Monday, December 10, 2012

To Sleep, Perchance to . . . Heal

by Julia Buckley

Do you get enough sleep?  If you do, you're in the minority.  Like many people, I do not get the recommended eight hours per night (averaging instead around 5 1/2 to 6), and there are all sorts of ways that this is not beneficial to my health--or the health of anyone who isn't getting enough of that all-important sleep.

According to this blog, lack of sleep can create a substantial "sleep debt."  This deprivation can lead to problems as severe as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.  It can have the same effect on the human body as consumption of alcohol (and can, like alcohol, cause traffic accidents or other life-threatening situations).

Sleep also allows what Kat Eden, the blog writer, calls "crucial psychological repair."  The brain, like a re-booting computer, has certain times that it works on adjusting your moods and your outlook; if you get up too early, you miss out on this re-boot and are more prone to depression and mood swings.

If you're one of those people who can't eat in the morning ("I get nauseous when I look at food in the morning!"), sleep research suggests that it is lack of sleep that has you refusing the nutrients your body actually needs to get through the day.

Dr. William C. Dement, an authority on the idea of sleep debt, explains that it is literally a debt that you owe your body, because one cannot "make up for lost sleep" by just sleeping longer one night.  Your sleep debt adds up in this way: if you sleep five hours one night, you have a sleep debt of three hours.  In order to make up that debt and bring your system back to its healthy functioning, you would need to sleep eleven hours the next night.  Not doing so, Dement suggests, puts you at risk for any number of health issues, not to mention, in the case of severe sleep debt, blackouts and accidents.

According to Dement, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill was found, after a long investigation, to have been caused not by the inebriation of the captain, but by the severe sleep debt of his crew members, who had slept very little in the previous 48 hours.  It is troubling to note that many now-famous disasters, upon investigation, have some element of sleep deprivation behind them. Dement says that people who feel safe, who feel that they've "caught up" on sleep, can still be in grave danger of falling asleep at a crucial time if they have not made up the debt they owe.  He says that when you feel very drowsy at the wheel of a car, that is your body's LAST warning, not its first.  After that you will fall asleep.

We're all so busy these days that we probably say we'll sleep better tomorrow, or during vacation, or when we have a less stressful job.  But the reality is that we all owe ourselves sleep, and there are only negative consequences to not getting enough.

How well do you sleep?  Will these ideas make you think twice about the number of hours you slumber?

(Work Cited: Dement, William C., MD, PhD "The Promise of Sleep.", Delacorte Press, Random House Inc., New York, 1999).


Sheila Connolly said...

But what do you do when your own mind wakes you up at five a.m. and starts running through your endless to-do list? How do you turn that off? Is anxiety a cause or an effect?

Susan said...

When I was a single parent, raising three kids, grading English papers until 2 or 3 a.m., and going to work by 7:15, I got essentially no sleep. The solution, perhaps, is to manage to live long enough to retire!So I'm retired. But now I often wake up at 5 or 6 a.m., usually when my brain is on overdrive working on a writing problem. Maybe there is no good balance.

Sandra Parshall said...

I suffer from chronic insomnia. I've tried everything, including a special lamp on my desk. I'm exhausted all the time and have despaired of finding any help.

Julia said...

Wow--these are realities that seem insurmountable. And I know students have similar problems--not only because their circadian rhythms wake them up right around 10 at night, but because they are all multi-taskers who work and go to school and can't seem to get it all done, so they sacrifice sleep.

I feel for those of you who can't sleep, and I wonder what the best suggestions for insomnia are.

And Sheila and Susan, it is true that if you're thinking of a problem, sleep will elude. But how to stop thinking? Counting sheep has never worked for me, although I get the premise.