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A Word of Warning to the Sleep Deprived

Shannon Harvey

The other day I found myself standing on the side of a busy road in front of an empty space where my car had been parked with a hungry, crying baby in my arms. My car had just been towed away because I had parked in a bus zone. As I write these words, I have blood shot eyes, unwashed hair and have yet to make it out of what is now my daily uniform of yoga pants and a t-shirt. I’ve recently had to start writing notes to myself on my phone because my short-term memory is failing me. More than once I’ve gone to make a note only to discover I’d already written it the day before.  

There is of course a logical explanation for all this unusual behavior. I am now five weeks into being the mother of a newborn baby and I am chronically sleep deprived. Blissfully, joyfully, happily sleep deprived, but sleep deprived none-the-less.  

My hungry baby boy needs regular fuel for his rapidly growing mind and body and it’s my duty to nourish him, day and night. This important job means that since baby Isaac was born, I haven’t slept for more than three hours straight. Five weeks in, and sleep deprivation is starting to take a toll.  

I began researching the effects of sleep deprivation a few years ago when I was looking for evidence-based things I could be doing for myself in order to recover from an autoimmune disease. I was a chronic insomniac and discovered that recent research demonstrates that my accumulating sleep debt may have not only been one of the causes of my illness, but that it also exacerbated my symptoms. Sleep deprivation has been linked to many chronic diseases including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, fibromyalgia and Parkinson’s disease. It’s likely that this is because the processes that take place while we are asleep are essential for optimum immune function, hormone regulation and healthy metabolism. Learning this prompted me to put a lot of time and energy into overcoming my chronic insomnia and I’m sure it was one of the key factors in my getting better.  

While researching the chapter on sleep for my new book, I’ve recently learned that our mental health is also challenged by lack of sleep, which is linked with mood disorders and anxiety. As I’ve written about in the past, a kind of mental spring cleaning takes place when we are in the Land of Nod, and the brain activates a waste disposal system, clearing out harmful proteins that build up between cells.  

Getting enough sleep is also important for memory, attention, problem-solving, and emotion regulation, which goes toward explaining my gold-fish-like memory, why I’m finding my mood swinging from bliss to despair within seconds at the moment, and why in my hallow-eyed haze, I didn’t notice the bus lane signage on the main road before my car was towed.  

While researchers are busy uncovering an ever-growing list of reasons for prioritising sleep, many of us aren’t getting even close to the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep that most adults need each night. The US National Health Interview Survey of more than 250,000 people found that almost 30 percent of adults were sleeping less than six hours a night. A global survey of 35,327 people found that one in four people say they don’t sleep well, and more than one in 10 people reported feeling “very sleepy” or “dangerously sleepy” during the day.  

I know that my baby-induced chronic sleep deprivation won’t last, that my son will eventually get the gist of the whole day and night thing, and that I will get a full night of sleep in the future. I’m a second time mother, and this time around I’m taking extra precaution to nurture myself during this precarious time. I’m taking things very easy – sleeping in, and napping when I can. I’m using meditation to help even out my mood and being mindful of letting things be, rather than wishing the time away. I’m also being careful not to disturb my sleep even further with artificial blue light after sundown (read more here) and stimulants like caffeine. While I’m busy nourishing our baby, I am also very fortunate to have a supportive team of family and friends rallying around to nourish me.

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