College College Biology and Chemistry College Mind, Brain, and Behavior TSS

The Science of Sleep (Part 3)

On the flip side, there are people who chronically fall asleep too much, often at unusual times. Like Mr. Benedict from the Mysterious Benedict Society book series, narcoleptics are susceptible to sudden, uncontrollable sleep attacks. Sufferers of this disorder may stop talking midsentence and fall asleep or become extremely drowsy after being triggered by a stressor. Obviously, randomly sleeping can be inconvenient for sufferers, like in driving, eating, or their daily careers. Narcolepsy is linked to a lack of the neurotransmitter hypocretin, which keeps humans alert and awake.

To end off the trilogy about the still largely unknown nature of sleep, here’s a rundown post on the weird sleep phenomena/disorders a person may have and the importance of sleeping for the optimal amount of time.

sleep
Image from Stocksnaps.io.

Insomnia

Almost everyone’s faced this problem before. Sometimes, people have trouble falling or staying asleep. You may often hear older people complain “once I wake up, I can’t fall back asleep,” or a college student complaining that between caffeine wreaking their energy and melatonin (sleep hormone) levels and overload of work, they can’t sleep.

According to a study that Dr. Allison Harvey of UC Berkeley conducted, feeling that one didn’t sleep enough is often a more psychological affliction than true statement. Insomniacs felt exhausted during the day and reported only sleeping 2-3 hours, but actually slept only 35 minutes less than the control group, regular sleepers (3).

Narcolepsy

On the flip side, there are people who chronically fall asleep too much, often at unusual times. Like Mr. Benedict from the Mysterious Benedict Society book series, narcoleptics are susceptible to sudden, uncontrollable sleep attacks. Sufferers of this disorder may stop talking midsentence and fall asleep or become extremely drowsy after being triggered by a stressor.

Obviously, randomly sleeping can be inconvenient for sufferers, like in driving, eating, or their daily careers. Narcolepsy is linked to a lack of the neurotransmitter hypocretin, which keeps humans alert and awake. Narcolepsy may also be caused by brain trauma or infections.

Sleep Apnea

One of the more terrifying sleep disorders, sleep apnea is a disease where the sleepers periodically stop breathing. Decreased oxygen levels lead to sufferers waking up to remember to inhale air. Unfortunately, this often results in a lack of sleep.

Somnambulism

Also known as sleepwalking, somnambulism may occur in REM or non-REM Stage 3 of sleep, and may be accompanied by sleeptalking. These disorders are often harmless, like how my cousin tells me that I occasionally talk or growl in my sleep (who knows what was going on in my mind?); however, extreme sleepwalking can lead to disastrous effects, like comedian Mike Birbiglia jumping out of a two-story building (1).

The unconscious nature of sleep can make it difficult for one to discern the difference between reality and dreams. It also leads to the unfortunate truism that “dreaming of drooling” may lead to you actually drooling in real life.

Night Terrors

Not to be confused with nightmares, which involve vivid, scary images during REM sleep, night terrors are imageless bouts of fear that occur mostly during non-REM Stage 3 sleep and mostly only occur with kids under the age of 7. “Sufferers experience increased heart and breathing rates, screaming, and thrashing that’s seldom remembered upon waking. Night terrors may be caused by stress, fatigue, sleep deprivation, and sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings” (1).

I can confirm this as I’ve heard a family member scream only one hour into sleeping, while we stayed at a hotel. By my powers of deduction, one hour of sleeping is not long enough to reach REM sleep, so they probably had a night terror.

“Sleep is for the Weak” vs. “Sleeping for a Week”

As I previously stated, sleeping habits vary by our chemical levels, with melatonin hormones causing sleepiness and hypocretin neurotransmitters causing alertness. An excess of hypocretin or energy like in the manic stage of bipolar disorder can lead to hyperactiveness and lack of sleep.

Another instance of “sleep being for the weak” is how there just seem to be some people who miraculously survive on only four hours of sleep or successfully pull all-nighters without consequences. My own mother has lived this way for decades. She sometimes claims insomnia, but she still functions regularly despite not meeting the average human 8 hours of sleep per night. Her ability to resist sleep may be a case of an uncommon gene, called “Period 3” or the “Clock Gene” that scientists are still researching. Unfortunately, she did not pass this gene to me.

Don’t be mistaken that not needing sleep is beneficial though! Sleep is necessary for neural connection stimulation, physical growth, immune system development, and more.

On the flip side, those who “sleep for a week” may also face health detriments like the non-sleeping people. Chronic heavy sleepers, like adults who sleep double-digit numbers of hours a day are more prone to obesity, loneliness, and depression.

Not sleeping within the average 6-8 hours is linked to shorter lifespans, higher risks of cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. Sleep deprivation can lead to impulsiveness and reduced perceptual and cognitive function because of the temporarily increased dopamine levels from a stimulated sleepless mesolimbic system. Extra dopamine leads to more energy, motivation, and positivity, but also leads to the brain shutting down areas like the frontal lobe, which plan and evaluate decisions, hence provoking more impulsiveness. (4)


References and Footnotes:

(1) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rMHus-0wFSo

(2) MYERS, DAVID G. MYERS PSYCHOLOGY FOR AP. WORTH PUB, 2018.

(3) http://www.mindupdate.com/2007/04/the-mystery-of-sleep-and-the-lucky-few-who-dont-need-it/

(4) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNhDkKAvxFk

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