Health Care / Medicine

Feeling Brain Dead? You Probably Need More Sleep

For all my talk about finding a healthy work life balance based on doing stuff, I’m here to report that there is a very real limit to how much you can actually do.  This limit is dictated by your need to sleep.

Unfortunately, in the last month I had to learn this lesson the hard way.  With work becoming increasingly busy and having taken on one too many outside projects, I was averaging about five hours a night for a full four weeks.  Throughout this time, the effects of sleep deprivation slowly began to destroy my life.

To be fair, I was able to get by okay in the first week.  By week two, however, coffee stopped having any meaningful effect and my ability to focus diminished greatly.  Things continued in slow decline, and, toward the end of the month I had become so sensitive to sensory stimuli that I was unable to work without turning off the lights in my office and donning a pair of earplugs. This, of course, worked wonders for my reputation around the office.

Fortunately, around the time things started getting really bad, my work eased up and I was able to catch up on my sleep.  That said, this period of sleep deprivation isn’t one I will soon forget…

Chances are you, too, have experienced the trauma of sleep deprivation (although for your sake, I’m hoping you never did the thing with the earplugs). And, if your experience was anything like mine, you may have felt like your body and brain were rapidly deteriorating.  As it turns out, this is exactly what was happening.

Sleep deprivation has long been linked to weight gain, depression, memory loss, diabetes, stroke, and heart disease, among many other horrible maladies.  Moreover, according to one recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, getting too little sleep irreversibly destroys brain cells in mice, and could do the same in humans.  That’s right, sleep deprivation may be making you permanently brain dead.

In light of everything we know about the harmful effects of sleep deprivation, it seems pretty obvious that we should all be sleeping more.  Although this is easier said than done, here are a few suggestions you may wish to explore.

If your problem is finding time to sleep, you should try to maximize the effect of the sleep you do get.  Sleep occurs in 90-minute cycles made up of five different phases. As a general rule, you will feel more refreshed if you wake up at the end of a cycle as opposed to in the middle of one.  Therefore, one way to maximize your sleep is to coordinate your bedtime so that, when your alarm goes off in the morning, you are waking up at the end of a cycle.  In addition, try to take advantage of power naps.  Studies have shown that short naps — even those where you don’t actually fall asleep — help you feel rested and refreshed.

If your problem is falling asleep rather than finding time to sleep, your body may be running short on melatonin.  Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate sleep, and, as you age, your body stops producing as much of it.  In fact, by age 60, your body only makes about half of the melatonin it did when you were younger.  So, if you regularly find yourself tossing and turning at night, you may consider trying a melatonin supplement. (Needless to say, talk to your doctor before putting anything in your body based on advice you’ve read on the internet).

Hopefully you don’t need these suggestions.  If you do, however, I urge you to give them a try.

Elizabeth Adams (not her real name) is a recent law school graduate, former federal judicial clerk, and aspiring health guru. She currently practices insurance coverage litigation at a mid-sized law firm. When she isn’t sitting at a desk — which isn’t very often — she is following her bliss. At the moment, this mainly involves working toward becoming a certified yoga teacher. Elizabeth’s column focuses on exploring how and whether lawyers can achieve a sustainable work-life balance. She can be reached at

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