What's sleep got to do with it?

Thursday, March 2, 2006

I was once referred a 17-year-old boy whose parents were concerned because he slept all the time.

I asked him straight out: "Why do you sleep so much?"

"Because I can," was his straight-out response.

My eyes turned a bright green. It was envy, of course. When you get to be my age and spend a lot of time around others of similar vintage, you start having these begrudging feelings about those who can slumber away their nights. Whether you never touch a caffeinated drink or a drop of alcohol; whether you are a perimenopausal woman, full-on menopausal or well past all of that; whether you are man with an enlarged prostate or not ... it is almost universal: A full and uninterrupted night's sleep is as rare as an expression on Cher's face.

With so much effort to find the Sandman's embrace (much of it futile, it seems, according to my peers), it got me to thinking about sleep and why nature is requiring something of us that it also seems to make harder for us to come by as we age.

Sleep seems to be a universal need, across species, and necessary for survival. Predatory animals, such as lions, sleep a lot (a celebratory nap while digesting their prey?) while the more vulnerable grazing animals, such as horses, need to stay awake for survival.

We humans, it is postulated, need sleep not only to rest our bodies after a morning of grazing for food at the grocery store or an afternoon of hunting down our enemies, but for maintaining a healthy brain. We are, after all, a brainy species.

According to University of Wisconsin psychiatrist Dr. Guilio Tononi, as reported in the Monitor on Psychology (January 2006), sleep evolved in humans to help the brain recover from the work of learning. After a day of exercising our synapses with active and passive learning, we max out our brain energy and capacity, and we need sleep to restore energy and create more space for the brain's labor the next day. One of the most relevant theories about sleep to those of us who are aging is also still being debated. The theory suggests that we need sleep in order to consolidate and retain newly made memories as well as newly acquired skills.

Now that is something anyone can covet who has racked up a few decades on this planet and developed the terror of senility.

As most of you reading this column will attest, getting that good night of sleep in order to shore up our memories and skill sets is increasingly difficult as the years unfurl. I asked Dr. Andrew Binder, director of The Santa Barbara Sleep Disorders Clinic, about this.

"Even though the phase of sleep [REM] where learning is consolidated stays about the same as we age," he told me recently, "as we get older, we tend to take more medication, encounter more stress, even take more anti-depressants. All of these things negatively impact our REM sleep and therefore our ability to consolidate memory and learning."

And then there is the other kind of sleep -- the non-REM sleep, or "slow wave" slumber -- where we deeply rest and become replenished. According to Dr. Binder, as we age, slow wave sleep naturally decreases. And this is why we tend to feel less rested.

I guess we are stuck with sleep. But the problem still remains: How does an Aging Warrior make it happen? Next week, I go to the mat on this subject, looking at what hard-core medicine has to offer.

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh, a Cape Girardeau native, is a clinical psychologist who lives and works in Santa Barbara, Calif. Contact him at mseabaugh@semissourian.com.

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