Blog 2018

What Is Sleep?




Whatever the language, sleep is a universal experience that everyone experiences.  Next to eating and breathing, it may be the first experience we as humans have.  Sleep serves a lot of roles in our society and our psyche.  It’s everything from a reward for a hard day’s work to the psychological equivalent of ‘have you tried turning it off and back on again’.  We have specialized sleeping rituals, clothes, even furniture.  We take medicine to get to sleep, to wake up from sleep, to sleep better, to sleep deeper, to sleep longer.  We spend (roughly) a third of our life asleep.

But why?

What is sleep?

Despite science’s best work, there’s a lot about sleep that we don’t fully understand.  We are still figuring out the role of melatonin and adenosine in the waking and sleeping cycle.  We still don’t fully understand how much sleep is needed and whether or not sleep debt is a thing.  There’s a lot of educated guesses and a lot of insightful observations, tests, and studies, but ‘pretty sure’ and ‘know’ are not the same thing.

I see a lot of parallels between sleep and exercise.  We don’t know what causes muscle hypertrophy, the growth of muscles for athletic or aesthetic reasons.  I mean, we know, but we don’t “know”.  Yes, lifting heavy weights will build big muscles…or maybe it will just build denser muscles.  You have to combine heavy weights with a lot of sets and a lot of calories…maybe.  Maybe you don’t need a lot of calories, just a nitrogen surplus which would be caused by eating an over-adequate level of protein.

It gets crazy.  Lots of moving parts.  And lots of contradictions.  For every, bodybuilder who does ABC, there’s someone who does XYZ.  For every athlete who does one thing, there’s somebody who does the opposite.  That means different things work, right?  No, it means we don’t know what works.  If two people do the same thing and get opposite results, then the process they did was not the determining factor.  Likewise, if two people do different things and get the same result, then the process was not the determining factor.

Sleep is the same way.  If you can get by on 6 hours of sleep, and your coworker needs 9 hours of sleep, it isn’t the time that matters.  There is some other factor that plays in.  Maybe it is a chemical found in the brain that is only present – or absent – during sleep.  Maybe it is a period of time the body falls to a certain internal temperature.  Maybe it is the number of dreams one has.  Whatever the case, the determining factor cannot be the variable that is different.

Dreams are a whole other boat, too.  A million theories and none are confirmed.  Whatever you think a dream is, it’s as likely as it is unlikely.  Fun thought, isn’t it?  Something every single person on the earth engages in on a regular, daily basis, and science has only the slightest inkling of why?

What is sleep?

I’ve been reflecting on this because my sleep has been suffering of late.  I began taking Melatonin and my sleep was crazy-good.  I’d fall asleep in a flash and sleep so hard and so long.  This seemed to reveal a serious problem because after 7-8 hours of sleep, I’d wake up exhausted.  This worried me terribly.  I was getting home from work and actively excited about the earliest I could possibly go to bed.  I found myself occasionally skipping chores and work I needed to do, just so I could get an extra half-hour of sleep.

Then I slept for 15 hours!  Fifteen hours in one uninterrupted period.  I went to bed at 9pm and woke up the next day at noon.  Sweet mercy!  Thank goodness it was a weekend.  And I was still tired!  I was still dragging and groggy.  This was something serious!  I needed to get a sleep study.  I needed to see an otolaryngologist or something.

Instead, I stopped taking the melatonin.  I remembered sleeping really well before I took it.  Sleep wasn’t quite as quick in coming, and I found myself waking up periodically throughout the night.  But I also woke up on time.  I wouldn’t call myself bright-eyed and bushy-tailed but I was definitely more awake and more focused.

So I’ve begun skipping the melatonin.  My sleep isn’t quite as good as when I was taking it, but boy have my waking hours been better.  It seems odd to need sleep, and yet for there to be an upper limit as to how good of sleep you should get.

I’m not sure what to think of it.  Of course, as I write this I’m yawning.  Maybe sleep is merely an addiction, and drowsiness is the withdrawal symptoms.  Before any other question can be answered, we still need to figure out just what is sleep.

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