A sleep worth discussing

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, September 18, 2012 9:41 PM

For some reason, Kevin and I were talking about sleep today. Evidently when he woke up at some point this morning, before falling back to sleep because it wasn’t yet time to get up, he got to thinking about the very idea of falling asleep and how interesting it was. I listened intently and curiously.

Kevin: “it’s just so wild, when you think about it, that one minute you’re talking or watching the news, and the next it’s morning because you feel asleep and you don’t even know it. It’s fascinating.”

First, if you’re talking to someone and you fall asleep, chances are the conversation wasn’t very lively. If you’re watching the news and you fall asleep, well, that’s fairly normal especially if it’s the local 11 o’clock news because most of the time, those newscasts are terribly banal. They pander, they sensationalize, they bore. Hence the snort-snort-snore that drifts from Kevin’s side of the bed as he gives up and gives in to the night.

Of course, this snort-snort-snore has also been known to happen in the afternoon when he’s laying on the couch or laying on the bed, but almost always there’s a television on.

I’m sensing a pattern.

Still, I was interested. “What do you mean?” I asked.

He tried to explain the feeling that overtakes him when he falls asleep and I nodded. I know what he’s talking about and it’s difficult to describe. It’s like a blanket is being pulled up over your brain. It gets comfy and warm, cozy. It relaxes. It drifts. Thoughts wander, then ooze out the door. It’s impossible to focus and you don’t want to. You’re tired. You want to sleep. Soon you do.

There’s no universally agreed-upon definition of falling asleep because it’s not a split-second happening. There isn’t a switch that gets turns off but rather a gradual progression of stages in which the body and the brain both change.

First, you doze off and your brain and muscles slow down. It’s a light sleep, the kind where sometimes you jerk yourself awake. You’re not quite into zzzzzzzzz land. Many times if someone in this stage is asked if they were asleep, they will respond no. Even if they were starting to snore. Like my husband.

Next comes the calm brain and no eye movements. Breathing slows and body temperature drops slightly which is why you get cold, or at least I do. If you’re in this state, you’ve lost touch with where you are but you can still be easily awakened. You usually want some covers, even if it’s hot.

In the next phases, breathing slows into a more even and often audible rhythm. Blood pressure drops and body temp drops even more. Your muscles relax. Sleep researchers call this “slow wave sleep” because the brain waves are at their most dormant. This is the sleep we need, the restorative rest that helps the body to regenerate. When you sleep like this, protein is generated for strength, hormones like cortisol, which helps make us bright eyed in the morning, are released, and the body is mostly at peace. About 90 minutes in, the infamous Rapid Eye Movement (REM) pattern begins. Interestingly, this is very close to actually being awake. This is also when dreams can occur. After REM, you get NREM or Non-Rapid Eye Movement, something that actually happens in 90 to 110 minute cycles, four to six times every night.

Then morning comes. Light begins to dawn and the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), a very small area of the brain, registers this light and soon sleep is over. I always find this incredibly sad. I love to sleep. I’m good at it. My husband is better at falling asleep but not so good at staying asleep. He teases me that if we awake at any time during the night for whatever reason and converse, even for just a minute or two, that I can fall back to sleep quicker than anyone he’s ever known. I take great pride in that.

Sleep is a wondrous thing. Lack of sleep is abominable. As I say often, there’s a reason sleep deprivation is a torture technique.

We are made to sleep. From the moment we’re born, we spend most of our time trying to get to sleep. Babies do it, usually at times when new parents don’t want them to and rarely during the night. Puppies do it at any given time. I always loved when Maguire was a puppy and he’d play and play and rough house and growl and then, boom. He’d fall over asleep. I admired it. Kittens do it too. I imagine all animals do, though I only have experience with puppies/dogs and kittens/cats.

Obligatory kitten/puppy shot

We take naps as kids, and fight it. We take naps as adults, and relish it. Either way, as Kevin said today, if you do it right, you wake up.

That’s always worth celebrating, as long as it’s not too early. 

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live out loud

Comments (2) -

9/19/2012 2:57:32 AM #

One of my most favorite things to see is my bear pupple sleeping, eyes closed, but with her ear, which is normally drooped downward when she is erect and awake, standing up at apparent attention. Too damned cute!

Fred United States

9/19/2012 10:49:24 PM #

Maguire had that same ear thing. It was just one ear, and sometimes, it would twitch. We just loved it!

Lorin United States

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