The Importance of Sleep

Nov 29, 2014 | Featured Posts by Holly Jahangiri, Science & Nature

I woke up around 5:17 AM today. I’d heard my husband and my brother in law quietly leaving for the airport – the garage door woke me – and I debated whether to sleep in or get coffee. I got coffee. The pot was nearly empty, so I made another. I thought maybe my husband would need it, too, when he got home. And I promptly fell back to sleep and slept until 9:00 AM. I woke groggier than I’d been at 5:17.

Friday night, I was making an airport run for a stranded traveler, a young man I call “nephew” though he’s the son of one of my sisters by choice, one of the March96 family, and he is my own son’s age. His travel plans had gone awry all day, starting with flights postponed due to the bad weather in New York, delayed due to mechanical issues, or narrowly missed and rebooked on other airlines because flight crews opted to take off ahead of schedule, had resulted in an exhausting, stressful day. Any of the 40 or so aunts and uncles would have gladly done the same, for him or for my son – and I was momentarily disappointed to think he might be stranded in Minnesota instead of Houston, and I’d miss a chance to say hello as he hurried home for the holidays.

After about four hours’ sleep, E. and I headed back to the airport so he could catch the flight home to his own mother, sister, and brother. I’d threatened to keep him here – even invited them to make an eight hour drive to pick him up: “Bring your turkey,” I suggested to his mom, “and we should have enough here for everyone!” I think we realized, simultaneously, that she hadn’t slept enough for that to be a safe and reasonable idea, even if it sounded like a really fun idea to us both at the time.

I got ready for my own family to arrive – another brother in law, my dad, and my step-mom. A small, easy-going gathering with no stress and no fuss. And I didn’t feel tired. I prepped all that could be prepped that far ahead – made the tossed salad; opened the cranberry sauce and put it in a serving bowl; mixed the ingredients for the green bean casserole. There was little left to do but roast a turkey and enjoy our own company. After the turkey was roasted to a golden brown, casseroles joined it in the oven. The stuffing took only a few minutes to make. Soon, the table was covered in good food. I threw the bones and scraps into the crock pot, filled it with water, and simmered that for the next eight hours. Now and then my brain would just sort of pause and it would occur to me that I was no longer 18 and capable of pulling an all-nighter without consequences. Still, I’d had a good four hours’ sleep. I wasn’t really tired.

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Add a little turkey tryptophan, sugary pecan and mincemeat pies for dessert, some scotch, a clean kitchen, and a quiet house to that mix, and sleep came easily around midnight Thursday. I woke without an alarm clock, before 6 AM Friday. While my dad visited with an old Air Force buddy, we showed my brother-in-law around town, had lunch at the Cadillac Bar, and returned home with a few hours to spare before dinner: turkey noodle soup made with the bone broth I’d simmered the day before, and some of the leftover turkey.

My dad and step-mom left shortly after dinner. We lounged around in the living room, sipping scotch, watching the movie “Battleship” on The Dish. By 9:00 PM, I was just staring through the TV.

…a “normal” amount of sleep is 8 to 8 ¼ hours and that maintaining performance on a minimum of five hours of sleep is a myth. “Sleep cannot be ‘banked,’ but sleep deficits accumulate,” [Navy Capt. Nick] Davenport said.

Humans get two hours of performance for each one-hour of sleep. If there isn’t enough sleep to cover performance, the brain finds a way of getting the sleep it needs. “It’s almost as if the brains says ‘if you won’t give me sleep, I’ll sneak it in when you’re not looking,’ ” Davenport said. [1]

It can also lead to some bizarre dreams.

Between 5:30 AM and 9:00 AM, the movie “Battleship” merged with jumbled images from the Internet, excited anticipation and a few concerns about next week’s NASA Social, and brainwave hilarity ensued.

