Sleep: is it for the Weak?

Robert Burke investigates the process of sleep and the cultural hush around getting sufficient amounts of it.

Picture By Alison DeCaro, Health Promotions.
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Love, death, loss, nature. Four things that are considered the wonders of our existence, topics that infatuate and consume artists, poets, musicians, and authors alike. Rarely ever is sleep the focal point of a novel, poem, or art piece. Of course there are exceptions – much of Robert Frost’s poetry is sleep-themed, but by and large, we do not find ourselves as engrossed by sleep

as by other topics. The question must therefore be asked: why do we largely disregard something which we spend one third of our life doing?

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The quality of our sleep affects the quality of our lives. Unsatisfactory sleep, nights spent tossing and turning translates into less-than-maximal athletic performance, decreased cognitive function

and inability to stay awake throughout the day. Why then, as a society, do we tend to underappreciate sleep, continuously fighting our natural sleep cycles by working night shifts, drinking a coffee after our dinner, pulling all-nighters in order to study, or by going out multiple times a week?

Sleep, and our perceptions of its importance have posed some of the more complex challenges to modern day science, ones which we are only now beginning to get our heads around.

What is known is that as we fall asleep, the group of nerve cells that act as a regulator for sleep and arousal, called the hypothalamus, perceive the changes in the light-dark cycle around us, and the brainstem releases a chemical which tells the muscles to relax to prevent us from acting out our dreams. Then, the Pineal Gland releases melatonin, which essentially tells our bodies that it is time to crash. All of this takes place as we are transitioning from wakefulness to sleep.

“Sleep, and our perceptions of its importance have posed some of the more complex challenges to modern day science, ones which we are only now beginning to get our heads around.”

The big player in our body’s tendency to sleep is the light-dark cycle, with our bodies’ naturally beginning the sleep cycle as the light begins to dip. This is why so much research has investigated the effects of looking at screens late at night. Screens emit a bright light, with blue components that mimic the light of the sky. As a result, when we look at a screen at night time, our bodies don’t realise that the sun has set, and don’t produce melatonin, the sleep-causing neurotransmitter. This is why late-night phone users sometimes struggle to stop their mind from racing as they eventually try to sleep.

With this in mind, technology company Apple created a “Night Time mode” for their mobile devices, which allows users to set a time at which their phone will switch from a full-white screen to an orange-tinted light. This mimics the reduction in blue light that occurs during sunset, and allows the brain to produce melatonin at more normal rates. However, this is not a full solution, as the very presence of light itself is a marker of day-time for the brain. While still better than normal screen mode, night-time mode is a compromise between our desire to use our devices at night, and our desire to sleep.

“Such chronic sleep deprivation can cause, or accelerate mental degradation and the development of health problems, ranging from diminished cognitive function, to poorer athletic performance.”

However, your body doesn’t just depend on the light-dark cycle around us to take as a cue to sleep. Our two main biological mechanisms, the circadian rhythm, and the sleep-wake homeostasis also rely on other environmental cues to promote sleep. The circadian rhythm is essentially the body’s biological sleep clock. It also relies on temperature drops to control the timing of sleep. Sleep-wake homeostasis regulates sleep intensity and reminds the body to sleep after a certain time. You can thank homeostasis for producing that 15-hour coma that you enjoy after sleeping on the ground in a leaking tent in Stradbally.

So, what happens when we don’t appreciate our bodies’ needs and get insufficient sleep? The Western world is often condemned for the lack of importance which we place on sleep, yet it is the Eastern countries which seem to have a poorer relationship with the process. Take for example, the tragic death of a Japanese journalist 11 months ago, who suffered from heart failure due to ‘karoshi’ – a Japanese term coined purely to describe death from being overworked. This journalist had logged 159 hours of overtime and had only taken two days off in the month leading up to her death, forcing Japanese authorities to address the punishingly long hours expected of their workers.

Such chronic sleep deprivation can cause, or accelerate mental degradation and the development of health problems, ranging from diminished cognitive function, to poorer athletic performance.

While the Eastern world sees extremes like this, the Western world is also guilty of low-level chronically inadequate sleep. This is particularly prevalent among business people, politicians, and, perhaps unsurprisingly for readers of this newspaper – students.

“This journalist had logged 159 hours of overtime and had only taken two days off in the month leading up to her death”

This is clear by how the opening hours for on-campus libraries is extended to midnight during exam time. Margaret Thatcher is infamously known for being able to get by on just 4 hours sleep, a badge which her successor struggled to live up to, as he was not part of the 1% of ‘short sleepers’ who reportedly get by on 4-6 hours a night. At higher level jobs, employees are expected to sleep less and less, and be increasingly available outside of traditional office hours.

Enter Silicon Valley, and the giants of the global tech industry. Jobs and internships with the likes of Google are without a doubt the most sought after jobs, due to the perks and allowances they offer, such as their ‘Snooze Pods,’ an idea which has been recently adapted by NUI Maynooth. The research and idea comes from the siesta, a half-hour long nap taken after lunch time. The benefits of this have been scientifically proven to include increased alertness, performance, and improved night-time sleep. While UCD does not have any Snooze Pods on campus, it may not be a bad idea to take a half-hour snooze instead of a fourth cup of coffee during study week. The benefits will be demonstrated in your exam results.

 

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