Tuesday, January 24, 2012

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

Didn’t get on the scale today. Deal with it.

How did you sleep last night? How much sleep did you get last night? How do you feel this morning? Are you mainlining the coffee/Coke/Red Bull? Got dark circles under your eyes and feel like a dump truck ran over you then backed up and did it again? 10 times?

Pull up a chair, my friend, we’re going to talk about sleep.

We Americans scoff at the notion of sleeping. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” “I just go until I drop.” Well, if you neglect this area of your life for too long, you’ll get to test those statements a lot sooner than your buddies (who, of course, will learn nothing from your demise).

Unless you’re wearing red undies, have a big red S on your chest and a cape fluttering in the breeze, you need sleep. And if you’re wearing those things and NOT originally named Kal-El, chances are you’ve already pushed the lack of sleep for too long and too hard; the psychotic break has begun. That’s one side effect.

Let’s start with the basics: we’re originally built as diurnal (daytime) creatures who are supposed to do their thing when the sun is up and spend the darkness asleep (and sometimes making more little creatures, but we can discuss Talking Heads albums at a different time. And that’s a good one). Thomas Alva Edison and the electric light bulb changed that dynamic. Johnny Carson didn’t help, either.

According to experts, sleep comes in 90 minutes cycles that include REM sleep (and those of you thinking Michael Stipe, yes, that’s where the now ex-band got the name. Mark that for Trivial Pursuit, Hard Rock edition). Your brain cycles through various wavelengths of energy as it reboots itself for the next round of daytime fun. To be fully rested, you need 5 of these cycles per night or 7.5 hours for those who don’t want to do the math.

While you’re sleeping, the body’s night shift swings into action. Hormones such as ghrelin are produced during the night. Ghrelin is what causes your stomach to growl when you’re too hungry and it is the “Okay, we’re full” signal sender. It takes ghrelin about 30 minutes to send that signal, so if the sparks fly from the knife and fork, you might want to slow down* (*unless your name is Joey Chestnut).  And,from Wikipedia: “Ghrelin plays a significant role in neurotrophy, particularly in the hippocampus, and is essential for cognitive adaptation to changing environments and the process of learning.” Yeah, you want that one under control.

Then, there’s melatonin. Chances are that you’ve heard of it: Again, from Wikipedia: ”Melatonin is involved in energy metabolism and body weight control in small animals. Many studies show that chronic melatonin supplementation in drinking water reduces body weight and abdominal fat in experimental animals, especially in the middle-aged rats.[48] It is interesting to note that the weight loss effect of melatonin does not require the animals to eat less and to be physically more active. A potential mechanism is that melatonin promotes the recruitment of brown adipose tissue (BAT) as well as enhances its activity.[49] This effect would raise the basal metabolic rate by stimulating thermogenesis, heat generation through uncoupling oxidative phosphorylation in mitochondria. Whether the results of animal studies can be extrapolated to human obesity is a matter of future clinical trials, since substantially active BAT has been identified in adult humans.” Plus about 10 other really interesting benefits.

See also “Star Trek: The Next Generation. Episode 91: Night Terrors” when the entire crew couldn’t get to REM sleep. Sleep-deprived crankiness becomes lethal.  You believe  Jean Luc Picard, don’t you? Captain Picard wouldn’t lie to us.

Michael Jackson’s use of Propofol was a mistake because it’s an anesthetic, not a sedative. Your brain does not cycle through as it does with genuine sleep.

Your body can only make melatonin in the dark. For those of us out there who “have to have the TV on when I fall asleep” are doing yourselves a great disservice. TVs and computer screens emit light in the blue range and this light interferes with melatonin production.  Sleeping more and enjoying it less? Try turning off the TV; Letterman’s not as funny as he used to be anyway.

Except for times of extreme stress (such as being thrown out of a house or the night I realized that I had one day’s worth of cat food left, no money to buy more and I was going to have to take Samba, George and Cookie to the Ventura County Animal Shelter the next day because I could no longer care for them and had no one to take them, had been told to vacate the apartment because the landlord was selling it and the job I had gotten was on the road; everything into storage, where it still largely resides. Yes, I am still haunted by that. I’ve seen a woman living in her car with her cat), I’ve slept well, even with sleep apnea. I fall asleep quickly, but with the apnea you wake up during the night, not to full consciousness, but enough to break the rhythm that your brain needs. Now, I’ve lost enough weight that it’s not apnea, but hot flashes (and I’m enjoying a heat wave as I type this). I kick off covers, then have to pull them back on. TONS of fun.  (And there are supplements I can take that would ease this, but do I? No. Why? I’m a dope, obviously).