In my dream, I’d been invited to tour a military facility – presumably one run by the Navy or maybe it was NASA – and had started the tour when I got separated from the rest of the group and was lost. I was trying to find my way back to the cafeteria (no doubt, for more turkey noodle soup) and found rooms that ranged from a prison visitors’ area to a medieval manor’s great hall. Just as I was directed to where the rest of the group was, and the main event was about to begin, I realized – to such horror that it woke me suddenly, thank goodness! – that my cell phone battery was dead, and I could neither take photos nor Tweet about the event. Just before I woke up, I was trying to call my husband on a dead phone to make an hour long drive to bring a spare battery neither of us had… 

Sometimes, it seems that sleep’s just not worth the trouble. I was relieved to wake up. Unfortunately, that fresh pot of coffee was now two hours old and growing cold. I wrote half this post, had lunch, and took a nap. Fortunately, I didn’t drive.

Studies have shown that sleepy drivers are as dangerous – maybe moreso – than drunk drivers. Consider this: “All told, by the end of two weeks, the six-hour sleepers were as impaired as those who, in another Dinges study, had been sleep-deprived for 24 hours straight — the cognitive equivalent of being legally drunk.” [2] Have you ever felt like you needed to prop your eyes open with toothpicks? Noticed that your reflexes seemed a little slower than optimal? “Even a half-second response delay on what’s called a psychomotor vigilance test (P.V.T.) suggests a lapse into sleepiness, known as a microsleep. …  It takes the equivalent of only a two-second lapse for a driver to veer into oncoming traffic. … By the sixth day, 25 percent of the six-hour group was falling asleep at the computer. And at the end of the study, they were lapsing fives times as much as they did the first day. [3]

How do sleep studies funded by NASA help to both prepare us for manned space exploration, and improve our on-the-job performance and safety here on earth?

Astronauts work in harsh, complex environments where they are sometimes subjected to uncomfortable and high stress situations. There are many professionals on Earth in similar work environments. This research into sleep deficiency and deprivation also has benefits to people on Earth including airline pilots and professional drivers who spend hours behind the wheel. What we’re learning from astronauts in space as we work to prepare for human exploration missions into deep space can help prevent fatigue in commercial airline cockpits; it can prevent accidents caused by drowsy truck drivers on highways and it can ensure that doctors are completely focused in operating rooms around the world. [4]

None of this is going to keep me from trying to write nearly 20,000 words this weekend…

But I’m making sure to double-check the tech and bring battery chargers to the Johnson Space Center, Wednesday morning!


[1] “To Sleep or Not to Sleep?” Denise Lineberry (04/14/09, accessed 11/29/14)

[2], [3] “How Little Sleep Can You Get Away With?” Maggie Jones (4/15/11, accessed 11/29/14)

[4] “Study Compiles Data on Problem of Sleep Deprivation in Astronauts” (8/8/14, accessed 11/29/14)

Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle, illustrated by Jordan Vinyard; A Puppy, Not a Guppy, illustrated by Ryan Shaw; and the newest release: A New Leaf for Lyle, illustrated by Carrie Salazar. She draws inspiration from her family, from her own childhood adventures (some of which only happened in her overactive imagination), and from readers both young and young-at-heart. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, J.J., whose love and encouragement make writing books twice the fun.


  1. Mitch Mitchell

    I never sleep well, which is why I feel like my brain is muddled most of the time. Last night Fitbit said I actually slept for 4 hours, which is the most number of hours since I’ve been home, which is about 3 weeks now; that’s a shame. I’ve almost never been one of those 8 hour or more people; I’m not saying it’s a myth, but I will say that I tend to believe it’s a number thrown out there for what’s considered the norm… which you and I have never been. lol
    Mitch Mitchell recently posted…The Difference Between Moderating Your Space And CensorshipMy Profile

  2. HollyJahangiri

    Unfortunately, I believe the science, which also says we’re notoriously bad at judging our own degradation in performance when sleep deprived. I don’t know if you read the links in this post, but they’re all worth a look. (Yes, there may be some exceptions, but you admitted – in that one comment, “I never sleep well, which is why I feel like my brain is muddled most of the time.” I think with coffee, movement, non-repetitive tasks, and distractions that keep us alert, we can function like exceptions to the norm, much of the time. But that’s not to say we’re performing at our best, when we’re not sleeping well.)

