After a nine-month incarcerationinstitutionalization hiatus, The Brain & Behavior Blogger is back! And, here’s something he learned while he was “gone:” If you have trouble sleeping, just chill out (!), Baby…
The more elderly among you might remember the classic caricature of a “treatment” for a killer hang-over. It would usually be a guy with a painful look on his face holding an ice pack to the top of his throbbing head. Turns out, the guy had it all wrong. He should have put the ice pack on his head before he tried to go to sleep, not after a night of, at best, fitful rest. More on this coming soon; but first, a small diversion.
Hangovers involved or not, millions of people have trouble getting the rest that their brains and bodies need badly. And, that’s not goodly. Failing to get enough sleep has been demonstrated to be a primary cause of:
increased frequency and duration of bouts of depression
lowered resistance to infection
less satisfactory relationships and higher divorce rates (Boy! Did you get out of the wrong side of bed this morning!)
dramatic increases in fatal accidents, on and off the job, but especially among third shift workers, and even
the overall health of one’s skin!
Little wonder then that Amnesty International considers sleep deprivation one of the worst forms of torture.
Bottom line, sleep is muy importante. But, let me ask you a question. What do you think is more importante to your well-being, sleep or food? Well, consider this research:
Allen Rechschaffen of the University of Chicago Sleep Center (which I think would be more aptly named The University of Chicago Lackasleep Center) has demonstrated that rats indefinitely prohibited from sleeping start to manifest some very strange behaviors after two days and the strangeness of those behaviors continues to increase as sleep deprivation is continued. Then, somewhere around Day 15 to Day 17, the rats develop multiple cancers and soon die. On the other hand, rats who have no food for 17+/- days remain healthy. They are, of course, dying for a pizza and a beer – but their health isn’t diminished. Sleep 1, Food 0.
It gets worse from there. If you’re seriously sleep-deprived and nonetheless somehow manage to avoid death, serious injury, depression, failed relationships, catching a plague and bad skin, you still haven’t dodged the lackasleep bullet. That’s because everyone who is sleep deprived uses more energy, often twice as much energy, to do the same amount of work or thinking. PLUS, when your energy level is down, your body starts craving fuel (food) as well as rest (sleep). And, once you start eating while in a state of sleep deprivation, you’re virtually guaranteed to over-eat because the chemical in your brain that gives you the feeling of satiation is secreted only during long periods of – you got it – SLEEP.
PLUS, in our society, when sleep-deprived, people are most likely to eat foods high in carbs/sugars but low in fiber – like cookies, ice cream, pizza, etc. With little fiber yet plenty of bulk involved, their digestive systems misread the amount of insulin that will be needed to break apart fiber from the carbs/sugars so that each can be absorbed/digested and mislead their brains into secreting a larger dose of insulin than is actually needed. That surplus of insulin results in the food they’ve just eaten being absorbed unnecessarily fast which means that they’re going to become hungry again sooner than otherwise would be the case – and out of the pantry comes the next bag of cookies.
Okay, here’s the final layer in this vicious cycle: When you’ve been inefficiently using energy and over-eating, it becomes more difficult to sleep when you have the chance. You toss and turn and your brain goes into fast forward, repeating nonsensical thoughts and scenarios. In other words, you continue to use energy while you’re trying to restore it!
That’s the bad news. Now, off to a little bit of the good.
Regardless of the immediate cause of poor sleep patterns, neuroscientists at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine (UPSM) are having great success treating insomnia as a disorder
of hyperarousal. It seems that for adults with normal sleeping patterns, the metabolism of the brain’s prefrontal cortex slooows down as they fall asleep. Insomniacs experience the opposite.
As they try to fall asleep, the metabolism in the prefrontal cortex actually speeds up. And once it gets to full throttle, many insomniacs experience irritating, cross-talking, hyper-repetitive,
brain chatter. In other words, the same thing good sleepers would experience if they had a half-dozen espressos right before hitting the sack.
The smart people at UPSM decided to try a simple solution to cool the overheated brains of poor sleepers. They created a “sleeping cap” that circulates chilled water around the prefrontal cortex. Wearing the reportedly very comfortable cap, 75% of insomniacs studied were able to fall asleep as quickly and sleep as long as comparable subjects who had never experienced sleeping problems. That’s a 300% improvement over the currently most common treatments for insomnia, such as sleeping pills, hypnosis, and listening to college professors lecture.
And, now, you know the neuroscience wisdom hidden within this stanza from Clement Clark Moore’s (1823) “Twas the night before Christmas” – re-presented here without any alternation (other than underlining) to Moore’s original text:
“The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads. And Mama in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.”
Original references for any studies, books or articles cited by the Brain and Behavior Blogger can be obtained by contact with his very dear friend, Dr. Rob Snyder (firstname.lastname@example.org), an organizational psychologist with a severe neuroscience-research-reading addiction.