January 28, 2014

My New BFF: Sleep Patterns & 5 a.m. ~ Emily McCaffrey

No, I did not choose this friend. She chose me.

She tells me to fall asleep somewhere between 11 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. and then hang out, alert and scheme-braining, with her several hours later. I involuntarily oblige nearly every night.

And then of course, I want another go at sleep in the late morning for a few hours between 7 a.m. and about 10:30 a.m, which doesn’t happen due to me being gainfully employed.

This all started a few months ago, around the transition between fall and winter. In the past, this same timeframe was a hermitic, seasonal era when I wanted and needed lots of sleep. Daytime length decreased, and I would dutifully respond to external Circadian cues by getting a natural surge of melatonin-induced drowsiness when in the darkness.

So I wondered—is this because I’m 30 now? Or am I experiencing early onset of Grandma-Who-Wakes-At-4 a.m.-To-Eat-Grapefruit-and-Do-Crossword-Puzzles-Syndrome? Does it mean I’m depressed? Do I need more exercise? More sex? Less alcohol? Should I stop using bad television or rom-com’s (say it ain’t so, Jennifer Aniston!) as sleep aids?

The answers to some of these questions may be yes, sort of.

Irregular sleep patterns can be an indication of depression; exercise and sexual satiation definitely help promote restful sleep; and alcohol consumed in excess and near bedtime, while immediately sedative, is destructive to REM sleep, which is our most restorative sleep phase.

But I needed to know more.

In my hunt for accurate answers to these questions, I found a plethora of information. This should not be surprising, considering the majority of humans spend a third of their life sleeping. This is why mattress makers can ask for thousands of your dollars for a hunk of foam, and you can’t entirely blame them.

Tempur-Pedic is my drug of choice.

But I digress.

Back in the day, (like way back), as early as 800 B.C., a segmented sleep pattern was the norm. Some of you may now know about this if you got bit with the viral article about “two sleeps” that went around recently. The article explains that our ancestors were accustomed to two periods of wakefulness, and two periods of sleep in each 24-hour day. The shorter period of wakefulness between each sleep period was typically spent reading, snacking, drinking, fornicating, visiting with friends or perhaps a combination thereof.

When I got ahold of this trivia I thought perhaps this solves the mystery of my sleep “abnormalities.” Maybe I’m just old school?

I most certainly, however, am in good company having sleep quirks. Leonardo da Vinci was rumored to have subscribed to “polyphasic sleep,” which was a pattern of sleeping for 15 minutes every two hours. He was convinced this was linked with functioning at the highest level possible and, in his own case, he may have been right.

Napoleon was another sleep oddball, supposedly sleeping a few hours in the earlier evening, waking at 3 a.m. to do his emperor work, (“Hi, so what do you do for a living?,” “Oh, I’m an emperor and a tyrant. Yeah, it pays well, but man, the stress…”) and then returned to sleep for a few more hours later in the morning. He was also a big fan of daytime napping.

So now I’ve got a Napoleon complex? I am short? Okay, let’s refer to cold, hard science.

I’ve wondered why I need different amounts of sleep at different times than other people. Well, it turns out, there is an actual location of one’s internal biological clock—a sort of Circadian pacemaker. It resides in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) and is a self-contained mechanism. It is so independent that when transplanted into another body of the same species, many animals have this, the new host adopts the donor’s rhythm.

There is also a human gene involved in sleep and wakefulness. This gene is present in your brain, eyes, liver, heart, lungs and kidneys. So there are a lot of organs teamed up to dominate your schedule, as much as you may exert your will over it.

External factors clearly also play a part in one’s sleep rhythms. Sleep shifted dramatically, across many developing countries, in 1879 when the light bulb was invented. This technological advancement alone is credited to reducing the average American’s daily sleep tally by three hours.

Another example of the impact of this invention occurred later in the 1950s, when the Inuit people were first widely introduced to artificial lighting. This caused a quick adjustment to an eight or nine hour sleep schedule. Prior to this, the extreme shifts of sunlight in the Arctic had dictated habits of 14 hours of sleep during the winter and six hours of sleep during the summer, on average.

But for the most affirming, anxiety-reducing result in my search for, essentially, whether sleep is a lost cause for me: a study in the U.K. in 2010 proves that people need less sleep as they get older. Not dramatically less, but enough to notice a difference, as in an average gradual decrease of two and a half hours of needed sleep time per night, as you age from a teenager to a 65+ year old.

So perhaps you too are an old school “two sleep-er.” Or perhaps you have da Vinci or Napoleonic tendencies. Maybe you need to turn down the lights, the boozing, the sloth, and the bad television.

Whatever your sleep situation, I invite you rest easy now with me, as we go forward educated, fully informed, anxiety-free, and for better or worse, aging.

And grapefruit and crossword puzzles are awesome, anyway.


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Assistant Editor: Paige Vignola/Editor: Bryonie Wise

Image via Flickr


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