Hungry for sleep
Google “sleep” and you will find “about 936,000,000 results” for you to review. Make it a bit more specific like “sleep New York Times” to see what’s appeared in that newspaper and you narrow it down to about 141,000,000 results including “Sleep is the new status symbol,” “Relationship problems? Try getting more sleep” and an amusing “How three friends proved jellyfish can sleep.”
No wonder that this year’s Nobel Prize for medicine went to three researchers — Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young — who discovered how genes control our circadian rhythm, internal clock found in plants and animals.
Their discoveries date back several years but their getting the Nobel Prize this year reflects the growing recognition of the importance of sleep, the most important part of the circadian rhythm.
I’ll do a quick rundown on this circadian rhythm and then relate it to sleep, and the more practical implications for daily life, particularly in the Philippines.
Long before humans invented clocks, nature had developed the circadian rhythm in animals, plants and even bacteria, synchronizing our bodies with the Earth’s revolution around the sun. The word “circadian” explains it all: from the Latin circa “approximately” and diem, “day,” so the circadian rhythm is a cycle that goes approximately 24 hours.
There are variations in how the rhythm goes from one individual to another—so-called “morning” and “night” persons—but generally, we find ourselves waking up between 6 and 8 a.m., picking up on alertness, reaching a peak late morning, and then slowing down, especially in warm countries, during the afternoon, and tapering off at night. Most people will want to sleep before midnight, with the deepest sleep between 1 and 4 a.m.
The circadian rhythm affects many of our important body mechanisms, for example, blood pressure rises late night (or early morning, depending on how you want to call the hours after midnight), a way to prepare the body for the day ahead. Unfortunately, people who already have problems with high blood pressure will be more vulnerable to heart attacks, and these heart attacks tend to be more severe than those that occur during the day.
Our sleeping hours are crucial, a time that is especially crucial for the brain to recharge. Sleeping and dreaming allow the brain to sort out all the day’s data, which can be considerable in this age of the internet. Ideally, the brain throws out the junk, but that’s subjective: One person’s fake news is a troll’s livelihood. Whatever, the brain needs to create more space and new pathways for information. What seemed to be a hopeless problem at the end of yesterday becomes something more manageable after a night’s rest because we gain new insights, see the bigger picture.
Older people should take note of studies claiming that adequate sleep helps to reduce risks for Alzheimer’s by cleaning up protein plaques in the brain.
We should be especially concerned with the way sleep deprivation can affect mental health. Repressive governments have long used sleep deprivation as a method of breaking down political prisoners. For people who already have mental health conditions like depression, sleep deprivation can be disastrous, a trigger for serious breakdown and destructive behavior.
Sleep also allows various important hormones that affect many of the body’s systems, for example ghrelin and leptin, which regulate hunger and fullness. This link is the reason why sleep deprivation is known to contribute to obesity.
Sleep affects all systems of the body including vital ones like the cardiovascular, digestive, immune. It’s also been found that internal clocks are found for all cells, affecting cell division and growth. Parents obsessed with their children’s height would do well to make sure their kids get enough sleep, instead of going for all those growth supplements.
Unfortunately, our circadian rhythm do get battered. In our super-achieving modern society, we tend to think of sleep as a sign of laziness so we try to get by on less sleep, then pay for it with even more socially undesirable consequences: dozing off at meetings or in class, or in church. Or we stay up late with television, especially with so many cable offerings.
Look around in mall parking lots and you’ll find drivers sitting in a row on a bench, all sleeping and looking rather grotesque with a face towel over their face. I get nervous thinking of what happens when they’re behind the wheel.
Work and study routines do throw our circadian rhythm off balance, as do our living arrangements in cities with extended families sharing limited living space… and it doesn’t help when you have karaoke-crazed neighbors.
Long-distance travel results in jet lag because our body’s circadian rhythm finds it difficult to synchronize with a new time zone where our day in Manila is night in New York. We have this concept of “namamahay” when we travel, where we can’t sleep, or have problems with “toilet duty.” Namamahay is the circadian rhythm gone awry.
It doesn’t have to be long-distance travel that wreaks havoc. Millions of Filipinos work on night shifts, including call center and other business processing outsource operations agents, health workers and caregivers in hospitals and homes, police, security guards; and flight attendants on long-distance segments, with adjustments every two or three days.
There is concern that these night shift workers will have problems not just with sleeping but with higher risks for certain cancers, metabolic problems, heart disease, gastrointestinal problems, all associated with the circadian rhythm’s disruption.
It’s not surprising that Rosbash, one of this year’s Nobel Prize awardees, in accepting the prize, called for more attention to circadian rhythm disruptions as a public health problem.
Think of all the losses in office productivity that comes about from circadian rhythm problems. As an educator, I worry too about the lack of sync between our school schedules and adolescents’ circadian rhythms, which tend to be somewhat delayed. Many adolescents cannot fall asleep before midnight, which means that if they have to catch a 7 or 8 a.m. class, they will get less than the eight to 10 hours of sleep that’s recommended for them by the US National Sleep Foundation.
On Friday, I will write more about the recommended number of hours of sleep by age group, and what we can do in homes, offices and schools to deal with circadian rhythm and sleep needs.
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