The miracle of sleep

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Sleep is one of the true mysteries of nature. It is a feature of all organisms and it is enjoyed at various times during the 24 hour cycle. Some organisms like bats are known to sleep during the day, while most other organisms sleep when it’s dark.

In man, there are regulatory mechanisms for this important feature of our lives. The average individual is required to sleep an average of six to eight hours a day in order to maintain a sound body and mind. At the extremes of life, in the newborn and the very old, the total length of sleeping hours is much more. It is not usual for one to have a continuous sleeping pattern, but in brief spells at intervals in the course of the day and night.

No individual can tell the precise moment when he or she falls asleep nor can anyone say with precision when they awake. At best, one can say, ‘I slept at about this time or that time and woke up at about this time’. Even in artificially induced sleep such as anaesthesia, the mystery endures. It is not usual to determine precisely when a patient slept off. It is usually said: “He is asleep”. The precise moment of sleep is usually unknown. It is such a fundamental part of our daily existence that we sometimes take it for granted. It is one of the mysteries of nature to the extent that we do not remember to see it as a problem until we are not able to get it.

Sleeping is also important because it is only during sleep that the brain rests, in the sense that it is not supposed to be engaged in acts of active thinking and problem solving at that time. In particular, there is what is known as the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, when sleep is at its deepest. This is the period when almost all dreams occur. The sleep is so deep at this time that the person is almost unconscious. Deprivation of this aspect of sleep often causes a host of psychological and mental health problems for an individual. It lasts for no more than a few minutes during several hours of sleep, but its absence is guaranteed to have robbed that person of a certain quality of sleep.

When this aspect of rest is absent in one’s life, sleep disturbance is said to occur. It is manageable when it occurs for brief periods in the life of an individual. It is an important contributor to the onset of disease when it is a consistent feature of a person’s life. Sleep deprivation causes an impairment of judgement such that the operation of machinery, driving, the operation of sensitive equipment and performing regular tasks at work, all become impaired over time. Productivity at work, therefore, falls and the mental health status of the person could become a casualty.

Also, sleep deprivation is now associated with weight gain, obesity and even diabetes. The relationship between these is based on the disturbance of the normal regulatory processes of the hormones which modulate our metabolic processes and keep us fit. This regulatory effect, which is dependent largely on the sleep-wake cycle, becomes ineffective over time and allows the development of the sequence of events that would lead to the above problems. It is not enough to obtain a certain number of sleeping hours; this period of sleep should also be maximised to rest and viewed as a genuine relief. Thus, the sleeping position is important, as is the comfort in doing so. For example, it is not possible to compare the quality of sleep enjoyed by a man who sleeps in a wheel-barrow with that of another who sleeps on a mat or with that of yet another who sleeps on a mattress. In due course, there are consequences of this sort of pattern.

Some of these problems that arise are agitation and lack of concentration. There may be a reduction or increase in appetite, depending on the person’s nature. Anxiety symptoms may also develop that the person would eventually become ineffective at work. Over time, that individual would withdraw into his shell and is unable to maintain normal personal relationships. People around him may then be perceived as enemies or as being responsible for his plight. Any person with such erratic behaviour requires the help of a psychiatrist, who is an expert on the effects and management of the problems arising from sleep disturbance or deprivation. There is no stigma involved here. It is not equivalent to madness or insanity but if this important kind of help is not sought, then it could lead to mental illness.

In some parts of Lagos, there are people who are awake as early as 4am and prepare to get to work by 8am or earlier. Some of these people would have gone to bed not earlier than midnight because of the distances they have to commute to and from work. Frequently, there are no outward signs of trouble among such people until things get out of hand. It is a creeping illness with unique disabilities that are often missed by most of the people around such workers. It is a peculiar situation that might endure until a problem arises.

There are mechanisms some of these people have adopted to cope with the situation. They arrive early to the office and sleep until work resumes. Some find time to effectively disappear during the day to sleep for an hour or two before re-appearing to continue the work. Others close early from work in order to get home on time and sleep before 9pm. In some cases, people have an alternative accommodation where they retire after the close of work during the week, and return to their ‘real’ homes on Fridays when they can sleep as they wish.

Nature cannot be cheated and the adoption of strategies like these has helped many to prevent potential health disasters. Many others are on sedatives and hypnotics prescribed by their doctors to help them cope with the result, so much so that some have now developed some addiction to (or dependence on) these medications. Even these have their downsides, but it is good to know that there are natural ways to cope simply by adapting to one’s environment.

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