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Dying To Work In Music | Part 1: Sleep

Staying Healthy In The Studio By Jack Ruston
Published April 2023

Dying To Work In Music

Setting boundaries to protect our health is hard, but it will help us live longer and do better work.

“Look after your ears.” It’s a message that has become so ubiquitous in the world of professional audio that even those with the most profound tinnitus have, by now, heard it loud and clear. And while I wholeheartedly agree, I think we may need to give a little consideration to looking after the rest of ourselves too.

In the early days of the first lockdown, as the Great Global Bake‑off got underway, a friend and I joked that nobody in music was going to notice any difference: we all spent months locked indoors, confined to dark rooms and living on deliveries anyway. Half of us only went outside to smoke, and we were paid so inconsistently that the Self‑Employment Income Support Scheme was going to be our most predictable client to date.

Later, in a more sombre reflection, I understood that our job was often not a healthy one, and that it was setting many of us up for a situation where we would neither be able to continue as we had been, nor afford to retire.

It wasn’t as if my colleagues were stashing away piles of cash, as some had done in the ’90s. Like those working in the financial world, we were subject to stress, lack of sleep, a sedentary lifestyle and poor diet, yet we weren’t getting the compensatory Christmas bonus. In our 20s, most of us can get away with anything, but give it a couple of decades, and we can find that we’ve run the ship slowly but surely onto the rocks, forced to take time off due to poor physical health, while being psychologically crushed by the question of how we will survive financially in the process.

In writing this series, I asked a number of audio professionals how their career has affected their health and wellbeing, and what advice they could offer in mitigating those ill‑effects. Having personally stepped away from the music industry, I’m free to speak out, but that’s a luxury my former colleagues do not always have, and in some instances I have kept comments anonymous. I’m extremely appreciative to everyone for their crucial contributions to what I feel should be an ongoing conversation.

I understood that our job was often not a healthy one, and that it was setting many of us up for a situation where we would neither be able to continue as we had been, nor afford to retire.

Health Matters

If the events of the past three years have taught us anything, it’s that our baseline level of health matters. Prior to the early days of 2020, in the developed world at least, we had arrived at the belief that the incidence of serious, life‑threatening disease came down to a game of genetic roulette: a combination of bad luck and a poor choice of parents. It fell to modern medicine to save us, and in the unexpected event that it couldn’t, we were out of options.

To some degree Covid has changed that paradigm. It’s a virus which affects us all differently, and while this isn’t the place to explore the pathology of severe Covid, as 2020 unfolded it quickly began to emerge that poor metabolic health was associated with bad outcomes.

So, what is poor metabolic health? It is effectively the road that leads us towards Type 2 diabetes. While there’s no single, standardised test, doctors like to look at things like blood sugar, blood pressure and the makeup of our blood lipids, as well as our level of visceral fat — that which is deposited in and around our abdominal organs. In combination, these markers say a lot about our overall disease risk: Type 2 diabetes is associated with a greater risk of heart disease, kidney disease, many cancers, mental health issues like anxiety and depression as well as neurodegenerative diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Shockingly, only 12 percent of American adults have optimal markers of metabolic health, with indications that these numbers are worsening, and the CDC’s 2022 National Diabetes Statistics Report estimates that 130 million are living with pre‑diabetes or diabetes. Mirrored here in the UK, this situation has undoubtedly affected our capacity to deal with Covid, both individually and societally.

While we’ve been understandably preoccupied with that immediate threat, this unfolding metabolic health crisis has the potential to make the current pandemic look like a rounding error in terms of the sheer level of misery and suffering it may cause, and the resources it may require in the coming decades. If anything is going to drive the financial collapse of the NHS, it is this.

Update Required

Why are we so unhealthy? Poor metabolic health largely comes down to a mismatch between our modern diet and lifestyle, and those to which we have adapted over the past couple of million years. Human physiology is set up for acute rather than chronic stress, feast and famine, frequent and varied movement and a strong sense of social connection.

Over the last 10,000 years, and particularly the last 50 or so, our lives have changed unrecognisably, but our physiology hardly at all. We employ the same stress response that was so good at keeping us alive in an encounter with an angry bear, when confronted with an angry email. The chronic drip‑feed of sensationalised news — terrible global events about which we can do nothing, our high‑glycaemic, nutrient‑poor diet, toxins in our air, food and water, disrupted sleep patterns and a sedentary lifestyle — all provoke this same, now inappropriate physiological response. Our heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar rise, and physical resources are diverted away from recovery and digestion, and towards skeletal muscle. Our immune system function is altered in order to prevent inflammation from hindering our chances of immediate survival, the long‑term consequences a matter of supreme indifference in a violent encounter with a potentially lethal adversary. This is fight, or flight.

But for us, of course, there is no bear. There are just these chronic insults to our homeostasis, and while it’s not as if our heart rate hits 200bpm every time we get an email notification, it’s the drip‑feed of stress that sets us on a bad path. Over time we develop systemic inflammation, compromised immune system function, insulin resistance, hypertension, hyperglycaemia, visceral fat accumulation and a loss of lean mass: all things that doctors don’t like, and which put us firmly in that ‘poor metabolic health’ camp.

So let’s get to the point. How are these issues manifesting themselves in the audio industry, and what can we do to address them?

While there’s a great degree of overlap between the lifestyle factors that affect us in studio work, for clarity, this series will consider them in four broad...

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