My friend Miriam recently sent me this Inquiring Minds episode on sleep. Did you know that, just 100 years ago, adults regularly got 9.25 hours of sleep per night on average?
“Lack of sleep” and “being tired” are more serious than they sound. 8 hours a night seems to be the sweet spot (most people seem to know this), but did you know that if you get less than 7, there are biological consequences? Insufficient sleep has been found to be associated with an increased risk of:
Depletion of immune function, linked to malignancy cancer
“The link between lack of sleep and cancer is now so strong that the World Health Organization, a couple years ago, decided to classify shift work as a possible carcinogen.” – Matt Walker
Okay, some good stuff now – sleep does three things for learning:
Sleep the night before a day of learning seems to restore the ability of the brain to absorb new information
Sleep after learning also cements in the new knowledge
R.E.M. sleep takes all the new things you’ve been learning and builds webs of association, testing connections and taking memories further .. and this does have the ability to move your knowledge to wisdom as new things are realized
So that is pretty cool.
There’s been a lot of recent research on sleep, and much more of it is covered with Matt Walker, Principal Investigator at UC Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab, in the linked episode. Pretty good listen …may even change your life.
“Life must be lived forwards, however, it can only be understood backwards.” – Søren Kierkegaard
Sleep is one of those basic things that seems simple at first, but as we progress through life, it seems to take on complexity without any additional effort from an individual. If one were to say, simply go to bed, the assumption may be that the rest was taken care of; one would wake up rejuvenated and ready to take on another great day. The next morning’s metadata might have tags like: #refreshed #sunrise #orange_juice #morning_show #running #writing #music #yolo.
Unfortunately for me, it almost never has.
In my adult life, I have traditionally been a night person. I write music at night, like to exercise at night, socialize at night, work at night – you name it. It’s not that I wouldn’t want to do these things in the morning, it’s just that I’ve never felt like doing these things in the morning. I never questioned why I was more energetic at night; I just knew I liked life more when it was night time.
Then, one day, I happened to see a local doctor on the noon news talking about sleep:
This got me thinking: I have, in the past, received reports that I snore fairly consistently, and there has been a mention once or twice of lapses of breathing. I was not aware of these occurrences causing much of a problem – I mean, we are all limited to our own experience, and I didn’t have anything to compare it to.
As you may have heard, sleep is one of those three vital pillars of health, along with eating well [link to pal video] and regular exercise. I couldn’t shake the thought: even if I got 8 hours of bed time, it doesn’t mean that I got 8 hours of good sleep time. I needed to investigate this; I needed to talk to my doctor about sleep.
My doctor asked me some questions, such as:
Do you wake up tired?
My answer was “yes, but I assume everyone has their own version of tired.. I don’t have anything to compare it to”
Have there been instances where you’ve been told you snore or stop breathing?
My answer was “yes.”
My doctor asked if I wanted to find out more about what was really going during my sleep; I agreed to participate in polysomnography (a multi-diagnostic sleep study) to track my sleeping patterns. The test was a simple overnight kit that I took home and returned to the sleep lab the next day.
The results came in – they look like this:
There are a bunch of lines:
Sa02 (oxygen level within blood)
Something called “Effort”
Supine or body position – supine just means whether or not you were on your back
The numbered valleys mean low oxygen levels. When these patterns come together in a certain way, that can mean there was an occurrence of sleep apnea, which means I stopped breathing in my sleep. Each time this happens, my heart rate goes up as I temporarily (3 seconds max) wake myself up to start breathing again. Here’s some baselining for sleep apnea occurrences per hour of sleep:
< 5: considered normal, most people are in this range
My doctor distilled it for me this way: “You have sleep apnea. Major league levels”:
While laying on my side (not supine): 40+ sleep apnea occurrences
While laying on my back (supine, how I spend most of the night): 60+ sleep apnea occurrences
This means, per hour, I was waking myself up between 40-60+ times to start breathing again. Sometimes, this means I am waking up more than once a minute throughout a night. It is unclear how my body, or brain, adjusted to this. As you may have noticed yourself, the body and brain need the benefits of sleep:
“It may seem obvious that sleep is beneficial. Even without fully grasping what sleep does for us, we know that going without sleep for too long makes us feel terrible, and that getting a good night’s sleep can make us feel ready to take on the world.” – Harvard Medical School
No wonder I was waking up exhausted and worn-out every day. More sleep wouldn’t make it any better; during sleep, my body would be working more rigorously than when I was awake. This would be the case for, as far as we can tell, my entire adult life. It stands to reason that I am likely a night person because it takes me a day to recover from a night of sleep. By contrast, simply staying awake at night has been less exhausting.
So now that I had become aware of a completely fundamental health problem that was inhibiting all sorts of aspects of my life every day, what do I do? Now what?
There are a few options if you have sleep apnea; different solutions are more appropriate for different levels and causes of sleep apnea, such as a mouthpiece, continuous positive airway pressure, or more invasively, surgery. Through my doctor, I found a solution that was right for me, and I am finally experiencing what it’s like to wake up rejuvenated and well rested. So this is what people have been so satisfied about when it comes to discussing going to bed early.
It is interesting to know that my brain and body was coping with this as I went through various demanding stages of my life, where my energy levels were being utilized in the day time by full-time work, evening classes, as well as exercise, volunteering for various causes, writing music, running a business, and more, all in a single day. The brain and body must have adjusted itself to operate without consistent (or much) sleep. Now it will finally get a chance to adjust to the concept of having regular patterns of sleep, and who knows, maybe I’ll even start dreaming at night for what the next part of my life might be like..