The Great Sleep Mystery

I call sleep “The Great Sleep Mystery.”  It has always baffled me.  And angered me.  I have so much I want to do in life, and sleep always seemed to get in my way.

The Great Sleep Mystery

The Great Sleep Mystery

So for half of my life (maybe more), I have fought sleep.  Resisted, tampered with it, and especially purposefully pushed myself to not sleep.  I’ve realized now just how wrong I’ve been about this.

Yes, I still wish I didn’t have to sleep, but the fact is, the research supports how needed sleep is.  For example:

  • A study in the September issue of SLEEP found that the risk of an extended absence from work due to sickness rose sharply among those who reported sleeping less than 6 hours or more than 9 hours per night. Further analysis found that the optimal sleep duration with the lowest risk of sickness absence from work was between 7 and 8 hours per night.
  • According to researchers Michael H. Bonnet and Donna L. Arand, “There is strong evidence that sufficient shortening or disturbance of the sleep process compromises mood, performance and alertness and can result in injury or death. In this light, the most common-sense ‘do no injury’ medical advice would be to avoid sleep deprivation.”
  • Some research has found that long sleep durations (nine hours or more) are also associated with increased morbidity (illness, accidents) and mortality (death). Researchers describe this relationship as a “U-shaped” curve where both sleeping too little and sleeping too much may put you at risk.
  • There is laboratory evidence that short sleep durations of 4-5 hours have negative physiological and neurobehavioral consequences.

WE spend a third of our lives sleeping, an activity as crucial to our health and wellbeing as eating. But exactly why we need sleep hasn’t always been clear.  Research has identified a number of reasons that sleep is critical to our health. When we’re sleeping, the brain is anything but inactive. In fact, during sleep, neurons in the brain fire nearly as much as they do during waking hours — so it should come as no surprise that what happens during our resting hours is extremely important to a number brain and cognitive functions.

So what are we doing when we sleep?  We are actually learning things and making decisions.

A recent study published in the journal Current Biology found that the brain processes complex stimuli during sleep, and uses this information to make decisions while awake. The researchers asked participants to categorise spoken words that were separated into different categories — words referring to animals or objects; and real words vs. fake words — and asked to indicate the category of the word they heard by pressing right or left buttons. When the task become automatic, the subjects were asked to continue but also told that they could fall asleep (they were lying in a dark room).

When the subjects were asleep, the researchers began introducing new words from the same categories. Brain monitoring devices showed that even when the subjects were sleeping, their brains continued to prepare the motor function to create right and left responses based on the meaning of the words they heard.

When the participants woke up, however, they had no recollection of the words they heard.

“Not only did they process complex information while being completely asleep, but they did it unconsciously,” researchers Thomas Andrillon and Sid Kouider wrote in the Washington Post. “Our work sheds new light about the brain’s ability to process information while asleep but also while being unconscious.”

“We’ve learned that sleep before learning helps prepare your brain for initial formation of memories,” Dr. Matthew Walker, a University of California, Berkeley sleep researcher, tells the National Institutes of Health.

“And then, sleep after learning is essential to help save and cement that new information into the architecture of the brain, meaning that you’re less likely to forget it.”

Think twice before pulling an all-nighter to study for your next exam: If you don’t sleep, your ability to learn new information could drop by up to 40 per cent, Walker estimates.

Sleep also seems to clean out toxins.  If we’re not getting enough sleep, our brains don’t have adequate time to clear out toxins, which could potentially have the effect of accelerating neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

To pave the way for better sleep, experts recommend that you and your family members follow these sleep tips:

  1. Establish consistent sleep and wake schedules, even on weekends.
  2. Entice sleep via regular, relaxing bedtime routine such as soaking in a hot bath or listening to soothing music – begin an hour or more before the time you expect to fall asleep.
  3. Set the mood with a sleep-conducive environment that is dark, quiet, comfortable and cool.
  4. Lay on a comfortable mattress with good pillows.
  5. Use your bedroom only for sleep (keep “sleep stealers” out of the bedroom – avoid watching TV, using a computer or reading in bed).
  6. Finish eating at least 2-3 hours before your regular bedtime.
  7. Exercise regularly.
  8. Avoid caffeine and alcohol products close to bedtime and give up smoking.
  9. Think about what you think about before you sleep.  What do you want your brain thinking about for the first 4 hours of sleep?!
  10. Determine to get 7-8 hours of sleep.  Try not to sleep less than 7 hours, and no more than 9 hours.

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