Sleep Debt: The Hidden Costs

Everyone has a sleep bank. Each night your accounts get credited with 7-8 hours of the physical and mental benefits of sleep and each day the accounts pay out those benefits in the form of emotional, intellectual and physical energy. Just like in any bank account, withdrawals can’t exceed deposits without incurring debt. Sleep debt, though, is easy to ignore because physical activity keeps alertness high. As long as you move around instead of reading or watching TV, you won’t nod off and you can keep thinking that 5 or 6 hours of sleep a night meets your needs. But covering the debt with activity is like keeping a bank balance out of the red by borrowing money and paying interest. Sleep debt exacts a toll on the body that goes beyond depressed mood, irritability and lack of ability to concentrate and learn, not to mention the potential for causing motor vehicle accidents.

The biological clock

As sleep debt mounts, the body’s biologic clock goes awry. This clock, located deep in the brain, controls circadian rhythms – regular ups and downs in behavior, body temperature, appetite, hormone production, alerting mechanisms, and the urge to sleep. When the clock malfunctions chronically, the results show up in the form of weight gain, high blood pressure, diabetes and diminished immunity to infection.

Setting the clock

Regular periods of darkness are required to set the brain’s internal clock to keep the body in synch with the 24-hour day set by the sun. Sleep researchers have shown that, when living in a research setting where there are no external clues about time of day or night, subjects’ internal clocks actually work on a 25-hour cycle. Normal peaks of sleepiness and alertness work themselves into the wrong time of the  24-hour day and night outside the sleep lab, producing weeks of daytime sleepiness and nighttime insomnia in the research subjects. Over time, the peaks cycle back into synchrony with day and night producing several weeks of normal daytime alertness and nighttime sleepiness.

Laboratory settings may exaggerate these patterns, but most people know that during some weeks they simply perform better during the day and sleep better at night  than during other weeks, indicating that in the modern, artificially lit world, the 24-hour day is more like a 24-25 hour day as far as the body’s natural rhythms are concerned. This clock drift is very sometimes very evident. Cyclical insomnia and daytime sleepiness are in common in blind people, in people at very high latitudes where the summer sun circles the sky for almost 24 hours, and in shift workers who are up all night in brightly lit environments. These problems, while distressing, respond to maintaining regular sleeping schedules and closing out all light during sleep periods, which resets the clock.

Why the clock matters

The internal clock is easily disrupted by one or two day episodes of sleep deprivation that people experience for reasons as varied as extra work loads, exams, brief periods of emotional upheaval, or any of the other myriad problems that keep people awake, but studies have repeatedly demonstrated that a few days of “catching up” on sleep restore the body to normal rhythms, contributing to a widely held impression that sleep deprivation, while responsible for serious accidents, doesn’t cause real health problems.
However, bigger problems do come from disturbing circadian rhythms more chronically. In recent years research attention has shifted from short term sleep deprivation to the chronic, partial sleep deprivation that is so common in our modern society, where nodding off during monotonous and sedentary activities like reading or watching TV are almost expected. Many people think they need no more than 5-7 hours of sleep at night, but while a few truly short sleepers exist, most people require around 8 hours of sleep each night to achieve maximal alertness throughout the day. Chronically shortchanging sleep by even an hour a day changes the timing and levels of multiple hormones, causing other metabolic changes and weakening the immune system.

Lack of sleep wreaks havoc on hormones

One of the first hormonal changes produced by chronic short sleep involves cortisol, the stress hormone produced by the adrenal gland. Normally cortisol levels decline during late evening hours, but without enough sleep, production continues unabated, Cortisol then begins to contribute to immune stress and to insulin resistance, which leads to diabetes and fat deposition. A second contributor to insulin resistance is a change in growth hormone secretion from one large burst during sleep to two, smaller bursts before and after sleep. A third change comes from failure of the pituitary gland to produce its normal night-time rise in thyroid stimulating hormone, the stimulus for the thyroid gland to produce more thyroid hormone. All of these changes are consistent with the fact that as little as one week of 4 hour sleeping nights can convert healthy young people to a pre-diabetic state. Observational studies do show higher rates of diabetes in chronically sleep-deprived women.

Lack of sleep and obesity

If these hormone changes are not enough to convince a short sleeper to turn out the lights earlier, studies on the appetite influencing hormones leptin and ghrelin, produced by fat tissue and the stomach respectively, might help. Leptin, which signals when to stop eating, diminishes markedly after 6 days of four- hour sleeping nights, despite no change in caloric intake. Ghrelin, which stimulates appetite, particularly for high carbohydrate foods, goes up when sleep is short.

