Why Are We So Desperate for Sleep?

You want it. You need it. You crave it. You ignore buzzing alarms for it. You put pillows over your head to get three more minutes of it.

Posted on | Mike Roizen, MD | Comments ()
Why Are We So Desperate for Sleep?
Why Are We So Desperate for Sleep?

You want it. You need it. You crave it. You ignore buzzing alarms for it. You put pillows over your head to get three more minutes of it.

The truth is that getting quality sleep is as important to your health, ability to perform, and happiness as just about anything else.

The second truth? You’re probably not getting enough. As if you needed me to tell you that. Between work, babies, key matchups of your favorite teams (what happened to the Lions this year?), 401Ks, Facebook, and trying to have a speckle of a social life, the thing that’s often the easiest to sacrifice is time in the sack. (I mean time spent sleeping only here – but getting enough sleep affects that enjoyment and performance, too.)

Sleep doesn’t exist just to pass the time. You may think that your shift from a good 8 hours a night to lucky-if-you-get-6 isn’t much to worry about since you’re still managing to live okay, albeit a tad tired.

Wrong! Your body makes you sleep because your brain needs sleep the way guitars need strings: Your brain can’t work without it. Sleep exercises the parts of your brain that you don’t normally use. Through dreams, you create alternate realities that allow you to practice problem-solving skills, open up to creative inspiration, and use your mind in ways that you may not permit during the day. In a way, sleep allows your brain to lay down the code that your mind will use in the future. It gives your brain the chance to consolidate your memories so that you have a bank of information and experience available to you when you need it. Connections between and among brain cells are solidified and fortified during sleep.

Sleep is also important because deep sleep increases production of a chemical called human growth hormone, which helps you maintain your healthy growth and metabolism.

Teens need 8.5 to 9 hours a night, and us adults need 6.5 to 8 hours, and many of us don’t or can’t get it. A lack of sleep puts you at risk for increased stress, drowsy driving, poor performance at work (and in sports and your social life), mood issues, and many other problems.

Lack of sleep has a profound effect on the way you eat: The sleepier you are, the more you crave foods that make you fat and age you: simple sugars and carbohydrates.

Let’s look at how we sleep. It’s actually a cool biological process – and a little more complicated than just pulling the covers over your body and shutting your eyes. The way you fall asleep is through the activation of a neurotransmitter called GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, for you spelling-bee champs.

Propofol and all anesthetics we know stimulate this GABA activity, causing you to fall asleep (it does other things too). On today’s show, you’ll see how this fits with Michael Jackson’s sleep problems, and why he used propofol specifically, and not other medications. You’ll also learn why I strongly feel that Dr. Murray deserves more than a slap on the wrist; what he did isn’t garden malpractice, but you’ll have to tune in to see if I feel it criminal. (To read more about my coverage of the Michael Jackson case, click here.)

The reason you’re not asleep right now (I hope) is that your hypothalamus – the director part of your brain – is secreting a chemical called acetylcholine to keep you alert. When you’re asleep for a long time, you experience a buildup of acetylcholine that wakes you up. That’s how caffeine seems to work to keep you awake, by influencing levels of acetylcholine.

In contrast, a chemical called adenosine accumulates with activity and hinders acetylcholine, so we become tired. As the day wears on, your sleep drive builds as acetylcholine and other chemicals that induce wakefulness decline. Adenosine stimulates a specific chemical reaction that causes you to sleep. The other big chemical that affects sleeping patterns is melatonin. Now, what exactly is a good night’s sleep? While the length of sleep is important, equally vital is getting through the sleep cycle several times. Deep rest is what helps you fight stress, maintain a healthy weight, and boost your energy levels. The most regenerative sleep occurs between 10 p.m. - 2 a.m.; 10 p.m. is your body’s optimal time to go to sleep. Start working toward going to bed at this time. It may be difficult at first, since you'll have to wind down earlier than you normally do, but I promise the benefits will be the big payoff.

To learn more about sleep, click here.

Blog written by Mike Roizen, MD
Dr. Roizen is a past chair of a Food and Drug Administration advisory committee and a former editor for 6 medical journals with...