“It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”
– John Steinbeck
James was a chef at a large hotel where he did breakfasts and lunches, and he hadn’t taken a holiday for three years. The skin on his face was dry and slack and the bruised bags under his eyes indicated a metabolism struggling with exhaustion. He complained of frequent headaches and lethargy. He told me he had to drink coffee constantly throughout the day just to keep his energy levels up so he could complete his shift.
“Part of the trouble is my hours,” he went on, “I get home about 3.30 in the afternoon, and I’m so stuffed I’ve just got to sleep. I try not to, but it’s overwhelming. So I sleep until about 7 PM and wake up feeling lagged as hell. So I have something to eat – but then, when I go back to bed I can’t sleep. So I toss and turn all night and get up at 4 in the morning feeling terrible again.”
He thought meditation would help his fatigue, but I had my doubts – he seemed too exhausted. Even so, we tried it out – but sure enough, within minutes, he was fast asleep. I let him sleep for about twenty minutes, then woke him up. He looked surprised when he opened his eyes and apologised, saying, “let’s try it again.”
I said, “James, it’s no good. You haven’t got a hope of learning to meditate in the state you’re in. You’re punch-drunk with fatigue. What you need is about two weeks holiday so you can get some good unbroken sleep.”
“Can’t.” he said flatly.” I’ve got a mortgage, kid’s at school, car payments…”
And so it goes. I told James if he didn’t get some quality sleep soon, his deteriorating health would force him to stop. He shrugged and said he’d think about it. I never saw him again.
James’s case is not exceptional. As time goes on I’m meeting more and more men and women just like him – people so tired they’ve forgotten what it’s like to feel fully awake. At this time in the Western world, most of us are chronically under-slept. And as the studies and research into our sleep habits are done, it’s becoming clear that this cumulative exhaustion is a possible cause of many other apparently unrelated problems, such as obesity, cancer, allergies, heart disease, colds, and the list goes on.
Sleep is essential – without enough of it, we fall apart – quite literally, we mentally and physically disintegrate. If prevented from sleeping, a laboratory rat will die after about two weeks – and what they die of is a total breakdown of their immune defences, leaving them susceptible to to infections, cancer cells, and bacteria and other infections. And when we’re deprived of sleep, that’s what happens to us as well.
Sleep is the ultimate healer of so many things – mental as well as physical. During sleep our mind and body rejuvenate and recharge with essential hormones that regulate our immune system, brain functions and organs.
For instance, there is a hormone called Leptin, which tells the body when we’ve eaten enough. As we sleep, Leptin levels are replenished in the body. But without sleep, Leptin levels drop. And when Leptin levels drop, our body craves carbohydrates, even when we don’t need any more food. The result is we develop a habit of craving ‘comfort foods’ that, when combined with the sluggish metabolism of an exhausted body, inevitably leads to obesity.
And so it is with many other small and subtle body adjustments that take place in the workshop of sleep, which regulate and sustain our body.
One of the biggest problems we have with sleep is that, in the world we have gotten used to, we’re working harder for longer hours than ever before – so we’re taking our leisure later and later. Where our forbears were usually in bed by 9 or 10 pm, the average Westerner considers it normal to go to bed at 11 pm or midnight.
“Chronic sleep deprivation is becoming so universal that Thomas Wehr, chief of the section on biological rhythms at the National Institute of Mental Health, believes few adults in the industrialized world know the crystal-clear sensation of being completely rested. “Perhaps we modern humans have never really known what it is to be fully awake,” says Wehr.[Brink, Susan, Sleepless Society, US News & World Report, October 16, 2000, p.64]”
It’s interesting that lack of sleep has come to be seen as a kind of badge of honour among the more hairy chested among us – a signature of prowess. They’ve been named “the short-sleeping elite” – a club that famously features Donald Trump, Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill, as well as many top executives and leaders, each of whom swears they don’t need sleep. And some may well have that kind of constitution – but most are probably just good at masking the effects of slow coming exhaustion. Because though these people may appear to function adequately, the physical and mental attrition of sleep deprivation is cumulative and slow-building, and depending on their levels of stamina, will eventually compromise their health.
