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Sleep Makes SENS: My Adventures Through a Sleepless Night

With so much to do each day, so many notes to study, so many hours of work and chores, sleep can, quite honestly, get in the way. If only I had all that time back!
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Whatever you do, don't set a bedtime. You're not a little kid anymore! When the sun sets and people start to fall asleep, don't turn off your TV. What would you do with the silence? When your eyelids grow heavy and your head starts to bob, definitely don't rest your neck on the ground. It's a trap! A trap, I tell you!

Whatever you do, don't go to sleep.

Do you think I'm kidding? Does this sound like a game?! Well, I wish I were so deceived. But let me take you back to my college years, to the days of head-bobbing exhaustion, to the days when this sleeplessness wasn't a game.

Beeeeep!!! Beeeeep!!! Beeeeep!!!

My alarm blaring from the bedroom woke me from an unknown dream.

Beeeeep!!! Beeeeep!!!

Lifting my body from the ground, I could feel crusting around my lips, sticky paper pulling away from my cheek.


When I looked down, all I could see were bones. The xyphoid process, the sphenoid, labeled and dissected for my anatomy textbook.


Finally rising from the floor, I made my way to turn off the alarm. In bright red digits, my clock shouted to the world that 6 a.m. had arrived. I had fallen asleep - accidentally - for a whole four hours!


With so much to do each day, so many notes to study, so many hours of work and chores, sleep can, quite honestly, get in the way. If only I had all that time back!

How much time? Well, for an average eight-hour-night sleep over a 75-year lifetime, we will each spend one-quarter of a century - yes, 25 years - sleeping! What??!!! Why?!

Well, even the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School was baffled: why do we sleep? And, they have come up with four likely theories:

1. The Inactivity Theory

Say you're a cute, fuzzy animal that can't see very well in the dark. Wouldn't you rather be safe at night? Of course! So you cuddle up and hide in the safety of a dream - and a burrow of some sort. Sure, you're not awake, but evolutionarily, you were hidden enough to survive.

By this theory, of course, my college years were an exercise in single-handedly declining on the evolutionary ladder, avoiding sleep for work when all instincts begged for rest. But I have a burrow - a bed. And, I'm not quite superwoman, so I can't see in the dark. So, who am I to fight nature's command to JUST GO TO SLEEP!

2. Then there's the Energy Conservation Theory.

In an unfathomable world without McDonald's and Starbucks on every street corner, there was scarcity. In today's world even, though we prefer to live in our isolated bubbles of comfort, scarcity remains. In fact, in 2015, 842 million people struggled with hunger. That's unnatural and unjust, and a blatant reminder of the importance of each calorie. When you sleep, you minimize metabolism. When you sleep, you maximize the resources you have.

In an industrialized society with breakfast behind refrigerator doors and vitamins in pill form, not everyone is concerned about finding his/her next meal. Still, each time we eat, we are gifted a scarce resource. Each minute we stay awake, we are burning through the physiological benefit of that scarce calorie. So in addition to "going green" in our external lives, it's time we maximize the efficiency of the fuel we ingest. I'm guessing my carbon footprint on that college night looked worse than my bedhead!

3. Another theory is based in restoration.

Restoring what is lost. Rejuvenating the body and mind. Replenishing immune function, muscle protein, and adenosine in the cells of the brain. We sleep at the end of a day because we have worn through our supply of internal materials and have to allow ourselves the time to restock for another adventure. I wouldn't have been able to purchase my drool-filled textbook without money in the bank, and I wouldn't have been able to get through the next day of studying without sustenance in my veins. In other words, sleep today equals wonder tomorrow!

And finally . . .

4. Brain plasticity.

One night, back when I was in middle school, a child's voice beckoned my mom towards my bedroom. The porcelain dolls weren't talking. My Curious George stuffed animal was silent in my arms. Everyone in the family - except my mom - had gone to sleep. But I was still talking: "If a block is projected from a spring." I was still studying, still reviewing my notes without even being awake.

Some theories posit that the time spent in REM sleep - those dreamy hours of the night - actually enhances neuronal development in kids and adults. In turn, losing those hours of sleep can compromise your ability to learn and perform tasks.

I don't know about you, but I am definitely happy to add sleep to my study and self-improvement regimen!

So, if you were wondering, my Anatomy test went well after that sleepless college night, but only because I half-slept my way through my morning lecture! You see, I had to learn the hard, crusty, drool-faced way: sleep is important. And not just sleep, but smart sleep, sleep where you set your limits, move yourself to a comfortable burrow for the night, and allow yourself the gift of reaching that place of deep, REM peacefulness.

So you bet, the next time I find myself pushing against a bed time, turning up the TV to cover the starlit silence, and bobbing my head to brain waves of somnolence, I will remember and listen to the four theories for why we need sleep:

1. S - afety - it's an evolved choice!
2. E - nergy - conserving calories, because sleep is green, too!
3. N - ecessities - protein, immune cells . . . we need to stockpile the necessities of life!


4. S - marts - because eventually, you have to throw your head to the pillow and let your brain take over the bookwork.

Quite simply, sleep makes "SENS."

The doctor said she would live in a nursing home, confined to a wheelchair, crippled by pain; that was 13 years ago. Instead, Mirissa D. Price is a 2019 DMD candidate at Harvard School of Dental Medicine, spreading pain-free smiles, writing through her nights, and, once again, walking through her days.

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