Sleep is not a luxury


I’m fascinated with sleep. Scientists have been puzzling—for years—over why humans need so much of it to stay healthy. Recently, I read an article in the New York Times that detailed an intriguing theory that is being proven out in research.

The super-condensed version is that our brains generate lots of waste protein while we think and reason during waking hours. Trashed proteins pile up by the end of a busy day. There is a clean-up system at work that sweeps through and tidies up as we sleep, much like a night-crew efficiently cleaning an empty office building. Cerebrospinal cleaning fluid flows through our brains at a greatly increased rate when we sleep, penetrating deeper. During the day, the fluid can only shine up surface mess; maybe because the brain is so busy with other tasks.

Of course everyone, or most everyone, knows that sleep is pretty essential. Every new parent goes through that fog of stupidity that comes from severe and prolonged sleep deprivation. Students fry their brains with all-nighters, then crash hard. Still, until recently, no one could figure out why a nightly rest period was so crucial. Turns out (spoiler alert) that ongoing sleep deprivation could be a huge contributor to Alzheimer’s and other degenerative brain diseases.

Which bears out my own credo: “Sleep is not a luxury.”

This was not always my credo. And even after I embraced it, sleep often eluded me. For a long time, I couldn’t sleep effectively. Turns out that sleeplessness and depression are twin evils—off and on, both have bedeviled me over the years. There’s a school of thought that the two issues are intertwined, part and parcel of each other, which makes sense to me. There’s an interesting exploration of the linkage in an article in Psychology Today.

Depression mutes memories, drains the blood from whole months. My strongest recollection of how it felt to be deeply depressed is summed up in this poem I wrote about ten years back:

Remembering: Depression

Sleep calling me,
pulling me down like a drowning child
pulling me under into dreams thick as blooming algae.
Suspended in the watery dark
In the airless depths
I’m sinking
too spent to struggle
for the surface
for the green glow of life above.

I slept a lot when I was depressed, but never felt rested. My dreams went on and on, depleting me. I now realize both my sleep quality and my dream quality were disordered by depression, but no one told me that then.

Lately, I am especially grateful for healthy sleep and the gift of dreaming. That’s what I’ll write about next: dreamland, an area ripe for exploration.

To sleep, perchance to dream…oh, definitely.