I suffered from insomnia for about 18 months quite recently. More specifically I suffered with a type of sleep onset insomnia (problems with getting to sleep) called ‘sleep anxiety’.
In short, it means you get physiologically and/or mentally stressed about going to bed. It can arise for all manner of reasons, but for me I’d had around 10-14 days of intensely disrupted sleep.
Initially I’d just been ill with a bad stomach bug. But after that it was just one thing after another that prevented me sleeping properly. When I say I wasn’t sleeping well, I was getting around 2-4 hours of sleep a night, in 20-30 minute chunks. If you’ve ever experienced this, you’ll know how brutal surviving on that little sleep can be.
This inability to get consistent sleep led to a state of anxiety around sleep. This is where one gets irrationally stressed that they will not sleep, which in itself prevents sleep. The stress association was with my own bed, at night. I could nap in the day because it wasn’t night time, and I could sleep when staying over at someone else’s house because it wasn’t my bed. It was weird, but pretty debilitating.
I would go to bed at 9/10pm, and not sleep til 3/4am. Over the course of 6-8 months I managed to claw sleep at 12am/1am, after which the anxiety started to subside. If you can get any sleep, then the anxiety starts to abate. However, even now, if I get even slightly worked up around bedtime I will end up struggling to sleep. I don’t stress now, but I’m far from care-free about sleep as I once was.
The reason I share this is so that if you too struggle with getting a solid and restful sleep routine, you know where I’m coming from.
What I learned during this time
Through this experience I did a lot of research about sleep, what it’s for, how to get more of it, etc. I found I was fighting to keep my voice “above water” for that initial 6-8 months. Lack of sleep was killing my ability to improve my own voice, and massively hurting my ability to recover from hard voice days or illnesses.
We all know sleep is important for rest, but people often underestimate or underappreciate just how much sleep does for you. I wanted to feature five things that sleep is essential for when it comes to keeping your voice in great condition.
1. Recovery from daily wear
When we use our voice every day, it suffers wear and tear. A bit like if you work in a job that keeps you on your feet all day every day, your legs acclimatise, but they are tired by the end of the day. Similarly if you sit at a desk all day, you’re not doing tonnes, but you know you’ve been in a certain posture most of the day by the aches you feel at the end.
The vocal folds are remarkably small, so the tiniest tear or swelling can yield a tremendous difference in vocal quality and (most importantly) how your voice feels to you. If you want to reach high notes with no strain or difficulty, even a little bit of swelling or vocal fatigue that hasn’t recovered from the day before can just kill any chance of that doing. This can often lead to frustration with one’s voice, and lead to a downward spiral both mentally and technically for singers. I certainly experienced this during the 18 months of insomnia I suffered.
Sleep is essential for recovery from normal wear and tear. Whether that’s full on injuries, or just the normal abrasions of every day life, you need this to reset and refresh your voice.
2. Healing from illness
You could argue this is just point 1 again, but really it’s point 1 at a whole other level.
Normal wear and tear takes one level of rest and recovery. Illness takes a whole other level. Sleep is when your body does most of its work healing your wounds and recovering from bad illnesses. Your body isn’t expending any extra energy on movement or heavy cognitive tasks, so it can devote all of it’s attention to healing itself.
Studies show that lack of sleep switches on certain genes and switches off other genes. Markers that make you want to eat more, and more of the wrong things get turned on when you are low on sleep, and markers connected with a strong immune system get depressed. Lack of sleep is not just a problem for getting better, it’s a problem for staying better – both in the short term, and the long term.
If you are sick, run down, under the weather, get more sleep. If you are healthy and want to stay healthy, make sure you get the 7-9 hours that is currently being advised as optimal.
3. Muscle memory develops
Now onto the fun stuff. Studies have been done on people learning tasks, such as playing the piano, that the repetitions their brain underwent during waking hours ALSO occur as they sleep. The same neurological patterns that were spotted during actual performance of the task were being run through by the brain at super high speed whilst asleep. This further entrenches and ingrains the desired behaviour we were practicing in the day, even whilst we sleep.
People often want to keep staying up, keep practicing etc, when in reality they would be better going to bed and letting the brain do it’s thing for remarkably little physical effort. Particularly with something as refined yet dependent on a healthy body as singing, having a more efficient split between practice and rest is of paramount importance.
So that whole pulling an all-nighter to get something into your head or your body doesn’t actually work. Practice it in the day, and let your body do it’s thing at night. It’s maximally efficient, and you feel great after. Win-win!
4. Creative connections form
You know the phrase “sleep on it”, that we reference when trying to tackle a tricky problem? Turns out, every culture in the world has some equivalent of that phrase. While our body is paralysed as we sleep, our brain lights up in remarkable ways whilst unconscious.
Even the stage where we start to enter sleep – the hypnagogic state – where we are still mostly conscious but we start to hallucinate and get very odd images floating across our mind, is powerful for forming creative connections.
The inventor Thomas Edison used to use the hypnagogic state to help solve problems and come up with ideas. He would place himself in an armchair, holding a steel bearing in his hand draped over the side of the chair, with a tin plate placed underneath his hand position. As he fell asleep his hand would relax, the bearing would drop onto the tin plate and make a noise, thus rousing him. He could then quickly write down the creative connections that had formed during that hypnagogic state.
People often say the answer came to them in a dream, and yet so many of us don’t get enough REM sleep (responsible for dreams) either through lack of sleep or alcohol disrupting said REM sleep (alcohol does that).
5. Mentally able to give 100%
Sleep scientist Matt Walker covers many things quite startling about sleep and the brain. One key example is that once you have been awake for more than 20 hours, you are as cognitively impaired as someone who is legally drunk (by US standards of blood alcohol level, at least).
One of the by-products of being awake and functioning during the day is beta amyloid protein buildup in the brain. Key stages of sleep are responsible for clearing out this protein buildup in the brain. If you don’t get to those stages of sleep, the buildup doesn’t get removed in the same way. Note: one of the key factors in developing Alzheimers is beta amyloid protein buildup in the brain. Matt Walker’s studies are indicators that prolonged lack of sleep is a contributing factor to brain disorders such as Alzheimers in later life.
He also comments anecdotally on politicians who were reknowned for getting remarkably little sleep (e.g. 2-4 hours a night, such as British PM Margaret Thatcher) suffering from Alzheimers in later life.
Summary: Get more sleep
7-9 hours is the currently recommended amount from experts such as Matt Walker. While some of us will struggle with that, there’s nothing wrong with trying.
If you want to learn more about this fascinating subject, I’d recommend:
Head Trip by Jeff Warren – this covers the various states of consciousness that we all go through in a 24 hour period. It’s exceptionally interesting from start to finish.
Why We Sleep by Matt Walker – this covers his substantial research findings in a very engaging way. Also recommended.
Interview with Matt Walker – if you want something to listen to instead, I highly recommend this podcast with Matt Walker.
Learn More: Related Articles
If you’d like to learn more about what good vocal function involves, check out these related articles:
Pursue vocal function BEFORE sound, every time
My Vocal Warmup and Practice Routine
What makes a song “feel” high?
Tongue Tension: How to spot it and fix it
A Key to Great Singing: Hyper-function vs Relaxation