DYING TO SLEEP
WHEN STAYING UP CAN BE YOUR DOWNFALL
If you’re planning an all-nighter this New Year then sleep researcher Isabel Hutchison has some advice for you: insufficient sleep can make you ugly and a danger behind the wheel. And if you need any more convincing, then maybe learning about fatal familial insomnia will do the trick.
Sleep is such a pleasant thing. It’s so pleasant that only the most horrid noises and the fear of unemployment can persuade us to stop doing it. Nothing competes – not even food. (The memory of a hairnet-bearing mother shouting, “BREAKFAST IS READY!” springs to mind.) And who hasn’t slapped away a lover’s hand and turned to the tempting bosom of their pillow instead?
The fact that ‘sleep’ is part of our everyday vocabulary, that it’s a thing, and that we’re all familiar with it shows just how dysfunctional our relationship with sleep really is. We delay our bedtime – forever pushing it to the bottom of our priority list. But somehow even the most masochistic party rebel will eventually turn into a whimsical pillow lover after a night out. Yet our busy work schedules mean the masochist in all of us wins a lot of the time: we end up sleeping too little rather than too much. There must be a pretty good reason for why sleeping feels so good, right? We spend a third of our lives doing it, and sleep researchers spend a lot of what’s left of their time trying to figure out why we do it – without any clear answers so far. The reason for sleep is unknown – but we do know a lot about what happens when we don’t get enough of it.
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
Off to go and get some beauty sleep? You better believe it, because ‘beauty sleep’ has been scien
tifically proven to be real: In one tongue-in-cheek experiment, a group of Swedish volunteers had their photos taken after a fully rested night and, again, after 31 hours of staying awake. Another group of people then rated all the pictures. Surprisingly enough, people rated the sleep-deprived as less attractive, less healthy looking, and (who would have guessed…) more tired. So, if you don’t get enough sleep, you actually do look a bit rough. Given how sensitive we are to appearances when judging people’s personality, suitability as a potential partner or as an employee, we shouldn’t take this evidence too lightly. So maybe Snow White’s evil stepmother just had a bit of a rough night the day her trusty mirror turned against her.
Don’t sleep deprive and drive
We working age grown-ups often boast about how little sleep we get, which in many ways mirrors how our younger selves would recount tales of long, boozy nights. In fact, being drunk vs. being sleep-deprived is much more similar than you might think.
Researchers found that people who stayed awake for 17 hours had a reaction time as slow as those with a 0.05% blood alcohol content (BAC) – the threshold for being drunk driving in most countries (you’re breaking the law at 0.08% in the UK, Canada, USA and many other countries). After staying awake for a further 2 hours, they scored as if they had a BAC of 0.1%. So, if you’re an average guy with a weight of 170 pounds, this is a reaction time equivalent to being topped up with 4 pints of beer. One of the reasons for sleep-deprived ‘drunkenness’ is that when we stay awake for too long, the sugar supply to our brain slackens. The areas involved in movement and complex thought suffer the most, receiving around 12%
less sugar – the brain’s main source of fuel – after 24 hours of being awake. So, sleep deprivation is like the sly legal cousin of drunkenness – which means there isn’t really all that much difference between turning up to an exam after an all-nighter or after a couple of cheeky morning pints. (Except that you don’t smell of alcohol and aren’t likely to tell everyone that you love them – Ed.)
Sleep: the lazy man’s diet
Pour the cabbage soup down the drain, refill your shelves with your favourite snack, and toss your barbell out of the window (OK, maybe that’s not such a good idea). Keeping awake may be undermining all your attempts to lose weight. If you don’t sleep enough, your good intentions may be being wasted. “How?!” you may ask. Good question. There are several reasons: 1. When you sleep, you obviously can’t eat …except if you’re a sleep-eater (believe me, this is a thing). When you’re asleep there’s no chance of a midnight snack. #win 2. The sleep-deprived you is a hungrier you (see sidebar below). By sleeping three hours less a night, you will tend to eat 6% more calories per day. In fact, the sleep-deprived have a different eating pattern altogether: they eat less in the morning and much more in the evening – with after-dinner snacks often exceeding the calories of all other meals of the day. To make things even worse, too little sleep also makes us crave high calorie foods. 3. The sleep-deprived body can’t handle its sugar. Sleep deprivation doesn’t just change when you eat and what you eat; it also changes how your body uses its nutrients. If you sleep for only 4 hours a night for six days in a row, then your body takes 40% longer to remove excess sugar from your blood. Thus sleep deprivation boosts blood sugar levels and is now thought to be a risk factor for type 2 diabetes. So, instead of spending late nights at your 24-hour access gym, why not just curl up in bed?
Sleep, and the world smiles with you
Not getting enough sleep can really put you in a funk. Sleep depriving people experimentally makes them much more irritable and emotionally fickle. Staying awake also intensifies your response to unpleasant images while blunting your response to positive ones. But it gets worse: when you’re sleep-deprived, you tend not to pick up on other’s emotions and so often get the wrong end of the stick. Interestingly, depressed and anxious people tend to have abnormal sleep patterns or insomnia. The relationship between sleep and emotions is a bit muddled. Total sleep-deprivation (i.e. staying up for a full night) is sometimes used as a quick fix for major depression. In fact, it’s one of the quickest and most effective treatments we currently have (although the effect only lasts until the next time the person goes to sleep). Researchers looked into why this works by treating depressed mice ( I’m really not making this up) with a substance associated with sleepiness: adenosine. The mice cheered up, surprisingly, without falling asleep. Either way, you’re not yourself when you haven‘t slept enough – so don’t make any life-changing decisions when you’re knackered. Your fully rested alter-ego might just regret it.
Dying to sleep
If I haven’t yet convinced you of the importance of sleep and how desperately the body and mind need it, let me illustrate what happens when you can’t sleep. Yes, there’s a condition for that, and its name gives away how it ends: Fatal familial insomnia. It is an inherited condition caused by a slightly mutated protein in the brain. Once the disease kicks off (you never know when it will strike) one protein molecule in the brain converts to a scrambled version of itself
(called a prion). This messed up protein causes other copies of that protein it comes into contact with to follow suit and twist into a broken version too. It’s a bit like how one rotten apple makes the whole fruit bowl go bad. So, one by one – like dominos – these prions fill up the affected brain area (in this case, the sleep controlling hypothalamus) preventing it from doing its job. ‘Back in the day’, before this disease was properly recognised in 1974, it was diagnosed as ‘ lunacy’. Victims of fatal familial insomnia suffer from mental distortions (hallucinations and paranoia), impotence, heart troubles, dementia… and the list goes on. They become mute, can no longer walk, and then finally sleep, forever. Unfortunately, there is no cure for fatal insomnia: sedatives only aggravate the symptoms and attempts to artificially induce a coma don’t help. Cutting-edge gene therapies, which aim to reverse the faulty DNA causing the prion, have been unsuccessful so far, although it may be our only hope – unless we discover some other way of preventing prions from forming.
But just relax…
Each day we make decisions, many of which affect the whole course of our lives in big and small ways (think butterfly effect). By not getting your fill of sleep, you are more likely to lose control of your emotions, cause accidents, and eat ‘naughty’ foods. And all of this happens while you’re really not looking your best. Obviously you won’t be able to get a full night’s sleep every day, but if this becomes a routine, just think how much you’re losing out on. Have a good night to boost your chances of having a good day. Or, in Arianna Huffington’s own words: “It’s time for us to open our eyes to the value of shutting them.”