Mohandas Gandhi and Edgar Allan Poe have a very different outlook on going to bed.
“Each night, when I go to sleep, I die,” wrote Gandhi. “And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn.”
Poe, as expected, had a somewhat darker take.
“Sleep, those little slices of death,” wrote Poe, “how I loathe them!”
This round goes to the Mahatma. Sleep is a critical function of human health and essential for our brains. Lack of sleep may be what made Poe stark raven mad! (Bad pun!)
Humans have outsmarted themselves when it comes to sleep. Back in the pre-fire and electricity days, diurnal man went to sleep with the setting sun and rose at the crack of dawn. Now, thanks to electric lights, TV and caffeine, we are staying up later than ever.
We are a sleep deprived nation. With less sleep come more accidents, more crime and more really bad term papers. We also have a record number of unhealthy brains.
Sleep is the only time the brain cleanses itself and the brain is a messy, high-performance wonder that needs lots of cleaning. During the day our brains conduct trillions of calculations, each an electro-chemical reaction in its cells. Like all cells, our brain cells absorb oxygen and give off waste which accumulates throughout the day and into the evening. Waste and byproducts clog the brain and make it run less efficiently.
At night our brains wash themselves by expanding and contracting and squeezing waste toward the brainstem and spine. Our glymphatic system opens up a spinal fluid drainage system while we sleep that allows the gently sloshing brain to flush out waste and send it to the liver for processing. Humans generally need about eight hours of sleep for this process to run its course.
People who do not sleep enough not only feel badly the next day, they perform less effectively and put themselves and others in danger. Sleep deprived people wreck their cars at a much higher rate than well-rested folks. They are involved in more industrial accidents, disagreements and crimes. Being sleep deprived is little being a little bit insane – or a lot.
Sleep deprivation may cause other systemic problems, including Parkinson’s Disease. Neurologists have concluded that only 13 percent of Parkinson’s cases are hereditary, the rest are considered “sporadic” which may be caused by long stretches of sleeplessness that have damaged the brain from lack of cleansing. Brains predisposed to Parkinson’s often have a mutation in the gene that starts the cleaning process. Instead of pushing waste products out through the brain stem, they accumulate until it turns into plaque and clogs the space between neurons.
Teenagers and college students are among the most sleep deprived people and the potential long-term damage is more serious than previous thought. Unfortunately, society and tradition are aligned against teens and young adults, whose brains prefer to stay up later during the evening and sleep later in the morning. Our public school systems have been very detrimental to middle school and high school students by forcing them out of bed before dawn for ridiculously early classes. Even Southwestern College, in a pique of scheduling efficiency, has too many misguided 7:30 a.m. and 8 a.m. classes with high drop rates.
Sleep, perchance to dream. Our bodies and minds need rest. All the machismo and braggadocio about working late and not sleeping is nothing to be proud about. Not sleeping damages our brains, the home of our intellect, our personalities and our conscientiousness. Some friendly advice – learn about the brain, then sleep on it.