Patrick Eng
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Week 28 - What I Need to Know About Sleep


I'm sure we all know someone who has insomnia and that shouldn't be too surprising based on how we live our lives today.

In terms of why people have insomnia, you'd have to look more at their life, medications, illnesses, and stresses. For example, you could have insomnia because of:

  • Allergies

  • Reflux

  • Arthritis

  • Asthma

  • Any neurological diseases

  • Back pain

  • Chronic pain

It's hard to really pinpoint it down because it is just anything that is making it hard for you to fall asleep. If you don't really care about the whys behind all this, you can skip to day 3 and just see what Harvard says are secrets to sleeping well.

This article really struck a chord with me though when it mentioned Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) since due to all my medical expertise, have diagnosed myself with this condition. Or it's cancer...WebMD can be real drastic at times.

For those with RLS though, you experience uncomfortable feelings in your legs and a desire to just move them. For myself, I just constantly look really nervous, impatient or that I'm about to pee my pants because my legs move so much. As you can probably guess, this would be quite a problem when trying to fall asleep. Don't worry though, it only affects 10% of the American population.

Another term you'll probably hear thrown around in this space is sleep apnea. When you have sleep apnea, your airway's become either partially or completely blocked. So when you are trying to sleep and suddenly you stop breathing, it might not be too restful. I have a friend to actually experienced pseudo-sleep apnea after taking muscle relaxants and I guess his lungs were feeling too good to keep working. So be aware of that.

I really liked this quote from this article though, and think it can be applied to so much more than sleep:

"You should not simply accept poor sleep as a way of life..."

Insomnia can also work hand-in-hand with other debilitating conditions, like depression and anxiety. One can cause the other, and then they can make work together to become stronger. For example, with anxiety, it can be as simple as having a big presentation the next day, or knowing that your company has fallen on hard times and could be laying you off at any point.

Let's assume you don't suffer from depression or anxiety though, but you still have insomnia. Well, let's look at your normal day or week. Ask yourself these questions, and if you answered yes to them, we might have found the problem:

  • You work in the evenings and don't give yourself the opportunity to wind down

  • You take naps late in the afternoon, potentially throwing off your circadian rhythm

  • You sleep in, again, potentially disrupting your circadian rhythm

  • You work irregular hours

It's important to address the issue as soon as possible though so it doesn't develop into an actual problem. For example, let's say you get some really bad news, maybe you're spending some nights in the hospital with someone. Your normal sleeping patterns are going to be completely thrown out of whack for a few days. The key here is to not accept that as the new normal and make sure to go back to your normal sleeping patterns as soon as possible. Never convince yourself that you won't be able to fall asleep.

In terms of actual sleep amounts, we've all heard the recommended eight hours of sleep. That eight hours is really just if you're older than 18. For all those under 18, your recommended sleep amount will be much longer, especially as a baby or toddler (think something like 14 hours a day).

What you consume every day also has a serious effect on your sleeping patterns. Sure, alcohol can help you fall asleep at first, but it won't be a very good sleep. Or caffeine, the most consumed drug over the world, is used to purposefully make sure you don't fall asleep. Sure it is great in the morning to start your day, but after more than four cups, you're more likely to experience symptoms of insomnia than someone who drank no coffee. If you're drinking more than four cups of coffee a day, I would think your lifestyle is going to be one that is ripe for insomnia for a variety of reasons besides caffeine.

Or, take a harsher drug for example - nicotine. This drug is also a stimulant that will also keep you awake.

Let's say you're drug-free though and still have insomnia. Make sure you aren't having a 40oz steak before bed. Consuming a big meal right before you go unconscious for eight hours is a great way to experience discomfort and restlessness (especially if that food was particularly spicy).

Your brain could also just hate you and be causing a whole slew of chemical reactions that are destroying your sleeping ability. Unfortunately, WebMD probably won't be able to help you there.

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So, we know sleep is important. We just don't know exactly why. While I find that hard to believe, let's find out our why sleep is still such a mystery (at least according to Live Science).

