Imagine two people in your head, a sleep fairy sprinkling sleepy dust (melatonin) on your brain making you drowsy, and a frenetic tuba player trying to wake you up with noise (serotonin). These two guys take turns being boss: as night approaches the fairy takes over, as morning approaches the tuba player takes over. What triggers their activity? Dusk unleashes melatonin and dawn unleashes serotonin. Dusk is nature’s sleeping pill and light is nature’s alarm clock.
Sleep allows our bodies to recharge and our brains to slow down, calm down, and recalibrate thoughts. On a good night, with the fairy’s help, we pass from consciousness to semi-consciousness to deep Rapid Eye Movement sleep where the best restorative work is done. When this rhythm works well we wake up feeling great. If our sleep is interrupted by the tuba player–insomnia, apnea, sleep walking, nightmares, wailing sirens, or anxiety–we miss our recommended daily sleep requirements (between 6 to 9 hours a day).
That “sleep debt” makes us vulnerable to all manner of hazards, from drowsiness at work, to forgetting important daily routines, to increased irritability. Hints that you are sleep deprived include:
- Napping when you don’t plan to.
- Napping “at will.” The person who boasts, “I can sleep anywhere” is really saying, “I’m exhausted!”
- Falling asleep within 30 seconds of your head hitting the pillow.
- Friends and loved ones mention how cranky you’ve become.
- Above average need for caffeine, energy drinks, no-doz, drama-induced adrenaline, refined sugars, and other stimulants to wake up, and an above average need for sleep aids–prescriptions, alcohol, postponing sleep until you pass out.
- Work performance suffers due to lack of concentration.
- Addiction to the snooze button.
- Micro-sleeps during the day: head bobs, loss of awareness. Very dangerous when driving.
Our hard working American ancestors chided the slothful, lazy, and indolent. Two hundred plus years later laziness isn’t our national problem, it’s burning the candle at both ends. Millions sacrifice sleep for school, work, and socializing.
I recently saw a bumper sticker that said, “I’m an insomniac; what’s your excuse?” Pulling all nighters to cram for exams, writing computer code all night and sleeping under your desk during the day, or working 100 hour hospital internships are lauded as exemplar. Learning to live with a sleep debt, rather than learning how to sleep better, is unhealthy.
Tomorrow: Why Can’t I Fall/Stay Asleep?