Sleep debt is all around you

    All of these hormonal factors are significant in society where people lead overscheduled lives in stimulating, loud and bright environments without regard to natural day and night. We do not need sleep studies to tell us that we are in an age of significant sleep debt – just count the number of people, including children, asleep on planes and buses, over books and newspapers, and on couches in front of TVs. If you fall asleep regularly under these circumstances, you are in chronic sleep debt. Given the increase in obesity and diabetes over the last few decades, sleep is another potential therapeutic avenue – a fruitful and inexpensive area of health over which we have considerable control.

Managing the sleep budget: factors under your control

Environmental
1. Take the television out of the bedroom.
2.Darken the room completely, or wear a comfortable, opaque eye mask.
3. If noise is a problem were soft ear plugs.
4. Keep the temperature low at night and invest in a comfortable mattress that does not move.

Behavioral
1. Keep the biologic clock in sync with the sun by getting outside regularly.
2. Get regular exercise like walking, but avoid exercise in the last 3-4 hours before bedtime.
3. Keep naps short – 45 minutes or so – and confined to early afternoon hours.
4. Avoid heavy meals and alcohol in the last 4 hours before sleep.
5. Aim for the same bedtime every night, well before midnight, and develop a quiet bedtime ritual

Internal factors
1. Empty your bladder right before getting in bed.
2. Seek medical treatment for heartburn if causes frequent awakening. Ditto for urination.
3. Evaluation for sleep apnea is a must for someone who snores and suffers from daytime sleepiness.
4. Treatment of arthritis with exercise, physical therapy and medications, if necessary.
5. Try to get weight down to normal: sleep apnea, heartburn, and arthritis pain all benefit

Consciousness Unplugged*

 

Turn on the bedside lamp. Arrange the pillows. Settle in with a book in progress and open to last night’s marked page. Recognize nothing. Memory for those parts read as sleep stole over you never formed.

Go back a page or two…ahh! Here is something familiar. Start there. All is smooth for a page or two. Then the pace slows. The distance between words and meaning lengthens and a struggle to understand begins.  Time slows and suddenly the still visible words no longer symbolize anything. This second, or fraction of a second, marks the border of an elusive state in which the self stands apart, still awake and aware, but disconnected from the machinery it normally uses. Catching the sensation, without slipping into the oblivion of sleep, is like being suspended in time and separated from all the meanings automatically assigned to what is seen, heard and felt in the real world – yet the world is still here.

Sleep steamrolls the elusive state almost instantly, but, while it lasts, it is a fascinating sense of “being,” poised between two worlds. One is the world of the bedroom, the light, the book, the sheets, and the surrounding walls. The other is a world detached from the meanings of all those familiar, objective things. I suspect, but do not know for sure, that this thin little membrane between wakefulness and sleep is the target area of people who are skilled in meditation and of  contemplatives who seek a spiritual connection between themselves and something outside nature.

Imagine being able to hang in the in-between place, without succumbing to the all-powerful tide of sleep, yet to be detached from the cold, hard world of the surrounding room and also aware that you are still you. Reports from skilled seekers of enlightenment, from faithful meditation practitioners and from some of the great religious traditions of wisdom suggest that exploration of consciousness unplugged from its routine state might be rewarding.  And for some reason, physical health benefits like lower blood pressure and more even moods come back from that place.

There is real appeal, too, in  personal experience that lends credence to the idea that there is more to each of us than $5.00 worth of raw materials – that some part of us rises above the chemistry.  My Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor’s first person description of her expansive trip through her own brain while in the middle of a stroke, rocketed around the internet not because of its neuroanatomy and physiology, but because it added to the hope that the human creature is more than an animal. The hope that the nagging sense of otherness, the need to be good and to do good things, the ability to imagine, the drive to create art and music, and the love of symmetry and beauty reflect more than random biologic events culled out of DNA by the drive to survive.

When I was a child I tried to hold myself poised in another early phase of sleep – the one in which vivid imagery parades across the inner screen – in my case it was always from left to right. The images were always complex, detailed and colorful –unrelated by any story line, and not necessarily imagery form any of my real-life experiences. Elephants decked out in magnificent jeweled saddles and the like. The trick was to not pay them too much attention, or I would be back up in wakefulness, but also to pay them just enough that I would not fall into the sleep pit.

Adulthood put an end to the drifting mode of getting into sleep. Busy days and chronic sleep deprivation made cliffs out of the previously gentle slopes surrounding the sleep pit. No more lollygagging into unconsciousness.  But I suspect those childhood experiences were the beginning of my unshakeable sense that the watcher of these fascinating states of consciousness, as well of dreams, is the deepest part of the self – a part that can be unplugged from the $5.00 body.  The partial unplugging that precedes sleep is fun. The complete unplugging that comes at the end of life? I suppose it depends on what you believe. Is there something else? Is there nothing else? No way to know for sure. But I would not like to experience a persistent, conscious sense of self in a void. That might be hell.

*this was not written for an Elks Magazine Healthline column.

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