As I was lying awake the other night obsessing about all the things I had to do and beating myself up for not sleeping, I wondered in my insomniac state whether I would ever go back to my oh-so-blissful youthful days when my peaceful sleep-wake cycle was taken for granted, and oversleeping was ne’er a problem.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve often found myself waking up in the wee hours when all around me, including my dog, are loudly sawing zzz’s. Little did I know that the lack of sufficient sleep was more common than I thought. In fact, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, it now constitutes a national public health epidemic.
I’ve always thought that with old age you require less sleep. I know my obaachan used to rise in the still of the early morning to begin her day by chanting before her butsudan. I’m convinced that this daily meditation ritual was what kept her alive a healthy 92 years (it couldn’t possibly have been her diet of chazuke and fried shoyu bologna, nitrites and all). Perhaps meditation releases some of the little worries that become overwhelming terrors in the middle of the night, or maybe she just didn’t concoct the gigantic list of worries that I’ve managed to accumulate over the years.
I have a younger friend who thrives on less than five hours of sleep a night, which she says is not by choice but because she has so much to get done during her waking hours. I may not have the 8-to-6 job she does, but even if I did I’m sure my pillow would probably start beckoning at around 9:30 at night. Besides, my sleeplessness doesn’t occur in the late evenings or early mornings but rather somewhere around 2 to 4 a.m., when being awake doesn’t accomplish anything except to make me tired the next day.
It was with this concern about sleep — or lack of it — that I rushed to read Time magazine’s recent article on the latest findings on the subject. Not only did the piece validate sleep’s importance to mind and body, it completely scared the heck out of me. I hope I’m not oversimplifying when I describe the article likening lack of sleep to refilling a giant garbage dump. Apparently, waste materials are not pumped out of the brain until it goes to sleep, at which time cells act as a dishwasher flushing out the gunk that unavoidably collects there.
Of course, studies arriving at these conclusions included such technical terms like glial cells, REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, and neurotransmitters, but I pictured a smelly dumpster pouring trash onto the nearby landfill of my brain, and sleep being the giant Tide pod flushing away the dirt. I found myself longing for the “slosh, slosh.”
Whenever I can, I share that disgusting garbage image with anyone who will listen, especially those who function on a mere four to five hours a night. According to the article, one needs at least seven to nine hours, which seems perfectly reasonable to a person like me who goes to bed every night around 9:30. Before I read this article, I assumed that some people just didn’t need as much sleep as I did, and in fact I considered them superhuman in a good way.
I used to wish that I could stay up past midnight working on my next bestselling novel, then wake up early, do my morning exercises, and jump right into the next chapter. Since I’ve never even produced a short story, this routine obviously has never happened for me. However, it was the greatest writer of all — William Shakespeare — who understood the value of sleep probably just as well as today’s scientists when he equated sleep to “Nature’s soft nurse” or “Chief nourisher in life’s feast.”
I realize that we have to stop considering hard work and lack of sleep in our fast-moving, high-tech lives necessary components of success, and start valuing those intangible things that make us feel healthier and happier. Now if only I could stop going to sleep and waking up to the light of my iPad screen next to my bed, and instead become more like my obaachan — who woke up to the stillness of dawn slowly bringing sunshine to the vegetable garden she loved.
Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.