2009.02.25 Friendly help in a.m.

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

I remember when I used to have trouble getting to sleep. That was sometime back in my 20s I think and then again for a while later in my adult life.

Now, it seems, I need about two minutes and I’m gone. There is an exception to that. If I doze off a little before going to bed and then get up to go back to sleep, I’m probably going to be awake for a long time. It’s that initial fatigue that sends me off.

It also happens if I’ve just gotten to sleep and the phone rings. It often puts me back into an alert stage. It’s the same thing if I’m about to doze off and then She Who Stays Up For Hours decides to come up and talk. She can be a sleep-wrecker.

We have such vastly different styles of sleep. For Colleen, going to bed at midnight is turning in early. For me, midnight means I’m going to suffer the next day.

For me, I get up in the morning. I wake up and I get up. I couldn’t sleep in if I tried. For her, just change those sentences around. In the morning she can’t get up. She wakes up and she...well, she doesn’t wake up. She sleeps in with no effort.

Apparently she suffers from sleep inertia. Her condition results in the inability to move and a drowsy request to know what time it is. She isn’t able to open her eyes and look at the clock. The radio/alarm is playing but she isn’t yet able to listen and comprehend the words.

There’s a quick solution for my wife’s sleep inertia, but I’m not confident that I’m fast enough to pull it off. You simply have to rip the covers off her and run downstairs before she grabs you and begins clawing out your eyes. I learned the hard way how expensive it is to get an eye transplant.

I read this morning about some sleep studies that question the typical model of dozing off. In the past, scientists thought there was a control center that told the brain when it was time to shut down and rest. A newer study suggests that various parts of the brain fall asleep independently and real sleep occurs when enough areas have powered down.

That might explain sleep walking, which is something I don’t think I’ve ever participated in. I think it was John Bryner who said that one of his parents witnessed him riding his tricycle back up to the house after a night-time sleep ride. Someone else told the story about mistakenly confusing the refrigerator for the toilet while sleepwalking. Weird stuff.

The researchers also think that sleep inertia fits into their new model of sleep. Parts of the brain are awake while other parts are still shut down. For some, the simple act of removing a quilt awakens many portions at once and triggers an aggression response.

Maybe this relates to other recent studies of poor sleep and mental illness. The old model is that people with mental problems typically have poor sleep patterns. The new model suggests that poor sleep may lead to psychiatric disorders. Or, in the least, poor sleep might lead to behavior that’s mistakenly diagnosed as a mental problem.

Poor sleep can lead to depression in adults. Children diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder are much more likely to be poor sleepers than other children. They’re treated with Ritalin instead of addressing a sleep apnea problem.

The studies are all very interesting, with discussions of brain chemicals and rapid eye movement (REM) and the processing of daily memories to remove the emotional edges.

Maybe I’ll do a little research of my own. All I need is a willing—or at least sleeping—subject, and I do have access to that.

One of my sleep research colleagues reports that a good sleep with REM refreshes our civilizing emotional reactions, that it resets the magnetic north of our emotional compass.

Civilizing? My first step is make sure all the doors I need to pass through are wide open, make sure the floors are clear of anything that might trip me up, and to make sure my swim goggles are tightly fitting over my eyes.

I should probably have the front door of the house open, too, and maybe the car engine running.

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