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Every Hour Counts
By Kathy Hare

          Fall has one big advantage over spring – an extra hour of sleep. While an hour probably seems insignificant to the 20 percent of adult Americans who think of themselves as walking zombies, it really can mean the difference between life and death. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine said heart attack rates increase measurably on the Monday after the ritual switch to Daylight Savings Time. But a beneficial side effect of “myocardial infarction Monday” is the number of sleep studies it has prompted. And there’s a great deal of research needed, because at this point science can’t even explain why we sleep.

I know that sounds crazy. Most of us expect the same science that decoded the human genome to have an answer for why we sleep – but it really doesn’t. For years researchers claimed sleep evolved as a mechanism to conserve energy, and the restorative powers of a good night’s sleep added validity to the explanation. That “why we sleep” answer was accepted as gospel until some wise guy actually measured how much energy is used during sleep. It turns out people only burn approximately 150 calories more during eight light-activity waking hours than they do during eight hours of sleep. So that threw the notion of “energy conservation” as a reason for sleep right out the window.

Now, according to an article in the October 24 edition of “Science News,” scientists from many disciplines are in hot pursuit of an answer. Researchers hope knowing why we sleep will help in the battle against chronic insomnia. While their search goes on they are discovering new information about how the brain functions during sleep and the role sleep plays in preventing disease. James Krueger, a sleep researcher at Washington State University, said “sleep itself is an unavoidable result of having neurons wired together in a network.” That makes sense - the brain needs time to make sense of all the information it receives during the day. Different stages of sleep allow the brain to sort through, organize, store, or even discard information based on its usefulness to the individual. And cognitive impairment, poor judgment, memory lapses, and depression are all negative manifestations of what happens when the brain doesn’t get the opportunity to rejuvenate each night.

Alzheimer’s disease may soon be added to that list. Physicians and caregivers know Alzheimer’s patients suffer from sleep deprivation; but scientists only recently began studying whether sleep loss might actually trigger the onset of Alzheimer’s. Right now animal studies are pointing in that direction. A protein implicated in dementia increased in the brains of sleep deprived mice. Based on those findings, Dr. Holtzman of Washington University in St. Louis speculates “that lack of sleep, particularly in mid-life, could hasten onset of the disease in genetically susceptible individuals.”

But Eve Van Cauter, professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, said Krueger’s explanation for why we sleep is only part of the answer. “The notion that sleep is by the brain and for the brain - which is a motto in the field - is outdated. Sleep affects everything in the body and everything in the body affects sleep.” Certainly over 100 studies linking sleep loss to cardiovascular disease attest to the physical side effects of sleep deprivation, as do the other physical illnesses. Going without sleep creates a “metabolic syndrome” that increases blood pressure and cholesterol while reducing insulin sensitivity, leading to type 2 diabetes. Sleep deprivation also sets off bouts of rheumatoid arthritis, impairs the immune system, and increases the risk of obesity.

However, I found the second part of Cauter’s quote, “and everything in the body affects sleep,” intriguing because of my own 20-plus year struggle with insomnia. I told every physician I visited over that time period I had trouble getting to sleep, and most mornings I woke up about 4 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep. They all gave me the same spiel about limiting caffeine and getting enough exercise, etc., while also offering a prescription sleep aid. Nothing worked. Then three years ago I was diagnosed with Celiac disease. It is a disease of the immune system that can be controlled by eliminating certain grains from your diet. Because I probably had Celiac for years before being diagnosed, it took a year for my immune system to recover, but as it did my insomnia disappeared. This is what scientists call “anecdotal” information and they pay little attention to it. But given the track record for curing insomnia, I think it’s safe to suggest that if you haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep in years, then it’s time to search for an underlying medical cause.

In fact, sleep disorder specialists advise anyone who routinely gets less than 6 hours of sleep a night to seek help – before you damage your own or someone else’s health. Over 40,000 automobile accidents and 1,550 fatalities a year are caused by someone falling asleep at the wheel. And The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says that’s “probably a conservative estimate.”

Now back to “myocardial infarction Monday.” Medical statistics already showed more heart attacks occur on Monday in Western cultures than on any other day of the week. Sunday, on the other hand, is truly a day of rest for cardiologists because that’s when the fewest attacks occur. Monday’s bum palpitations are blamed on the physical and mental stress associated with the start of a new work week. Consequently, when clocks are turned back in spring, an hour less sleep combined with an already stressful day is what causes the spike.

It may be a while before science can tell us exactly why we sleep, but “myocardial infarction Monday” certainly demonstrates the importance of every hour of sleep.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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