As the cut and pasted sections from Wikipedia show, sleep is important to rebuild your brain’s neurotransmitters. College all nighters and marathon cram sessions actually work against you as you struggle to master material for an exam or write a paper. Your brain needs alone time and quality alone time at that.

So if you’re stressed, sleepless (in Seattle, Kalamazoo, Baltimore or Berlin) and it’s taking a toll, what do you do? 

Going back to the sleep experts, they agree that you need dark, cool and quiet. There are some inexpensive, easy and drug-free ways to get there.

Dark: again, back to the melatonin production. You only produce it in the dark. If you watched “Sex and the City” or watch “Shamless” on Showtime (LOVE that show), Carrie Bradshaw and Fiona Gallagher both use sleep masks (whereas Carrie’s says “Dream” spelled out in crystals, Fiona’s says “FUCK OFF.” I want Fiona’s). These seem like ridiculous props from some 1930’s Jean Harlow movie, but they serve a practical purpose: they block out light and put your eyes in total darkness. The skin on your eyelids is the thinnest on your body and you can detect light, even if they’re closed. Put a padded block in front and even if someone is shining a 100 watt bulb in the room, you won’t see it. Rite Aid has sleep masks for about $5. There are better made ones that have a soft ridge around the bottom so blockage is complete. My sister used to wrap a blanket around her head, but that carries a risk of interfering with oxygen flow (causing something called “Turtle Syndrome”) and I strongly suggest trading Mr. Lincoln for a sleep mask. I’m finding it to be a big help.

Cool: The optimum temperature for sleep is 65 degrees, according to sleep specialists. Of course, if you’re more comfortable at a higher temperature, enjoy. I have a gel-filled pillow, not only for the cool factor but because dust mites hate it and I don’t get clogged up as I sleep (Bed, Bath and Beyond). Dust mites can go to hell.

Quiet: one of the sleep masks sets I saw came with a set of ear plugs. Personally, I can sleep through a fireworks show (or a somewhat distant thunderstorm, provided I’m asleep when it starts). However, some folks are more sensitive to sound. I’m concerned about missing the alarm clock, so it’s not an option I want to try out.  There are also machines that produce white noise (recommended over listening to classical music, even) to enhance your sleep experience.

In addition to planning backwards (when you want to wake – 7.5 hours), there’s also the wise move of not eating or drinking anything (especially alcohol) within 2 hours of bedtime. Some doctors even recommend popping an antacid at bedtime to prevent under-the-radar acid reflux that can interfere with sleep.

For those times when I need a little help winding down, there’s Republic of Tea’s “Surrender to Sleep.” Not only is it colorful (looks like your drinking a flower bed), but it contains chamomile, skullcap and valerian, powerful natural sedatives that don’t interfere with REM cycles. I have found my eyelids drooping at half a cup and even though I’d have to get up to pee in the night (something in there is a diuretic), I’d go right back to sleep, wake up without feeling groggy (something that keeps me away from sleeping pills).

So you don’t like tea. Fine. Try this: as you lie on your back, take ten deep, slow breaths (pranayama ujayi – I know I spelled that wrong). Breathe in deeply, exhale from the back of the throat. This will engage a calming reflex and speed relaxation. Doesn’t cost a cent and if it doesn’t work, you’ve lost nothing.

Getting a good night's sleep can also improve problem-solving and stress relief. Elias Howe, inventor of the sewing machine, found himself unable to solve the problem of threading the needle on the machine. He dreamed one night that he was surrounded by natives armed with spears that kept jabbing them at him. Howe noticed that the spears had big holes near the tips and when he awoke, he realized that the solution to his problem was to put the hole for the thread near the tip of the needle. And because of his "genius", I had to suffer through 2 years of Home Ec 100 od years later.

So, get your 7.5 hours (this is the age of Tivo: you can watch Jimmy Kimmel in the morning instead of those idiots on Fox), get a sleep mask and get some shut eye.

Night night.

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