sleep deprivation and negative health outcomes such as heart disease and stroke (103).”

According to 2015 review from Clemson University, deprivation puts us at greater risk of “succumbing to impulsive desires, poor attention capacity, and compromised decision making (114).”

            We can relate to what Jason Smith, NBA player said. “Sleep deprivation…. Is one of the hardest things to go through when you’re trying to perform at your highest level (272).”

             I have already shared my important essential take-away from the book. Lastly, I would like to share some of the book’s recommendation on how to get more hours of sleep or basically how to get to sleep. These recommendations do not instantly work because it will take time for your brain to adapt to these practices. Also, some tricks may work or may not work on you. The point is to look for tricks that can help you fall asleep or rest your mind.

How to get more sleep (197-224)?

  • Let there be less light!

Light suppresses the production of melatonin which signals us to sleep. So we should take steps – even before we climb into bed – to turn down the lights and make our bedroom the kind of calming, quiet, dark space that will coax us toward sleep.

  • The blue light that is killing your sleep

Staring at a blue-light-radiating device before you go to bed can serve as “an alert stimulus that will frustrate your body’s ability to go to sleep later.” said by George Brainard, a circadian-rhythm researcher and neurologist at Thomas at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. “When you turn it off, it does not mean that instantly the alerting effects go away. There is an underlying biology that is stimulated.

We should think of light, especially blur light, as an anti-sleeping drug or stimulant. But gently escorting our smartphones out of our bedrooms at least thirty minutes before we fall sleep is still the best option.

  • It is getting hot in here

The National Sleep Foundation recommends 65 degrees Fahrenheit and says that sleep is actually disrupted when the temperature rises above 75 degrees or falls below 54 degrees.

  • Let get physical: exercise and sleep

A study from Belarmine University and Oregon State University found that “regular physical activity may serve as a non-pharmaceutical alternative to improve sleep.” At least for those who meet the basic recommended guidelines of 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise.

  • Nature’s arsenal: acupuncture, herbal remedies, and other sleep aids

According to a review from Emory University that analyzed thirty studies of insomnia treatment, 93 percent of them found that acupuncture had positive effects on sleep. Researchers from the Center for Addiction and mental Health in Toronto found that acupuncture increased nighttime secretion of melatonin and lowered anxiety levels.

One of the most popular herbs for sleep is lavender, which has been used throughout history for healing and relaxation. Thai study found that smelling lavender helps us relax by slowing down our heart rate, decreasing our blood pressure and lowering skin temperature.

  • Retreat into yourself: mindfulness, meditation, and sleep

Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin who has worked closely with the Dalai Lama on the connection between meditation and science, explained that emotions like kindness and gratitude help us sleep because they have calming effect on the mind and reduce disturbing emotions.

Counting out a few slow breaths is one of the techniques I use when I am having trouble falling asleep. One such version, the 4-7-8 method popularized by Dr. Andrew Weil, is rooted in the ancient Indian practice of Pranayama. You inhale quietly through the nose for four counts, hold for seven counts, and exhale with a whooshing sound through the mouth for eight counts.

For the last two years, I have been falling asleep quite enough and quite on time. I never had major sleep problem which is a good thing. And two of my personal strategies I have been doing are doing deep breaths when an opportune time comes and not overthinking situations by seeing them as they are.

“Every night can be a reminder that we are more than the sum of our successes and failures, that beyond all our struggling and our rushing there is a stillness that is available to us, that comes from a place deeper and more ancient than the unending noise that surrounds us.”

– Arianna Huffington, author of Sleep Revolution: Transforming your Life, One Night at a Time.


My 2020 goal is to read a book per month; share to people what I learn from, and feel about the book. And for February 2020,the book I read is The Sleep Revolution by Arianna Huffington