Go to bed: Making Sleep a Priority

Eat more vegetables. Exercise daily. Cut back on caffeine. Get a full night’s sleep.

Millions of people make new year’s resolutions like these. But what if you could only choose one? 

For Jesse Cook, clinical psychology graduate student, there’s a clear answer: make sleep a priority. 

As an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, Jesse took a class with psychology professor and UW-Madison alumnus Richard Bootzin ‘63 on sleep and sleep disorders. “It became apparent that sleep was much more than this lens into dreams and your subconscious,” says Jesse. “It’s really a multifaceted construct that impacts everything.” 

His interest in sleep landed him a position as an undergraduate research assistant in Richard’s Sleep Research Laboratory where he got involved with polysomnography, or sleep study, supporting projects related to insomnia, meditation, and divorce. In the lab, one particular graduate student, Michael Goldstein, encouraged Jesse to consider his own alma mater, UW-Madison, for graduate school. UW-Madison’s David Plante, a board certified sleep-medicine physician and psychiatry professor, had just received NIH’s prestigious K23 award, and was looking for a research specialist to manage his lab. 

The Plante Lab

It turned out to be a perfect fit. David and Jesse initially set out to examine excessive, unexplained daytime sleepiness. In an unexpected turn of events, they landed on wearable sleep technology. “We were provided a Fitbit Flex in 2014 and ended up using it with our participants. We did our first validation of that device, and that’s unfolded into three other sleep-tracking device validations.” He laughs. “It’s full imposter syndrome. People refer to me as an expert in wearable sleep technology [and, I’m thinking,] I’m a grad student who sometimes makes his bed.” 

That foray into wearables garnered him two appearances on the Sleep Junkies podcast, along with a host of conversations around sleep on Twitter. More recently, the Plante Lab began looking at the relationship between sleep and Alzheimer’s Disease where early research suggests that sleep may play a role not only in the development but also the treatment of the disease.

All of this research on sleep begs the question, can a graduate student immersed in research, mentoring a crew of undergraduates, and serving as the Trainee Member-at-Large Elect for the Trainee Education Advisory Committee of the Sleep Research Society actually find time to sleep?

Graduate student Jesse Cook

“Sleep has become a major priority in my life,” says Jesse. “There is no ‘if you do this, you’ll sleep well.’ There’s no panacea. It’s a blessing and a curse. The curse is that it’s not easy, and even people who say they have no problem sleeping may not be achieving the levels of sleep they could be achieving. Certain complex, clinically significant conditions aside, the blessing is that the individual is capable of identifying and modifying areas of their lives in order to improve sleep ability and quality.” 

The perception that people can function perfectly fine and optimally on 5-6 hours of sleep per night is a notion reinforced by a work hard, play hard culture. The father of artificial light, Thomas Edison, notably claimed he slept no more than four hours a day, and imposed the same vigilance among his employees. 

“It’s hard for individuals to see the acute effects of sleep loss because we can still perform pretty close to our optimal ability most times. But when we have these lapses, these sleep losses, they can impair us in a way that leads to catastrophic outputs.” From a genetic standpoint, only an extremely small subset of the population (.0001 – 5%) have a genotypic variation that may make them more resilient to the consequences of a short sleep duration. Even then, Jesse believes, it’s unlikely that these variations provide humans with true immunity from the negative impacts of insufficient sleep. 

Basically, you need sleep.

“Sleep’s magnitude of impact on seemingly every physiological process is remarkably profound. It can either be our closest ally or most challenging nemesis,” says Jesse. “Making sleep a priority activates what is likely the greatest weapon that we have for short and long-term well-being and performance.” 

Want more? We featured Jesse’s own sleep hygiene practices as well as a peek into the Plante Lab where Jesse conducts his research on our Instagram account. Jesse can be found on Twitter at @SleepAndSports

April 9, 2020