The Blog

You Are What You Sleep

We need energy to show up as our best selves for our friends, family, significant others, and children, which mean prioritizing our rest as relentlessly as we can. It means believing that we are what we sleep.
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Tired businesswoman in the office
Tired businesswoman in the office

If I asked you to think of the last time that you slept poorly, that would probably be easy to recall, wouldn't it?

What about the last time you were well-rested? And not just quality sleep for one night, but chronically well-rested, well-rested over a long period of time? That's probably a little harder.

For college students, this phenomenon is all too familiar. Having just become self-sustaining adults, students are learning for the first time how to balance work, rest, and fun. The growing pains are showing. Research at the University of Alabama suggests that 60 percent of college students aren't getting enough sleep, compared to 33 percent of the adult population. In fact during my time at Belmont University during which I have met and worked with hundreds of students, I have only met one that was consistent and insistent about her sleep.


"I know students who have given up on getting quality sleep because they have come to believe that success is somehow equivalent to feeling tired and stressed most of the time."

Lack of sleep has become a sort of status symbol between students, each chalking their lack of sleep up to the amount of work they can produce. Oftentimes, I'll hear fellow students talking about how little sleep they got as the result of a project or how late they will stay up to finish their homework and comparing their habits to the next student. I've even encountered students who think that getting the appropriate seven to nine hours of sleep a night is lazy. I know students who have given up on getting quality sleep because they have come to believe that success is somehow equivalent to feeling tired and stressed most of the time. The idea that sleeplessness does not equal success is an association in our minds that's difficult to break even when we know that hugely successful people like Bill Gates or Tim Cook prioritize sleep above their work. And even worse, students are falling victim to these assumptions and creating lifelong thought patterns and associations with the balance between work and rest.


"Even the most engaged, enthusiastic, and productive people will become disconnected, burned out, and produce well under their ability with just a few nights of poor sleep."

Admittedly, I have struggled balancing productivity and rest when I am fully aware of the immediate and chronic effects of little sleep as a personal trainer and lifestyle coach. A few months ago, I became so overwhelmed with balancing school and three jobs that I experienced nocturnal panic attacks for the first time. I spent night after night falling asleep in the midst of utter exhaustion only to wake up two hours later and lay staring at the ceiling for hours crying from utter frustration. I was tired and wired at the same time. My constant sleepiness began affecting every aspect of my life. I became depressed and anxious, I wasn't recovering from my workouts, and I wasn't able to give my best to any part of my life. I was overwhelmingly moody, I gained weight, my resting heart rate raised 10 beats per minute on average. Not only were my training clients not motivated by the example I was leading, my schoolwork was suffering and I had to take leave from one of my positions just to get some semblance of my sanity back. I was the coach who emphasized the importance of rest and stress management for my clients, but I couldn't walk the talk. I turned into someone that I wasn't. Once I returned to a normal sleep schedule and experienced returning to my usual even-keeled self, I realized that sleep was a much larger piece of the pie than I had originally considered.

Most of us have heard the phrase "you are what you eat," from well-intended parents or teachers. It easily conveys that what you put in (food) is eventually equal to what you put out (energy, performance, etc.).

What if we subscribed fully to the idea that we are what we sleep?

It's equally true. A lack of sleep will affect your ability to produce and will likely change who you are. Even the most engaged, enthusiastic, and productive people will become disconnected, burned out, and produce well under their ability with just a few nights of poor sleep. With a chronic lack of sleep, we put ourselves at risk for heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke. And on top of those adverse health reactions, we risk not enjoying our lives as the result of struggling to stay awake every minute of the day. The quality of our lives significantly declines as we lose the rest we desperately need in order to have energy to do the things that make our lives worth living. We need energy to show up as our best selves for our friends, family, significant others, and children, which mean prioritizing our rest as relentlessly as we can. It means believing that we are what we sleep.

This post is part of our series on sleep culture on college campuses. To join the conversation and share your own story, please email our Director of College Outreach Abby Williams directly at abigail.williams@huffingtonpost.com. And you can find out here if the #SleepRevolution College Tour will be visiting your campus, and learn how you can get involved. If your college is not one of the colleges already on our tour and you want it to be, please get in touch with Abby.