Perchance to Dream: The Mechanics of Sleep

August 5, 2005

SHARP, staccatobarks loud enoughto be heard over a jetengine had me instantlyawake, glancingaround the roomin mild panic as Itried to determinethe cause of the outburst.My significantother rose from thebed and pushed openthe sliding glass doorto let the little canine devil out, then easedback between the sheets, instantly asleep. Ilooked over at the clock: 12:43 a.m.Perhaps 15 minutes later, I had enteredthat nowhere land between sleep and consciousness,when my bedmate began whimperingand thrashing about in the grips of anightmare. I held her close and whisperedsoothing words until she was calm.Another 10 minutes passed. I hadalmost drifted off again when a high pitchedbuzzing registered in my foggymind. Then it stopped abruptly. I was alertinstantly, brushing my hands over my faceand hair while mumbling obscenities. Thisprocess was repeated twice more at intervalsof perhaps five minutes, after which Ifinally rose to a sitting position. I wasthinking about sleeping in another room, ormaybe outside, when my partner suggestedthat I use the fan as a fly deterrent.At first, I pointed it toward the foot ofthe bed, but the buzzing returned. Next, Iaimed it directly at my face. The cool nightair chilled me thoroughly, but when, afteranother 15 minutes, the fly had not returned,I consigned myself to this lesser of two evilsand eventually slumbered once more.I spent most of the next day at workobsessed with sleep, irritable and groggy. Idecided to research the benefits of sleep,the problems caused by lack of sleep, andmethods to increase quality and quantity ofsleep, resulting in this article.First, a little sleep trivia:–Randy Gardner went 11 days withoutsleep in 1965, which is the current worldrecord. After day four, he began hallucinatingand became convinced he was afamous soccer player.–Both Napoleon, emperor of theFrench in the early 1800s, and formerBritish Prime Minister Margaret Thatcheronly slept about four hours per night. (Iwonder if less sleep leads to cravings forworld domination?)–Before the widespread use of artificiallighting, people slept an average of 10 hoursper night. Now they average only seven.–Chimpanzees, our nearest biologicalrelatives, require almost 10 hours of sleepa night.–After you have been awake for 18hours, your mental acuity level is equal tothat of someone who has drunk two glassesof wine.What do we actually gain from sleep?During non-rapid eye movement (REM)sleep, which accounts for 75% of the total,your blood pressure and breathing decreaseand the restorative process kicks in.Growth hormones are released, which aidin immune function, tissue repair and obesityprevention.REM sleep takes place after approximately90 minutes. Your body relaxescompletely and dreaming occurs. Memoryconsolidation is probably another benefitof REM sleep.And what happens when we don’t getenough? If you regularly sleep less thanyour body requires, you are at risk for obesity,high blood pressure, cardiovascularproblems, depression and irritability, safetyissues and diabetes. Considering theaverage person needs seven to nine hoursper night, depending on the individual, it’sclear many of us are functioning on sub-optimallevels of sleep. Contrary to popularbelief, the amount of sleep we needdoes not decrease as we get older.How can you ensure you get enoughsleep?–Go to sleep and wake up at the sametime each day.–Avoid activities that require moderateto intense mental effort before going tobed. Also avoid bright light, as it can disruptyour natural cycle.–Don’t work or watch television in thebedroom. If you tend to stare at the clockwhile trying to fall asleep, move it to whereit can’t be seen.–Don’t eat for two to three hoursbefore bedtime.–Exercise helps; do it regularly, but notwithin two to three hours before bedtime.–No caffeine six to eight hours beforebedtime.–Tobacco use interferes with sleep intwo ways: it’s a stimulant and can makefalling asleep difficult; and, when the nicotinelevels in your body drop during thenight, you will experience cravings.If the above steps don’t prove effective,you may need to seek medical advice.Keep a sleep diary, detailing the whens andwhys of your problem and discuss it withyour doctor.For more information on the mechanicsof sleep and sleep disorders, visit the U.S.National Sleep Foundation’s Web site atwww.sleepfoundation.org.Sources: U.S. National Institute ofNeurological Disorders and Stroke(www.ninds.nih.gov); U.S. National SleepFoundation (www.sleepfoundation.org);North American Association for the Studyof Obesity (www.naaso.org).

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