Like food and water, we know that not having sleep will kill us. Plus, we put ourselves in a vulnerable position - we literally don't know what is happening to our bodies for ⅓ of the day and could be killed at any moment (more of a concern during the early days of humanity). So obviously it has to be vital to the human body if a lack will either cause major psychological issues or kill us, and means we completely shut down all protection of ourselves for a substantial part of the day.

At the minimum, we know that sleep is needed for our brain to reorganize itself after a crazy day. Scientists call this plasticity, and basically just means your brain's ability to change (grow, adapt, shrink, etc). Hence, the importance of sleep for a growing brain - think 0 to 23 years.

If you have any sort of ethical mind, you'll see that doing a sleep deprivation on humans would be a problem, as they would most likely die in the end if pushed too far. So, per best practice in science, we do it on rats instead. They died after two weeks. Since pulling all-nighters is something all college students probably did at some point, this study found that people who even stayed awake for 24 hours could experienced hallucinations. So maybe cramming the day before isn't as such a good idea as you thought.

Depriving a living organism of sleep causes a lot of issues, so it's hard to tell if those other issues or the lack of sleep is really causing the main problem. Is stress the reason you aren't eating or the lack of sleep?

Or take into account the two stages of sleep you go through, REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM. You cycle between these two stages during your slumber, with non-REM sleep showing slow brain waves and REM having brain waves that are similar to when you're awake, your muscles are just paralyzed in this instance (also see sleep paralysis).

Non-REM sleep is important because this is also the time your brain releases growth hormones and creates other needed proteins.

What we can agree on is that sleep is for the brain more than anything else. Yes, a lack of sleep means you're more prone to sickness and getting taller, but in the end, it's all about the brain. Looking at the brain at a microscopic level, sleep can be connected to just neurons. We know that all neurons go through periods of activity and lethargy (or waking and sleeping). So we could be sleeping because our neurons are.

But why do neurons need to go through these awake and asleep periods in the first place?

Well, let's look at three theories to start:

  1. To restore the brain's energy levels - since the brain is a massive consumer of glucose, it can't be on all the time. It needs to shut down so it can reduce its energy intake and restore its reserves.

  2. To clean out our brain gunk - live above, when something is consuming so much fuel, it's also going to produce a good amount of waste. Sleep could be a time where the brain is able to get rid of all that waste.

  3. To aid in brain plasticity and growth - probably the most promising theory, the brain uses sleep to establish new connections, aiding in both learning new skills and retaining information.

More research will also need to be done on glia cells, a commonly overlooked cell until recently. There seems to be a lot of disagreement as to how much of your brain is composed of neurons vs. glia cells, with the commonly accepted belief being 10% neurons, 90% glia. The problem is that no one really knows where that number came from.

Regardless of the actual percentage, glia cells are still important. Since they've only been recognized as supporting neurons until the past few decades, research has focused mostly on neurons. But assuming the 90% ratio is true, it's strange that researchers would ignore such a massive part of the brain.

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So even though this article is clearly targeted at women, all the tips here are genderless. I'll just ignore the part where I'm probably going to go through changes in my sleeping pattern later in life because of menopause.

As the human body ages though, it continues to change. You'll require less sleep, your circadian rhythm gradually changes, and you might even just have more trouble staying asleep.

If you are having trouble, the easiest place to find help is the pill bottle. There are plenty of sleep-aid medications out there for you to use, but take caution before downing that bottle of Nyquil.

Even though these sleep medications are supposed to help you fall asleep and stay asleep, they also come with some side effects, like "appetite changes, dizziness, drowsiness, abdominal discomfort, dry mouth, headaches, and strange dreams." I can personally say that while these sleep medications help me initially fall asleep, I'll always wake up after two or so hours wide awake.

If you want to take a more holistic approach to falling asleep, here are eight ways to do just that.

1. Exercise in the morning

Not only does exercise in the morning help adjust your circadian rhythm, it also makes increases the effectiveness of the sleeping hormone melatonin. The morning workout is important because doing so in the evening might be too stimulating (because hormones).

