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Matthew J. Edlund M.D.
Matthew J. Edlund M.D.

Why We Don't "Get" Rest

Life is fast - particularly the regeneration brought by rest.

Rest - Required for Life

Rest - Required for Life

Why rest? One reason - to survive. Rest takes up more of your life than food, and is every much as necessary. You need rest to grow and regenerate, to learn and experience the fullest passion. In other words, to live.
But people don't "get" rest.
They don't get it in two senses - they don't get enough of it to optimally regenerate their bodies, and they don't understand what rest is - and what it does.

Rest and "Eternal Rest"

Part of the reason is the way many of us think - in classic Western fashion, of opposites and dualities. To make distinctions, much of our world is put together as up-down, good-bad, alive-or-dead, right-left, black and white. Rest breaks those boundaries apart, combining endless, continuous regeneration with action and seeming passivity. Yet we don't see the differences.

Partly the reason is language itself.

For many rest is a passive way of time; in some versions of Christian theology, rest represents idleness and laziness, doing the devil's work herself.

Mental images of rest immediately connect with unproductiveness and goldbricking, the gateway to dissipation.

We also see rest in machine terms. Rest is the organism "turned off." Activity is the organism "turned on," in other words, alive. Because of such dualistic thinking, many think of rest as similar to death. Death is sometimes defined as "eternal rest." Many a philosopher and writer of the last 3000 years talks of sleep, a passive form of rest, as "the little death" or "like death."

Humans will do almost anything to avoid death. They don't want to be associated with anything dealing with it. You see this in kids. When they're doing something they want, they want to keep at it - all day and all night. They'll play until they're bored (boredom is also associated in our minds with rest) or until they're "forced" to sleep. Even with adults, rest is the "enemy" when we're having fun.

Why do we have to stop? Why can't we keep going, just like our machines keep going?

Because we're not machines, and thinking we are produces a profoundly mistaken and unhealthy view of our bodies and human biology.

Doing "Nothing" May Be The Most Active Thing You Do

Right now you're reading. But for a minute your thoughts may wander (you're reading about rest, after all) and your mind shifts to random thoughts. You're doing "nothing." Meanwhile your body is re-making you with extreme velocity.

How fast? Most of you, barring skeletal materials like bones, teeth, the lens of the eye, cytoskeletal proteins like elastin, is made, gone, and replaced inside 3-4 weeks. When things work hard, the process is even faster. Your gut lining is gone in 1-2 days. The pumping proteins in your heart that let you read this sentence are, according to Ana Maria Cuervo of Albert Einstein Medical College, made, used, repaired, pulped, and recycled inside 60-90 minutes.

Inside each of your ten trillion cells fly a billion protein-protein interactions every second. Every one is an information event. Every one help change you, remake you, so you never, ever stay the same.

But as far as you're concerned, you're doing "nothing." You're just "wasting time."

All this time your body is regenerating - into a new form. Certainly most of the changes are not conscious. And there's the rub. If it isn't conscious, your brain tells you it probably didn't happen.

So when you go to sleep, it's like "turning off," turning that light switch off in your bedroom - along with all your electronic devices. Except that in even such "passive" rest like sleep, you're entirely rewiring your brain; creating new neural pathways and slowing down or ending others; learning; remembering; thinking out new responses to problems; remaking your athletic capabilities; renewing and remaking your bones and muscles, and rapidly growing new skin, far faster than when you're awake.

Is this really like "turning of a light switch?".

Sleep deprive any animal and it dies. Prevent cellular reprocessing, the autophagy Professor Cuervo studies, and you die. And even when you're at your most physically or mentally "active," running down a lacrosse field or trying to understand quantum physics, your brain may increase its overall energy use perhaps one half of one percent.

Something from Nothing

You're never doing "nothing." Every second of your life you're remaking yourself, even if you're unconscious of the billions of new antibodies produced by your immune system to deal with the new bacteria that just started growing in your nose, or the hepatitis B virus that's making 100 billion copies of itself, potentially mutating with each new virus that appears every 4 hours. That unbalancing yourself by swatting that fly off your nose has put pressure on a whole new group of muscles around your knee, which will now regrow in ways you've never seen before.

Because the body adapts or dies. We learn - or we are no more. If your immune system fails even temporarily the 100 trillion bacteria in your gut may try to take control and kill you, or cancer cells will form all over the place that will destroy you a bit more slowly. Because every time you stand up all your three dimensional senses are reactivated in a new way, with new information that must be processed, remembered or forgotten. That every time you bite into a sandwich your brain and gut will respond to the thousands of different substances inside that food, trying to figure out what's useful and what's potentially lethal, what works and what harms.

You may not be conscious of any of it, but all that information makes you and remakes you - every second of your life.

Because that's what rest is: regeneration, the way your body lives, thrives, and survives, using the information it receives and creates. Stop sleep and you can die. Short shrift sleep and you wreck your ability to learn and remember, increase your chance of stroke and heart attack, set yourself up for colds, mess up your skin and set yourself to gain weight, quickly and reliably.

And that's just a passive form of rest, sleep.

Because there's far more - the active forms of rest you consciously control that reactivate your own regeneration. There's physical rest, mental rest, social rest, spiritual rest, ways to renew you and restore you as your body rebuilds itself.
And rebuild itself it must.

Control and Self Control

You can control that process - if you know about the tools every human being has. How your skin and muscle, bone and brain regenerate, learn, remake themselves, renew themselves, recreate themselves, like Heraclitus' river, never remaining the same, powered by the insanely propulsive velocity of life that springs deep within your living cells. Rest is not passive, but active - the active principle that lets you live.

So to get rest, please remember these two propositions:

Rest > Sleep

Regeneration >> Rest

To fully enjoy life, to truly vacation, to truly remember, learn, think and become wise, you need to know how to rest.

Really rest.

About the Author
Matthew J. Edlund M.D.

Matthew Edlund, M.D., researches rest, sleep, performance, and public health. He is the author of Healthy Without Health Insurance and The Power of Rest.

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