In order to keep up with a busy daily schedule of work or social engagements, some people only surrender to sleep when extremely tired. It is part of our culture, ‘nightlife’ being seen as cool, exciting or trendy. Fact: among Americans and Britons, 1 in 3 sleeps no more than 6.5 hours a night. In contrast, others, for many different reasons, would give anything for a good night’s sleep. The saying “No one died through lack of sleep” probably isn’t true.
Occasional insomnia lasting a few days or so is not uncommon, and it is generally related to stress and the ups and downs of life. When insomnia becomes chronic, however, emotional or physical disorders may be involved, and it is important to seek medical help. This discussion does not suffice to self-diagnose.
A new-born sleeps for frequent short periods that total about 18 hours a day. According to sleep experts, although some adults appear to need only three or four hours of sleep a day, others need up to ten hours, eight hours representing a norm. As we get older, our sleep needs may lessen, but old age in itself does not mean poor sleep.
“Scientists theorize sleep has a restorative function for the brain, and that learning continues during sleep,” said one sleep expert, “at night you consolidate your memories and any learning that happened during the day gets put into place at night. Not having that period of rest actually impairs memory and learning.” Moreover, he says that “when you get enough sleep, it probably serves some function to stabilize your emotions.”
One sufferer emphasizes the value of rest. “Sleep is an important key to dealing with mania, the less sleep I get, the higher I climb. Even when I can’t sleep, instead of getting up I have trained myself to lie there and rest.”
Exactly what makes a person lose consciousness and fall asleep remains a mystery. Researchers, however, have established that sleep is a complex process regulated by the brain and that it normally obeys a 24-hour biological clock, known as the circadian rhythm.
Our biological clock is regulated by chemical substances. An important one is melatonin, a hormone thought to trigger sleepiness, normally produced in the brain in response to night-fall. Scientists believe that melatonin is responsible for the slowdown of the body’s metabolism that occurs as we fall asleep. As melatonin is released, body temperature and blood flow to the brain are reduced, and our muscles gradually lose their tone and relax. What happens next as the person descends into sleep?
About two hours after we fall asleep, our eyes begin to quiver quickly back and forth. The observation of this phenomenon led scientists to divide sleep into two basic phases: REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and non-REM sleep. Non-REM sleep can be subdivided into four stages of progressively deeper sleep. During a healthy night’s sleep, REM sleep occurs several times, alternating with non-REM sleep.
Most dreaming occurs during REM sleep. It also allows the sleeper to wake up feeling physically refreshed. In addition, some researchers believe that newly acquired information is consolidated as part of our long-term memory during this sleep stage.
During deep sleep (non-REM sleep stages 3 and 4), our blood pressure and heart rate reach lower ranges, providing rest for the circulatory system and helping to ward off cardiovascular disease. In addition, the production of growth hormone peaks during non-REM sleep, with some teenagers producing as much as 50 times more growth hormone at night than during the day.
Apparently, the ideal way to awaken is the natural way, in response to increasing levels of UV light. Because of the importance of light in the production of melatonin inducing sleep, it is believed this why blind people often experience sleep pattern disturbance, for example, a 25 hour circadian rhythm.
Sleep disorders A common one is sleep apnea. Apnea literally means “no breath.” An episode of sleep apnea may last anywhere from ten seconds to two or three minutes. The victim often thrashes around gasping for air and then falls asleep again, only to repeat the apnea hundreds of times per night. There are several types of apnea. Another is Narcolepsy, a neurological condition that causes excessive daytime sleepiness. Two other disorders, sometimes appearing in combination with each other, directly affect the limbs, resulting in chronic insomnia. One is periodic limb movement disorder, in which the legs, and sometimes the arms, jerk and twitch during sleep. The second is restless legs syndrome, in which sensations deep within the leg muscles and knees cause a powerful urge to move, thus preventing the sufferer from falling asleep. While this condition is sometimes associated with lack of exercise or poor circulation, some cases appear to be related to caffeine intake. Alcohol consumption is also known to aggravate the condition. Finally, in this brief survey, bruxism is the disorder characterized by grinding or clenching the teeth during sleep.
Sleep also affects our appetite. Scientists have discovered that sleep really is, to quote Shakespeare, “chief nourisher in life’s feast.” Our brain interprets a lack of sleep as a lack of food. While we sleep, our organism secretes leptin, the hormone that normally lets our body know that we have eaten enough. When we stay awake longer than we should, our body produces less leptin, and we feel a craving for more carbohydrates. So sleep deprivation can lead to increased carbohydrate consumption.
Sleep makes it easier for our body to metabolize free radicals, the molecules that are said to affect cellular ageing and even increase the risk of cancer. In a recent study, 11 healthy young men were allowed only four hours of sleep a day for six days. At the end of this period, their body cells were performing like those of 60 year olds, and their blood insulin level was comparable with that of a diabetic! Sleep deprivation even affects the production of white blood cells and the hormone cortisol, making a person more prone to infections and circulatory diseases. “The risk of heart attack is 50 per cent higher in those who sleep five hours a day or less when compared with those sleeping eight hours per night.”
Effective sleep hygiene amounts to a way of life. It includes getting regular exercise at the right time of the day. Exercise during the morning or afternoon can help one to be drowsy at bedtime. But working out close to bedtime can interfere with sleep.
Exciting films or engrossing reading material can also have a stimulating effect. Before going to bed, it may be better to read something relaxing, listen to soothing music, or take a warm bath. Preparing the body for restful sleep also involves watching your diet. While alcoholic drinks make a person feel drowsy, they actually impair sleep quality, as well as the duration. Coffee, tea, chocolate, and cola-based drinks should be avoided at night because they are stimulants. On the other hand, small quantities of mango, sweet potato, banana, rice, bean sprouts, or nuts stimulate the production of serotonin and can thus be sleep-inducing. Experience reminds us that eating a heavy meal late at night though, can be as harmful as going to bed on an empty stomach.
Herbal teas or preparations, such as valerian, camomile, lavender, hops, roobios (redbush) and others, have traditionally promoted sleep. Increasing attention is being paid to minerals such as calcium, magnesium and also potassium (good for muscle spasms, which disturb sleep), deficiencies of which can affect sleep quality. The B vitamins likewise, especially B12, and the related compound, Inositol.
Don’t assume stimulants such as protein rich foods, caffeine, ginseng and others are all bad. As long as they are consumed in the morning, they actually assist the body restore the 24hr circadian (sleep/wake) rhythm.
Just as important is the environment in which we sleep. A pleasant temperature, a dark and noise-free room, and a comfortable mattress and pillow are an invitation to a good night’s sleep, even changing the bed-linen. Remember, staying in bed longer than necessary, even as a treat, can disturb your sleep pattern and make it harder for you to sleep the following night.