Stay Up, Get Fat, or Go
to Sleep & Miss the Fun?
This is but one of the many dilemmas we face everyday, while trying to fit the need to get some rest within our increasingly busy schedules. Since there’s no solid theory behind such apparent wasteful way of spending our time, beyond our bodies’ obvious demand for some rest, we indulge into an assortment of strategies in order to shave a few hours off our sleep.
And if there’s some consensus we can’t properly function without temporarily diving into Morpheus’s arms, how much and what kind of rest we need is up to loud arguments that sometimes disturb everyone else’s attempt to catch a wink. New research findings are constantly updating what we don’t know, and what we should, what sleep does, and what it is no longer.
While the old notion that you need eight hours to fully recover is under attack, other studies reaffirm the risks for the sleep-deprived, and even find unsuspected benefits for those who do drop out. Add now technology, which has been considered an old foe of a restful night of sleep, in the fight to get some that will recharge your batteries. You guessed it, it’s an app.
For many centuries, there wasn’t even a question about staying up late. Experiments reproducing living conditions common to our ancestors have actually reconditioned study subjects into going to bed earlier and sleeping longer. Up to the late 1800s, life and work were dictated by the natural sun cycle, and we were fine going to sleep at the same time most animals do.
It all changed, of course, with Edison’s invention. And ever since, we’ve been trying as hard as we can to cheat and beat this built-in mechanism of our physiology, to stay awake a bit longer. With not much success, we may add. The first thing that round-the-clock artificial light did to our bodies, and lives, was to burst our natural circadian rhythms.
Then came pills, caffeine, cold showers or simply the desperate need to make a living while everyone else would be dozing off. What the Industrial Revolution had started, bringing more people to live in cities, electricity continued in the 19th century, by powering industries non-stop, and requiring a new, massive workforce to stay up overnight.
People have always partied all night long, thank goodness. But some say that, when TV sets arrived at the dining rooms in the late 1950s, our relatively stable idea of going to bed at a certain, ‘decent’ hour, was doomed. It didn’t take long to 24/7 programming to become the norm, and, ever since, who can really sleep with all the noise?
SKIP SLEEP, GAIN WEIGHT
Those who deplore the senseless way our society carries its business, constantly on the run, always busy, and ultimately, often unhappy, are still on the winning side: there are more reasons to sleep longer than effective ways to avoid having to do it. Just last month, a conference in Boston concluded that if you wake up after only six hours, you’re a serious stroke candidate.
The study, conducted with over five thousand adults, found that sleeping less than the proverbial seven to nine hours a night puts you in the same risk bracket of those with high blood pressure, or who are obese or even smoke. That’s bad news also to 30 percent of American workers who, according to the Centers for Disease Control, slumber for six hours or less.
But don’t look so dazed; new studies have recently uncovered another benefit of sleeping long and often: weight control. While investigating the effects of short-term sleep deprivation on hunger and on physical activity, research have suggested that such good habits may help influence the body’s consumption of calories and the way it spends energy.
Deprivation seems to increase how hungry you may feel, and raise the so-called ‘hunger hormone,’ ghrelin, in the blood. That, combined with epidemiological studies linking obesity and type 2 diabetes with lack of sleep, would give anyone the urge to drop everything and lay low for the next eight hours. Except that we need to first turn off our gadgets. But is that what we really want it?
DROPPING OFF, KEEPING IT ON
Not if it’s up to GEAR4, the maker of a new iPhone app that keeps track of your sleep. Placed bedside, the Renew SleepClock tracks your breathing patterns and movements to wake you up at the lightest point of sleep, which helps reduce that temptation to hammer your alarm-clock to smithereens, just for daring to interrupt your awesome dream.
That’s because getting awaken in the middle of the REM stage of dreams, or the deep sleep that follows it, causes the morning grogginess so often connected to serious accidents, missing working days, and even violent altercations with your mates. That a phone app would also help you to have a better night of sleep, by the way it awakens you, is a contradiction of sorts.
The market for such devices seems ripe, though, all sharing the assumption that waking up someone during their lightest sleep pattern is beneficial. Some are not too sure. A recent study carried out by Harvard researchers have found that such timing has no clear benefit, and that there’s no indication that anyone’s health will automatically improved with the routine.
When it comes to sleep, not much else seems to be on solid ground either. Even the notion of sleeping eight hours steady as the best has been contradicted by the historical record. In fact, there’s a trove of accounts dating back several centuries, that show that we used to sleep in two chunks of time, roughly four hours each, which may have originated the eight-hour figure.
People did go to sleep at dusk, with most animals, but it seems that they used to wake up in the middle of the time, if not to party, at least to engage in a variety of activities, some not completely obscure even to us. Such as having sex. Also reading, smoking, praying and even having a chat with neighbors about your dreams.
SLEEP LESS, FIRE UP THE BRAIN
And here’s the idea that would make your boss really happy: people who are borderline sleep deprived may remain longer in an extra state of alertness. That’s because the brain seems to become more active, the longer you stay awake, despite the memory slips, the lack of concentration, and the general maniacal frenzy that makes some murder their workmates with their bare hands.
It’s all expected, according to University of Milan neurophysiologist Marcello Massimini. Comparing his research with ‘poking a friend in the ribs to see how high he jumps,’ he prodded brain cells in the frontal cortex with a jolt of electricity, and then observed how the rest of the brain responded, in subjects who had been awake for two, eight, 12 or 32 hours.
Not surprisingly, everybody got a bit jumpier at the end, their general state of alertness higher than if they’d just been awaken by an iPhone app, for instance. Again, not everyone agrees. But that could give many a mid-level manager ideas for scheduling meetings at the god-forsaken time of five in the afternoon, just to have everyone for once paying attention to them.
IT ALL GOES BACK TO CATS
In what is now considered a breakthrough in sleep research, in the early 1960s, French physiologist Michael Jouvet conducted a series of experiments with a cat, to measure the importance of sleep, and dreaming, for good health. His focus was on the REM stage of sleep, which felines share with humans, and we’d rather not mention what we think about lab research with live animals.
For 70 days straight, Jouvet tortured, er, kept the cat on a small island surrounded by cold water. ‘When the cat went into
REM sleep, its skeletal muscles relaxed, leading it to fall into the water, waking it up.’ The longer the cat was deprived of REM sleep, the more attempts it made to enter it.
The study was debunked exactly because of the extreme conditions Jouvet put together, in order to test his theory. Even though some of its findings are still considered relevant as the basis for modern sleep disorders research, the causes for what ultimately happened to the cat became difficult to determine.
That’s because, whether for REM deprivation or for being cold and wet for over two months, the cat became progressively more disturbed and eventually died. That right there is reason to many of us to stay awake half of the night. We should know it: it’s now 4 in the morning and we’re still angry at Dr. Jouvet. Time to wrap this up. Golden slumbers, everyone.