Thursday, 24 May 2012

Sleep (or lack thereof)

I'm fascinated by sleep: sleep cycles, differences between people's habits, the reason we sleep at all. The science is still young and it's fun guessing what reasons people sleep, and why they don't.
Some people fight sleep on a daily basis. They stay up late and wake up early. Unless suffering depression those who practice this are, from my experience, A-type personalities who consider every waking moment is meant for being active. This could mean working insane hours at a job, exercising at 5 am, or (what is often the case) both.

These people think rest is for the weak. Dean Karnazes claims he sleeps 4 hours a day because he's terrified that at 60 it'll mean he slept for 20 of those years. So what? That's life, Dean. Now it's entirely possible that he really does not require more than 4 hours a night (there are documented cases of this), but then again who cares about one person's habits? It's not like he represents an 'ideal'. Sadly his tale is inspiring others, like this poor sod:
I was reading how he trained himself to sleep on only 4 hours of sleep a night and almost without hesitation, I knew I was going to go for it myself.
Fighting sleep is a sick goal. Sleep is good. When I reach that really, really deep level of sleep -sometimes up to 9-10 hours- I feel new, ready, awake. What the hell is wrong with that?

I cringed after reading this post:
Every day at around 3 or 4 o'clock, it happens. A wave of fatigue rushes over me, my eyelids start to droop, and my head begins to drop... I have conquered the head-bob battle more than it has conquered me: lately, however, I have succumbed to a pitiful defeat, ending in a deep, peaceful desktop slumber... I suppose I deserve this for running 115 mile weeks and waking up at 5:30 every morning.
I know this is meant to be funny (and it is), but really now, is falling asleep after that much running some form of defeat? (Especially, given that a month later, said person then tore their shin muscle?). Sleep deprivation: seriously, what the fuck? In contrast to this attitude I refer you to Kenya's Mary Keitany, who came third overall in the 2011 New York City Marathon (after leading with an insane midpoint split of 1:07:55). Commentators remarked during her impressive lead that she sleeps 12 hours a day. Lazy? Defeatist? God, I hope not.

It turns out most people need more sleep. I was reading this article about teenagers not only getting insufficient sleep, they also need to have it later (i.e. shifted later in the day):
the circadian clock phase-advances in teen years. It persists in this state until one is almost 30 years old...teenagers are not naturally that moody – at least not all of them. They are just barely “functional” (instead of “optimal”) and walk through life like zombies because they are operating on 4-8 hours of sleep instead of 9 hours...If they are driving themselves to school at 6 or 7am, when their circadian clocks think is it 3 or 4am, it is as if they are driving drunk.
Not just teenagers are experiencing this problem. I've told people in the past that my sensation of 'tired' feels like being drunk. Sometimes people give me an incredulous look. These are people who are themselves sleep-deprived. How could they not know? My guess it that they're always 'drunk' and don't know what 'sober' feels like. Am I being facetious? Quite possibly. Then again consider some great writers have spent significant portions of their lives drunk: W.C. Fields, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King... You can be a high-functioning alcoholic, no question. Stephen King wrote an entire book intoxicated (Cujo) and can't remember the experience (he's since been years sober). Likewise Aaron Sorkin was addicted to cocaine while writing West Wing, Sports Night, and A Few Good Men but he does not recommend it to anyone. A high-functioning insomniac is a different side of the same coin as a drug addict. I'm not tempted to run tired any more than I want to run drunk; I'm not a high-functioning inebriant. I lose coordination and it's downright sad to do it on purpose. Yesterday I had a single pint an hour before my running practice and I could feel the loss in my balance.

To those fighting sleep: Why are you working yourself tired? Is it because you're an important, busy person? Napoleon, while emperor of France, slept 8 hours a night (see Cronin's biography). Are you busier than Napoleon?

Athletes who burn the candle at both ends are fooling themselves. They think exercise is a game of pure addition and subtraction, squeezing in precious hours of physical work along with the mental work of their jobs while removing 'unneeded' hours of sleep. The math is wonky. Part of the problem is people don't know why they sleep. Bad reasoning says that until we find a perfectly satisfying scientific explanation for sleep, we will ignore this basic need.

I'm really interested in why we need sleep. The evolutionary explanation is difficult; if you actually died from a slight lack of sleep (say 7 vs 8 hours), those organisms would have been weeded out long ago. Horses sleep for 4 hours, cats and dogs sleep 12. We're in the middle at 8. There's no easy reason for this particular number, but that changes nothing (unless you can evolve yourself into a new animal). Consider that the extremely rare genetic disorder fatal familial insomnia, which prevents sleep entirely, will kill you in a year or two. We need sleep enough that less than four hours will destroy you (armies will revolt on less). We need it, but not quite in the way we need oxygen. Instead sleep deprivation must a tradeoff of some kind. My own inclination is to the research that says sleep has the largest effect on our brains:
A noted 2002 University of California animal study indicated that non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM) is necessary for turning off neurotransmitters and allowing their receptors to "rest" and regain sensitivity which allows monoamines (norepinephrine, serotonin and histamine) to be effective at naturally produced levels. 
The body might recover without sleep, but not the mind (If you're brainless then you can skip sleep). But wait, since the brain (i.e. nervous system control) regulates the body, you'll still be physically screwed, and not the good kind. Good night.


  1. rage against the dying sleep, Graydon, rage on. you make a lot of sense.

  2. Great article. I agree sleep science is fascinating. And thank you for your bit on depression. Chronic insomnia due to wide ranging mood disorders and illness is a nightmare. Bad pun, maybe :). Personally, learning more about the link between bipolar related cycles would be particularly interesting- especially for methods of treatment (that effectively work). Because yes, severe sleep deprivation feels like death and is no fun to romanticize. If you're interested, this might be a humorous and insightful discussion on sleep by Andrew Solomon: Thanks for writing. Rest well