Sleep is finally having its moment.
I'm a sleep researcher and clinician. It's exhilarating to see broader recognition that sleep is important, yet I am often dismayed about the framing of the message — why sleep is said to be 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 mistaken mind-set and recognizing the importance of sleep. However, in our emerging embrace of sleep, the end goal often remains productivity. The shift 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 so heavily on productivity as the reason for prioritizing sleep — especially as it is often narrowly defined by career and financial success.
In a culture that assigns positive moral value to productivity, linking sleep with productivity means that sleep is no longer morally neutral, but is good only so long as it serves the purpose of increasing productivity. This obscures the many other reasons to prioritize sleep as an essential component of health. It also stigmatizes groups affected by sleep disparities and certain chronic sleep disorders.
We now know that sleep is connected with every aspect of human health including cardiovascular function, pain, mood and the 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.
Sleep is as fundamental to survival as water or air. It is strange to see sleep promoted in some circles merely 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 then tends to fall on the individual to arrange to have adequate time and resources to implement the proper sleep techniques and buy the right sleep products.
Sleep is affected by larger societal factors. 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). We all deserve to sleep in the way that serves our lives in all their fullness — our health, relationships and our simple day-to-day enjoyment of life.
The purpose of sleep is not to hustle faster and grind harder during your waking hours. You can sleep simply because your body needs it, and because your life will be better for it.
Jennifer Mundt is director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Lab and an assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.