“Burn the midnight Oil”
“I will sleep when I am dead”
“There will be sleeping enough in the grave…”
There are more where this came from. Gluttony and laziness (usually defined by sleeping) must be the most reviled of vices.
While I didn’t really hate sleeping, I didn’t condone it either. For all my adult life (and that’s quite a few years if you were asking) I have needed 7 to 8 hours of sleep to remain sane the next day. If I could count the number of times my friends lost their tempers at me for falling asleep or begging to be let off to sleep, it would be a big number indeed. Barring the first flush of love when I was secretly messaging and writing late into the night, sleep has been like a secret friend. I cannot admit that I am lazy enough to love sleep, but I definitely like my snoozes. Add with my habit of weekend afternoon napping (a trait I share with 70% Bengalis that I know of), I would say I don’t really have a problem with a sleep deficit.
Sleep deficit – what’s that you ask. I knew the unscientific meaning years and years ago, but got to know details…and details…and some more details very recently. You see, I motored through a book called “Why We Sleep“. It’s written by a sleep scientist called Mathew Walker. It is addictive reading if you are a hypochondriac, or simply want to know how many ways there are to die.
Sigh. I am sure, I have bored you or scared you. But the book is anything but boring. It’s fascinating to read just how much we don’t know about sleeping, and how critical it is to discuss this publicly. Sleep needs to be taught in schools like every other body function is taught. Sleep needs to be considered a full medical discipline like every other organ of the body. Sleep is deeply entwined with neuro-sciences yet serves distinct functions all across our human body. And sleep needs to be the hero in our culture. We need to teach the joys of sleeping. We need to make it the hero of our movies. We have to celebrate folks who sleep full 8-9 hours of sleep every day rather than making villains out of them.
“Why we Sleep” it really is a remarkable book. It outlines all that natural sleeping does for you, and there are quite a few of those. It then outlines sleep diseases which end up causing neural diseases and even death. It finally goes on to put down a list of things one can do to get deep natural sleep, and no, alcohol isn’t one of them. If you were asking.
So, what does sleep do?
I am no scientist and I am sure Dr Walker does a better job of explaining it all in the book. But we are all lovers of lists so here are things that sleep does for us, in no particular order of importance –
1. Non REM (NREM) sleep benefits
NREM sleep is what happens in the first part of the night. This sleep is characterized by its longwave electromagnetic pulses moving from the front of the brain to the back of the brain. This transfers information, that it deems relevant, to the long term storage centres of the brain. As such, it is incredibly important for learning consolidation and when trying to prepare for an exam. The second big thing that NREM sleep does, is to identify and throw away irrelevant pieces of information to empty the short term storage space so that it is ready to receive more information. So, if you really want a sharp memory, sleep well.
2. REM sleep benefits
… or Rapid Eye Movement sleep is funny. It is what normally happens in the latter part of the night or more in the hours just before waking up (provided you were sleeping 7/8 hours). The brain activity levels are similar or sometimes more than waking activity levels. For all that the brain is concerned, you are awake. But if so, why aren’t you moving? Well, that’s because your spinal cord has been told to keep you immobile so that you don’t act upon whatever your brain is processing at that moment. REM sleep is super important if you actually want to make sense of what your long term memory stored. In this period, the information is reviewed in light of everything else that is stored in the brain and connections are created with other sets of data to enable you to see things clearly. REM sleep is supercritical to creativity and seeing things in lights never seen before. So, if you like your creative side, sleep. REM sleep is also important in emotional well-being. During REM sleep, your brain shuts your rational centre down. So it is able to process emotional events while you are sleeping. That way you are calmer about the same things the next morning. All this is happening when you are in your dream world. In case you were wondering how come no mention of dreams!
3. Sleep cleans the passageways of the brain
… so that nerve cells can continue to operate optimally. Lack of it builds cellular wastes in the brain reducing its ability to clean up. And that, by the way, is one of the causes of Alzheimer’s disease.
4. Normal, natural sleep is a de-stressor
It helps to calm the body down, reduce the flow of adrenaline, letting blood pressure go back to normal slowly. Lack of it causes inflammation of the blood vessels reducing the blood flow, thereby increasing pressure. Further, sleep is the time body heals the normal wear and tear of the arteries and veins, so lack of sleeping…well you get the drift.