    My fitbit says I sleep VERY effectively, though, and it takes me about 5-7 minutes to fall asleep, most nights. I tend to get 6-9 hours’ sleep a night, and that’s even if I wake up once or twice. Takes me no time to get back to sleep, especially since I barely wake up at all and can get to the bathroom on autopilot, in the dark. Light pollution IS an issue; ideally, I’d have blackout curtains on my windows, not just wooden blinds.
    HollyJahangiri recently posted…A Chance to Watch History in the MakingMy Profile

    • Mitch Mitchell

      I had checked out the links but I’ve read so much about sleep that I could probably quote a lot of stuff from memory. lol Thing is, I’ve tried lots of things outside of prescription medication, which isn’t happening, and the only thing that’s happened is that I wake up better using the CPAP. But it doesn’t help me sleep more; at this juncture I think it’s a lost cause.
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      • HollyJahangiri

        It may be. As long as you’re aware that you may not be functioning at your peak, and are careful about things like driving if you’re feeling sleepier than usual, you may be fine. At least with the CPAP, the sleep you do get is probably more restful and you’re getting oxygen to the brain. That matters, too – different topic, but every bit as important.
        HollyJahangiri recently posted…A Chance to Watch History in the MakingMy Profile

  3. William

    You did make a fantastic Thanksgiving dinner. Thank you for inviting us. Also enjoyed seeing N again for the second time this year! It was also the second time in about 20 years!

    • Holly Jahangiri

      Thank you! I’m glad you were able to come. Had not realized until last week that it had been so long since you’d seen N – and now TWICE in just over six months.

      I’m sorry the kids weren’t there, but very happy they were able to spend the holiday hanging out together in Portland. Sounds like they really had a great time, too.

      I hope the trip home went a little smoother than the trip here!
      Holly Jahangiri recently posted…A Chance to Watch History in the MakingMy Profile

  4. Mark

    Nice and job. Good cites, I like that. Great topic. I am an insomniac myself. Sleep deprivation leads to a lot of bad stuff. I believe my inability to sleep contributed greatly to my alcoholism (retired).
    Mark recently posted…How to Help an Alcoholic Stop DrinkingMy Profile

    • HollyJahangiri

      Seems like that would be the double whammy. I know that alcohol contributes to sleep deprivation; it seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it, since it’s a CNS and makes you sleepy? But it messes up your sleep patterns and gives you a lousy night’s sleep. I feel drunk when I’m sleep deprived and haven’t had any alcohol at all!
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…The Importance of SleepMy Profile

  5. Karen Woodham

    Sleep is certainly something that I don’t get much of, whether it’s down to stress, over-working or even something else, I only seem to get around 3 hours a night if I’m lucky and I survive on that, but from time to time I do get those once a month sleeps where I go for one night for around 11-13 hours!
    Karen Woodham recently posted…MAD MAX: FURY ROAD Trailer – Things That Excite Us!My Profile

    • HollyJahangiri

      Three hours a night likely isn’t enough, even if you’re used to it, Karen. If I were you, I’d try to make getting a better night’s sleep – every night – a priority. You’re young, but it’ll catch up to you. One thing I’ve found, using my fitbit, is that unlike many people, it takes me, literally, 5-7 minutes to fall sound asleep. I tend to stay that way, so my sleep time is very effective. Even so, I really need at least 6.5 hours’ sleep a night to feel alert and rested, and 8 is better. More than that tends to be counterproductive, I think – usually a sign of mild depression, too.
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…The Importance of SleepMy Profile


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