I sleep, therefore I am. I know. In French philosopher Rene Descarte’s famous quote it’s “think”, but without seven to eight hours of sleep per night I can’t “think” clear enough to know “I am”, nor what to do about it.
How much sleep do you need? I met a writer friend for coffee recently and he said, “Well I don’t know about you,” wink, nudge, “but I only need four hours of sleep a night.” I wish! Oh, the writing I could do in the deep, dark night when no one needs me. That’s apparently what the prolific Danielle Steel did, getting by on four hours, writing, then having the day for her six children. Madonna and Jay Leno are other prominent people who’ve said they only need a few hours of sleep. Margaret Thatcher said she didn’t need much sleep either, but she developed dementia so I’m not sure it was a good idea. It’s possible there is a gene responsible for needing less sleep; according to Mind Update, scientists call it “Period 3” or the “Clock Gene”.
A recent study by Jerome Siegel disputes a couple of notions we have about sleep – that technology disrupts it and we need eight hours. Siegel and his researchers studied three hunter-gatherer societies – two in Africa and one in South America – strapping Actiwatch-2 devices (like a Fitbit) on 94 individuals and gathering data over 1,165 sleeps. Guess what they found? On average, the people on the planet who best represent our prehistoric ancestors sleep soundly in blocks of 5.7 to 7.1 hours per night. Slightly less than the average for us Westerners. So perhaps I can sneak an hour of writing into my deep, dark night?
And what about insomnia? That chronic condition affecting 10-30 % of us in industrial societies? It is so rare in these hunter-gatherer communities – with just 1.5-2.5% noted more than once per year – that they don’t even have a word for it.
Says Siegel in a Live Science article by Charles Q. Choi, “Getting to know the San (of Namibia, Africa) was a transformative experience. To see how much is possible without the trappings of civilization. To see how smart and happy they are, and also how they must struggle to survive.”
Researchers noted three conditions that led to a sound sleep for the study subjects: 1) sleep commenced, not at sundown, but as the night cooled, and then ended at the coldest point 2) subjects rose at the same time each day and 3) they were exposed to bright sunlight in the morning, heading for shade by midday. While we can – and how many times have sleep experts suggested it? – rise at the same time each day, the other two are tougher. Bright light in the a.m. for office or plant workers? Flourescents suck as an alternative to natural sunlight, don’t they? Sleep experts suggest that the biggest deterrent to our sleep is the temperature issue. Perhaps we should program our thermostats to be starting to dip at midnight and be super-cold at 6 a.m.? But do you really want to leave the warm duvet when the tip of your nose detects it’s super-cold out there?
Sleep matters, though. Don’t be depriving yourself of it unless you’re blessed with the Clock Gene, because you could end up with Alzheimer’s. That’s why I wonder about Thatcher. In his TED Talk about sleep, neuroscientist Jeff Iliff discusses how recent research has uncovered what the brain is actually doing while we sleep, which is a thing most of us hate to do, except for my friend who calls herself the Ukrainian Cleaning Lady. Yep. Housecleaning.
All organs in our body must deal with two main issues: 1) getting nutrients and 2) disposing of waste. All organs except for the brain dump waste into the blood by means of the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is not connected to the brain, so the brain must come up with another means of disposal in a space packed with blood vessels and crammed into a hard shell, the skull. What researchers have recently discovered is that brain cells shrink in the sleeping brain, allowing cerebral spinal fluid (CSF), which is minimal in the alert brain, to flood in.
“The elegant machinery of the brain,” says Iliff, “is quietly hard at work, cleaning and maintaining this unimaginably complex machine. Like our housework, it’s a dirty and thankless job. But it’s also important.”
Iliff goes on to explain that a build-up of amyloid beta, a protein manufactured by the brain, has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease. “It’s important to point out,” says Iliff, “that while these studies don’t prove that lack of sleep or poor sleep cause Alzheimer’s disease, they do suggest that the failure of the brain to keep it’s house clean, by clearing out waste like amyloid beta, may contribute to the development of conditions like Alzheimer’s.”
To maximize sleep quality in the modern world, here are seven suggestions from https://sleepfoundation.org:
*adhere to a sleep schedule, even on weekends
*develop a relaxing bedtime ritual
*exercise daily (move that body!)
*evaluate bedroom for temperature (cccold?), sound, and lighting
*have a comfortable mattress and pillows
*beware of sleep-stealers, like caffeine, energy drinks and alcohol
*turn off electronics
Website picture of my granddaughter Naomi Lou performing “a clean sleep” in her car seat (rare) courtesy of my daughter Jetanne DiCola.