DY­ING TO SLEEP

WHEN STAY­ING UP CAN BE YOUR DOWN­FALL

Guru Magazine - - Contents - IS­ABEL HUTCHI­SON

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.”

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