This week a sleep civil war broke out over at New York Magazine’s The Cut. The first shot was fired on Monday by Edith Zimmerman in a piece called “It’s Astounding How Many Problems Can Be Solved Just by Waking Up Early.” The spoiler is in the headline, but Zimmerman elaborates by describing what an “obscenely early” wake-up time, “like 5 or even 4 a.m.,” does for her. “Almost no one is awake then, so you can quietly and without being judged just get a bunch of stuff done,” she writes. She concludes by saying that while she hasn’t always been able to maintain that schedule, it’s still useful as “a turbo-charge button to press when confronted with a seemingly unsolvable problem or set of problems.”
Controversy erupted. Twitter, as is mandated by Federal law, weighed in. As did, when they woke up and read the piece, the night owls.
Zimmerman’s colleague Anna Silman returned fire with a spirited and hilarious piece of her own. “On behalf of The Cut’s motley collection of night owls, late-risers, and people who generally feel like they’ve been hit by a cement truck if someone tries to shake them awake before 9 a.m.,” she wrote, “I’m afraid I must dissent.” While allowing that being an early riser “makes you better at life,” Silman maintains being a night owl is “more badass.”
And in any case, for Silman, it doesn’t matter, because, as she writes, “it’s physically impossible” for her to wake up before 9 a.m. She’s tried everything: “medications, booze, herbs, elixirs” and, yes, sleep tips from yours truly. But, she writes, “my body is trained to resist these things.” Silman concludes with a rousing call to arms to her late night brothers and sisters in arms (or beds): “So I say to you, my fellow night owls, let us band together and fight against the scourge of early-riser propaganda. Let us revolt! Let us sleep in! Let us look at the clock flashing 1:45 a.m. and say ‘Oh screw it, just one more episode!’ Let us be ourselves!”
To which I say: Ladies, please! You’re both right. Possibly.
The question isn’t whether you’re a lark or an owl, when you go to bed or when you wake up. The real question is how much sleep you’re getting between those two times, whenever they may be. The science says we need between seven and nine hours of sleep (unless you’re part of the one and a half percent of the population that has a genetic mutation — a single DNA sequence change causing a switch from proline to arginine in the 385th amino acid of the DEC2 protein). Yes, it’s true, chronotypes are real — some people are owls and some people are larks. And living a life out of sync with your chronotype can cause something called “social jet lag.” And that’s why “sleep stability,” maintaining a consistent sleep and wake schedule, is important.
But even more important is that you’re getting all the sleep you need. People often rationalize short-changing sleep because of all the things they need to get done during the day. But as sleep researchers have revealed, your brain is just as busy with its own high-priority action items at night. Taking time away from the sleep-time to-do list for the waking-time to-do list is not good.
While we sleep, our brains are intensely active, taking care of things like memory consolidation, cognitive maintenance and neurochemical cleansing. As Dr. Maiken Nedergaard from the University of Rochester explains, it’s like bringing in the overnight cleaning crew to sweep the garbage that’s accumulated during the day — except in this case, the garbage is made up of toxic proteins that, when they build up, are associated with Alzheimer’s disease. “It’s like a dishwasher,” she said. “You can think of it like having a house party. You can either entertain the guests or clean up the house, but you can’t really do both at the same time.” So the real issue is: Did you get all the sleep you need to complete the cycle? Because if you didn’t, it’s like not completing the cycle of a dishwasher or a laundry machine — only with much more dire consequences.
So if you’re a night owl, don’t let your real late night house party take away from the party clean-up your brain needs to do. And if you’re a lark getting up early to work, make sure you go to bed early enough to allow your brain to do its work — as Zimmerman’s and Silman’s colleague Katie Heaney wrote when she weighed in: “[Sleep] might be the most unimpeachably human behavior there is,” she wrote. “You almost certainly need more of it, and you do that by setting aside a bigger chunk of time in which to do it.”
And if you’ve really got a problem to solve, try sleeping on it — it really works. As John Steinbeck put it Sweet Thursday, “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”
So yes, be yourselves, listen to your body, and nobody needs to be sleep-shamed (including the night owls, whom, as Silman rightly notes, society is biased against). I only hope the sleep wars haven’t escalated at The Cut. Though I guess the fact that the two warring sides probably don’t actually see each other very much will keep the tensions down.