5. Sleep is critical for the activity of our black cat commandos
Oh, you don’t know we have them? Every healthy body has a set of white blood cells that are elite killers. Their only job is to identify mutated cells (the ones that are turning cancerous) and engulf them and then die so that the mutated cells die with them. As you have probably caught my drift, these t-cells can only operate when the body is in control and cleanse mode, in other words, in deep sleep.
6. Sleep controls our hunger pangs
How many of us eat when we are awake later in the night? How often have you found yourself snacking on chips or biscuits or chocolate (my poison) after you have been awake much beyond your normal sleep time? Well, the science is clear – if complicated. Our hunger is modulated by 2 principle hormones – Leptin and Ghrelin. Leptin helps us feel full and Ghrelin makes us feel hungry. When we are awake for longer, Ghrelin takes over and we feel hungry. Further, and here is the really bad news, when we stay awake longer, our hunger (it isn’t really that, it’s more craving) goes towards snacks and unhealthy food. It activates our pleasure and addiction seeking circuits and we end up eating chocolates and chips over say a banana. And before you say that you are burning more calories because you are awake longer, sorry, you are not. The difference is barely some 100 calories.
7. Sleep is useful in restoring skin cells
… restocking Vitamin E levels, and maintaining skin elasticity. How often have you looked at someone’s face and asked, you didn’t get enough sleep last night, did you?
Who needs what kind of sleep?
The other very useful section in the book talks about levels of sleep requirements as we move from pre-birth to infants to maturity. And here is where it gets really tricky. You see, we let a child sleep as long as they want to, and as often as they want to, only up until they start school. After that, we are making a child jump to society’s tunes. And unfortunately, the society hasn’t pivoted fast enough basis sleep and brain research.
Basically, pre-birth, evolution goes all out and creates billions of nerve cells inside the brain. Laying the wiring so to say. Post-birth, for the first few years, it puts a child in a lot of REM sleep so that the nerve cells connect to each other, share knowledge, and help build the child’s view of his world. After a child turns 6-7, the brain takes stock of learning and puts the child in deep NREM sleep. This helps to prune the excess nerve cells so that later on there is space for more brain cells to develop.
Interestingly, adolescence does a couple of weird things. It took a lot of testing and research to figure this out. Adolescence is evolution’s way of helping a human child become an adult. It does this by changing the emotional structures of the brain, by adding hormones that make teens behave “weirdly”, and, it also makes them sleep later and wake up later! This has been tested multiple times and is now proven. The adolescent brain’s sleep clocks shift a couple of hours forward. What this means, is that he/she won’t sleep when we sleep. And they definitely won’t want to wake up when we need to send them to school / or leave for office. They also sleep a lot of REM sleep because they are now processing all the emotional signals they have been receiving through the day in light of the knowledge they are gathering.
Once this phase has passed, the sleep clocks shifts back to its normal rhythm.
As we grow older, our bodies continue to need 7-8 hours of sleep but we don’t give it that much sleep. Most of us are lucky if we manage 6-7 hours every night. Older people also need more sleep as it takes longer for them to heal. Paradoxically, they find it hardest to fall asleep on time and they are generally the first to wake up. Sigh.
So back to the phrase I started this monologue with – Sleep Deficit. This is simply the total number of missed hours of sleep that we feel we can catch up on but cannot. Lost sleep cannot be reclaimed. No matter how much you binge sleepover weekends, and how many extra hours of sleeping you do after you pulled a late night or an all-nighter, you have lost that much brain capacity, and that much creativity and memory consolidation. The damage is permanent.
Extend this to our universities and colleges where all night studying is endemic and you start to realise why our students actually don’t remember what they study.
Over my last few years of learning to keep fit, I have become a regular at exercising, running, eating healthy, and even trying to get sleep. But nothing really prepared me for what this book pointed out. In our day and age, it isn’t enough to just stay alive. Unless we do everything that we reasonably can, to stay healthy, we will develop all those diseases that are euphemistically called “lifestyle diseases”. Once you develop them, there is no way to go back. Might as well do what we can, to avoid having them.
I strongly urge you to read this book, and if you are teacher or work in schools please, please circulate this book amongst staff who can make decisions about start times, and teaching children healthy sleeping habits.
If healthy sleep is necessary to that, shouldn’t we be trying harder?