To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

Posted: August 23, 2013 in Mental Reboot
Tags: , ,

A few months into my sabbatical, I found that I was struggling to stay alert in the afternoon.  Now fighting with drowsiness isn’t anything new to me.  I am reasonably certain that I’ve lived most of my adult life in a state of fairly extreme sleep deprivation.  But at this point I was getting a strong seven and a half to eight hours of sleep every night, maybe even a bit more on weekends.  And my activities were all things that I wasn’t only happy to do, but that I was chomping at the bit to do, so any possibility of apathy based lethargy seemed quite remote.

So I went to my doctor, who referred me to a sleep specialist.  Who signed me up for an in home sleep study.  So I played cyborg for one night strapped into a bunch of equipment, and a month or so later got a call from the specialist with the results.  Everything was perfectly normal.  No sleep apnea, normal sleep cycles, normal number of wake up events per hour, etc.  So what the heck?  The doctor’s recommendation was to sleep more, that it’s perfectly within ‘normal’ range to need to sleep eight and a half or even nine hours a night.

Well crap, I don’t want to have to sleep more at night.  I already resent the bulk of the time I spend sleeping anyway.  But if I’m less effective during the day due to sleep debt, it makes sense to give it a shot.  So what better time than during my sabbatical, where one of my goals is to optimize my general effectiveness, to give a bit more sleep a shot.  So I started trying to get eight and a half to nine hours of sleep a night.  And lo and behold, I have been less sleepy.  Crazy.  On top of that, I am starting to remember my dreams which hasn’t happened for a very long time.  (Hopefully I won’t go the next step and have Hamlet style nightmares).

But of course, I couldn’t just leave it at a doctor’s recommendation, I had to geek out about sleep science.  The first thing I did was to read Dr. Dement’s book The Promise of Sleep: A Pioneer in Sleep Medicine Explores the Vital Connection Between Health, Happiness, and a Good Night’s Sleep.  And now I’m most of the way through a series of lectures on the science of sleep.

The first thing I learned from this is that the doctor didn’t lie to me. The vast majority if adult humans require 7-9 hours of sleep a night.  Some people just need more sleep than others.   And in a closely related factoid, sleep researchers actually have a pretty neat way to measure sleep debt scientifically.  It’s called the Multiple Sleep Latency Test (MSLT) – basically they take patients and put them in a dark quiet room a specific times of the day and monitor them to see how long it takes them to go to sleep.   If it takes 0-5 minutes they label you as having ‘severe’ sleep debt, 5-10 minutes is ‘troublesome.’  If you don’t drop off in 20 minutes you’re sleep debt free.  I’ve got to say that during most of my working life I’ve been able to drop off during the day somewhere in the 5 minutes +/- a bit range in a much less comfortable environment than a bed in a dark room as described by the MSLT procedure.

Another thing I learned (and this seems to be emphasized by everyone who devotes their life to studying or treating sleep issues) is that sleep debt is extremely dangerous.   The statistics on the number of car accidents attributed to sleep debt are scary, and possibly higher than the alcohol related accidents.  Although since there is a great deal of overlap between the two causes, it’s unclear which is the ‘winner.’   But the point is that driving around on extreme sleep debt is irresponsible, so if for no other reason than that, I want to try to live my life in less debt than I have in the past.

However, I think I’ve already mentioned that I really resent spending time sleeping when I could be doing something productive.  And even the way I state that is a bit crazy because if I reduce the amount of sleep I get significantly enough I’m almost certainly being less than optimally productive with the time that I’m awake (assuming an inverse relationship between the amount of sleep per night and sleep debt).

So what can I do?  Are there ways to sleep more efficiently?  I’m not quite ready to try some of the more extreme suggestions on the internets, such as the four hours awake, 20 minute nap around the clock everyday (apparently this is called the uberman cycle).  From what I’ve read from the much more conventional sleep scientists, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of hope.  There was some discussion of carrying enough sleep debt so that you fall asleep quickly at night and possibly have a more ‘efficient’ first deep sleep cycle.  And of course the whole list of general sleep hygiene tips, most of which I’m at least attempting.

Has anyone out there have success with practices to reduce the amount of sleep required without walking around like a zombie?  Inquiring minds want to know.

  1. Aaron Robinson says:

    I have always found that after a day of high activity I head to bed early and then seem to wake up after only 6 or 7 hours. For instance on days when I wind up running 3 to 4 miles and then go to the climbing gym for another 2 to 3 hours I hit the bed at the same time, but hard. One would think that I would also wake up later but I find that I will wake earlier than normal and more refreshed.

    This could just be my age or metabolism, but I like to think it has to do with more oxygen getting throughout my system thus allowing my body to recoup faster.

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