“Dead tired, dead on my feet” or even “I’d die for one good night’s sleep” are familiar laments made by us all as we trudge through our daily routines. The world had become such a series of outrageous fortunes for poor Hamlet that he contemplated suicide as a potential solution to his personal dire straits. Hopefully none of us reach such a stressed state that this is ever considered but it raises the question why we daily and regularly abuse our body for those few extra wakeful moments. Most of us lack an understanding of the role sleep plays in our health.
Yes, there are medical sleep disorders such as apnea and neurological/biochemical disorders such as restless limb syndrome and these require a sleep specialist consultation followed possibly by overnight study before treatment but none of these diagnoses apply to our predisposition for burning the candle at both ends. Such behaviour may provide a bright light, but its a given the wax is used up faster. Its a medical fact people who achieve less than five hours sleep nightly live an average 15% shorter life span. Its a myth you can bank sleep by storing it for future or catch up on Sunday for what you depleted Friday and Saturday. All life forms function on a series of cycles or internal clocks, the commonest being the daily Circadian Rhythm– an approximate 24 hour interval. Before the lightbulb, humans were programmed to recognize the fading light of day.
The body began its evening release of the hormone melatonin, we became drowsy and sleep ensued. During this critical time, body engines geared down reducing blood pressure, heart rate and muscle activity to afford critical organs idle time while simultaneously allowing fine tuning of the immune system. Then, about two hours before rising your personal clocks release the hormone cortisol gearing the system back up for the next day’s activities. When we interfere with this cycle, our bodies produce more of this cortisol “stress hormone”. Risk for heart attack and hypertension events rise dramatically. More subtly, this hormone alters our base metabolic rate resulting in overeating, altered glucose processing and eventual obesity. We all know firsthand the impact of fatigue in the origins of car accidents, workplace injuries, concentration and memory dysfunction and physical activity stamina yet we persist in abusing this finely tuned apparatus by choice and habit.
A few common sense guidelines can alter this spiral to compromised health. Rule number one. Bedrooms were designed with two functions in mind and one of them is sleep.The brain needs quiet and dark to gear down. You cannot bombard your brain with DVD and iPad output, surround sound and other like distractions. The brain is not a light switch to be flicked at whim. Rule two: change your eating and drinking patterns. Caffeines , snack sulfites and nitrites are all brain stimulants. The only effective nocturnal beverage is warm MILK for its tryptophan amino acid content known to induce drowsiness. Invest in a good mattress and pillow. Mild exercise two hours before bed reduces stress. Walking will do. Clear your mind of the day’s stressors. Never go to bed angry. Avoid dependency on prescription or over-thecounter sleep preparations. They alter preferred sleep stage patterns in a negative way, have too many side effects including physiologic and psychological dependency.
Dr. David Carll