It’s estimated that the average urban human needs around 7-9 hours of solid sleep every night. And for every hour of sleep we miss, we need to make it up later – a ’sleep debt’ to be paid at some time in the future. So if we only sleep for 6 hours a night throughout a five day week, to keep our mind and body clear and healthy, we need to make up that lost 10 hours on the weekend, on top of the 16 hours we would sleep over those two days.
If we are under-slept, we instinctively reach for nervous energy to push through. Nervous energy is a resource our body usually only keeps for emergencies. For this reason, the hormones of adrenalin and noradrenaline that cause it are commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ hormones. We produce this nervous energy by using various substances – coffee, tea, sugar foods, cigarettes, and the many energy drinks that have large amounts of guarana on them – another form of caffeine.
Though these things certainly boost our energy levels, it’s the wrong kind of energy if used over a long period of time. Nervous energy is a frenetic kind of energy more suited to violent action than the consistent concentration and calm attention we need to deal with our daily life.
Trouble is, when we’re under-slept and fatigued, this kind of nervous energy is very seductive – it lifts our mood and makes us feel more confident. Plus, with so many culturally sanctioned ways of accessing this kind of energy, it’s easy to lapse into the habit of a quick coffee to get us going – a Red Bull to compensate for the sleepless night before.
The more we resort to this kind of energy, like any drug, the more we need it, and gradually it usurps our perception of normality – that is, the frenetic energy of adrenalin becomes a substitute for the normal, calmer metabolic energy we should be using.
For a few years, we can get away with it – the physical costs are slow to accumulate so we don’t notice the way we’re ruining ourselves until we become ill. First indications that we’re not handling it are, we find ourselves getting more colds and more susceptible to the ‘bugs that are going around’. Our body begins to ache, and our moods become more changeable.
And if we ignore these signals and keep on using nervous energy to push through, we eventually develop ‘adrenalin toxicity’ which manifest is all kinds of different ways, the most notable being:
- Digestive problems, ulcers, irritable bowel, diarrhoea or constipation, occurring because adrenalin has diverted blood away from the internal organs, causing them to become sluggish.
- Aching muscles caused by a build-up of lactic acid (residue of unused sugars –unused energy) in the muscle fibres.
- Irritability, anxiety and depression.
- Inability to sleep because the body and mind have been overstimulated and are still processing excess adrenalin.
- General fatigue caused by inability to sleep, or inefficient sleep.
- Inability to concentrate with any deep understanding. (While adrenalin certainly mobilizes aspects of the brain that make quick decisions, it dampens the deeper, more analytical aspects. And when adrenalin stimulation has gone on too long, profound mental exhaustion sets in. At that point even the most basic functions shut down and the mind tends to either wander or go unconscious. Hence the famous indication of battle fatigue in soldiers who had been in extended action, the ‘thousand yard stare’ where the subject would gaze at an unseen distance, not thinking, or feeling, or able to engage – in a semi catatonia of exhaustion. The stage after this is nervous breakdown, where the mental and perceptual processes break down and profound mental confusion occurs.)
- Apathy, a lack of interest in love, or giving – a strong feeling of emptiness.
- Sexual dysfunction. (Though in the short term, the sex function is stimulated by adrenalin, if the wear and tear continues for a continued time, eventually the sex drive will shut down.)
And there are many more problems – but you get the idea.
To meditate, we need the calm alertness of metabolic energy – not the jittery hyper activity of nervous energy. Nervous energy creates restlessness and an aching body.
If you’re building a meditation practice, it’s important to be well slept, at the very least, and control your use of stimulants. Though meditation certainly has a calming effect, it’s difficult to develop the skills it entails if your mind and body crave sleep every time you practice.
So if you ever find yourself becoming drowsy when you begin meditating, perhaps take a nap and try again later.
- ‘Practical Meditation Audio Course’ – a complete set of meditation lessons to be downloaded as a package of MP3′s