By Lucinda D. Gardner
deprivation is not good for us and not good for society. “Every component of wellness, and countless seams of societal fabric, are being eroded by our costly state of sleep neglect: human and financial alike. So much so that the World Health Organization (WHO) has now declared a sleep loss epidemic throughout industrialized nations.”1 It’s time for lawyers to celebrate the superpower of sleep and boast about getting eight hours of sleep.
Sleep is a powerful health reservoir that is essential to cognitive, emotional, and physical well-being. If you regularly sleep less than six hours, pull all-nighters, or feel perpetually exhausted, it’s time to upgrade your sleep habits. Poor sleep habits make you more vulnerable to cancer, dementia, depression, anxiety, obesity, stroke, chronic pain, diabetes, loneliness, heart attacks, and other health issues.2 Healthy sleep is critical for memory consolidation, immune system function, and endocrine and thermal regulation.3 Before Thomas Edison changed history with the electric light, adults averaged nine hours of sleep each night.4 In 2019, adults average only 6.2 hours of sleep. In the 140 years since Edison fled his patent for the light bulb, our sleep patterns have strayed from their compelling evolutionary roots.
Circadian rhythms and social jet lag
What is a normal sleep cycle for our brains and bodies? Our sleep and wake cycles are tied to circadian rhythms-the mental, physical, and behavior changes we undergo in a 24 hour period which are also affected by daylight and darkness.5 In fact, each of us has individual “clock genes,” and a small part in the brain’s midline called the suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN serves as a master clock for all mammals. According to chronobiologist Till Roenneberg, each of us has a chronotype, an internal timing type defined by our midpoint of sleep which guides our sleep cycles.7 Laptops, 24 hour news cycles, cellphones, and endless connectivity leave little room for circadian rhythms. “The disconnect between our internal, biological time and social time - defined by our work schedules and social engagements - leads to what Roenneberg calls social jet lag, a kind of chronic exhaustion resembling the symptoms of jet lag and comparable to having to work for a company a few time zones to the east of your home.”8
Neuroscientist Russell Foster believes we are being “supremely arrogant” by ignoring the importance of sleep.9 “We feel we can abandon four billion years of evolution and ignore the fact that we have evolved under a light-dark cycle. What we do as a species, perhaps uniquely, is override the clock. And long-term acting against the clock can lead to serious health problems.”10
How does your brain regulate your sleep cycle? Deep in the reptilian part of our brain are the key players in the elaborate regulation of our sleep.11 Sleep researchers measure electrical brain waves during sleep by electroencephalograms or EEGs. By using EEGs to monitor the sleeping brain’s electrical activity, researchers established that the average adult sleep cycle lasts about 90 minutes and contains five defined phases: Phase 1 Sleep – Alpha waves occur with the mind at rest, eyes closed and breathing slowed; Phase 2 Sleep – Theta waves or light sleep; Phase 3 Sleep – Delta waves or deep sleep (also known as non-REM sleep); Phase 4 Sleep – Rapid Eye Movement or REM sleep or dreaming; and Phase 5 Sleep – Theta waves or light sleep.12 In between cycles, we are not asleep but in a twilight zone.13 REM sleep, which occurs during the later hours of sleep, is crucial to learning and memory.14 According to Matthew Walker, Ph.D., professor of neuroscience and psychology and director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at UC Berkeley, and author of Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams (2017), “[t]here does not seem to be one major organ within the body, or process within the brain, that isn’t optimally enhanced by sleep (and detrimentally impaired when we don’t get enough). That we receive such a bounty of health benefits each night should not be surprising.”15
Learning and sleep make a dream team
Sleep is a proven memory aid before and after learning. All stages of sleep - light non-REM sleep, deep non-REM sleep, and REM sleep - benefit learning. How does the process work? Sleep the night before learning rejuvenates the brain’s ability to create new memories. The hippocampus, a long, fingershaped structure deep in the brain, is a vital hub for memory and learning. It serves as temporary information storage for accumulating new memories but has limited storage capacity. The bursts of electrical activity (or sleep spindles) in the brain during light Stage 2 sleep transfer the information from the hippocampus to the cortex of the brain, the large memory hard drive. After this transfer, the hippocampus has fresh space for the new facts and experience. What happens during sleep after learning? Deep non-REM sleep transports memory packets to long term storage or consolidates memories into permanent storage in the cortex. Sleep is also crucial for motor skill memory. Research finds that overnight motor-skill enhancement, including increases in speed and accuracy, takes place during the last two hours of non-REM sleep during an eight-hour night of sleep.16
High performance athletes and coaches appreciate sleep’s potential as an athletic performance enhancer. The Chicago Bulls, Minnesota Timberwolves, Portland Trailblazers, Milwaukee Brewers, New England Patriots, as well as other professional sports teams and college sports teams, are hiring sleep coaches to educate and guide players to optimize sleep during grueling travel seasons.18 Gold medalist sprinter Usain Bolt has taken naps in the hours before shattering world records and winning gold medals.19 Elite athletes who...