2. Associate the bed with only sleep and sex

I don't know about you, but I absolutely looooooooooooveeeee sleeping. Greatest thing in the world. Sure, ⅓ of the day feels wasted, but it's a necessary "waste". The bed has a very specific role though and creates very specific environments - sleeping and sex. If you're doing something else in your bed besides these things - i.e., working, eating, watching tv, doing homework - you're turning the bed into an area of wakefulness instead of sleep. Sex is an exception.

3. Create a conducive sleeping environment

Optimal sleeping temperature - 69 degrees Fahrenheit. Yes, it's a personal opinion, but I'd like to think it's also a fact. You want to make sure that your bedroom is set up to make sleeping as easy as possible. Meaning, it should be a cool, quiet, and dark place. I'm also a big supporter of white noise, so a fan or two wouldn't hurt.

4. Start a sleeping tradition

About to get real vulnerable here, so please direct all insults and mockeries at Shane ( Thanks for understanding. But as a kid, like four or five,I remember my mom coming into my room each night and sing me song and while she was singing it, I would just twirl her hair with my finger. She would finish the song, leave, and then I'd just fall asleep.

That was our bedtime tradition, and if anyone asks my mom how I slept as a kid, she'd tell you I was perfect. Still am, but minor details.

It wouldn't hurt to start your own sleeping tradition, whether that be listening to calming music, taking a bath, or reading a book. Just make sure you are winding yourself down.

5. Have a snack

No one wants to go to bed hungry, but over 800 million people do every day. For those of us who are more fortunate, a light snack before bedtime can be a huge aid in falling and staying asleep (damn, talk about first world problems).

6. No caffeine or alcohol

A cup of coffee before bed is obviously a bad idea unless you're planning on staying up all night. Caffeine is a natural stimulant, meant to keep you alert and awake and stays in your system for eight hours. Alcohol, on the other hand, seems to have a dual nature of both a stimulant and a depressant (depending on the amount). Either way, even if you get to the depressant amount, you won't get restful sleep.

7. Breathe

We all have worries, fears, and obstacles we are trying to overcome each day. But when you're laying in bed at night reflecting on everything that happened that day, what could happen tomorrow, and if water is wet or not, you need to realize that all those issues and questions are for tomorrow. Worrying about them at night while trying to fall asleep helps no one.

A random exercise that I've begun to do is this:

Just imagine a blank, completely white, stone slate, and keep that image in your head. Then slowly just think about nothing (as a guy, I can do that pretty easily and quickly) until your mind is a complete void. Then just focus on your breathing, taking slow, consistent and deep breaths. And bam, you're now waking up eight hours later.

8. See a doctor

If nothing seems to be working or you're having physical issues preventing you from falling asleep (RLS, pain, burning sensations, etc), then the best thing to do is see a doctor.

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Too Long Didn't Read

Sleep is a fascinating phenomenon and biological occurrence. We know we need it, as not having it either causes insanity or death, but we're still agreeing on exactly why we need it. There are a bunch of theories out there as to why need to shut down each day, like:

  • The brain needs to restore its energy reserves

  • The brain needs to get rid of a bunch of waste that is produced throughout the day

  • The brain needs to grow and cement the connections made that day (referred to as plasticity)

As you can see, there is a consistent theme for sleep though that scientists agree on - sleep is mainly for the brain. The younger you are, the more your brain needs to grow, and thus the more sleep you need.

If sleep is so good and needed though, why do so many people have trouble falling asleep? Unfortunately, the answer to this question is wide and varied, and the best thing to do is see a doctor. You could be experiencing insomnia because you received especially bad news and are stressed, or because you stay on your phone in bed and it never got time to wind down, or you have restless leg syndrome and can't stop moving your feet long enough to fall asleep.

The best thing you can do for yourself though is this - never accept a bad sleeping pattern as a way of life. If you want to know what Harvard suggests (for women at least), then look at day 3.

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Patrick Eng