Sleepless in Colorado

Insomnia is the most persistent side effect of my chemo. I can’t go to sleep without taking a couple of pills. Not wanting to become dependent, I try to go without them once every few nights, without success. Just my luck, I’ll finish chemo in December and have to enter rehab to get off sleeping pills.


Joking—I hope—aside, I’m very thankful for the pills. They have made the second round of chemo more tolerable than the first. There’s a reason why sleep deprivation is a universal form of torture. In the short term it causes concentration and memory impairment and irritability. More sleepless nights can lead to slurred speech, tremors, hypertension and hallucinations. Long-term effects can include weakened immune system, heart disease, depression, mental illness and even death. (You will die faster of sleep deprivation than starvation.)


One hypothesis is that deprivation mimics the effects of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI). Another is that REM sleep is essential for blocking neurotransmitters and allowing the neurotransmitter receptors to rest and regain sensitivity, which leads to improved regulation of mood and increased learning ability. If your brain can’t rejuvenate, you deteriorate.


Matthew Walker, Director of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, discovered a disconnect in the brains of sleep-deprived people between the amygdala and the frontal lobe, the region controlling rational thought and decision-making. This results in emotional responses not being kept in check by the more logical seat of reasoning. The same problem is found in people with psychiatric disorders.


Translation: sleeplessness can make you nuts!


Or help you become more spiritual. The Desert Fathers denied themselves sleep as a spiritual discipline and some historians believe coffee’s popularity was enhanced by Muslim mystics who used it to pull all-night devotionals.


Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked for that way for me yet.


Sleep trivia:

  • The record for the longest period without sleep is 18 days, 21 hours, 40 minutes during a rocking chair marathon.


  • Seventeen hours of sustained wakefulness leads to a decrease in performance equivalent to a blood alcohol-level of 0.05%.


  • A new baby typically results in 400-750 hours lost sleep for parents in the first year.


  • Americans average 6.9 hours of sleep on weeknights and 7.5 hours per night on weekends.


  • REM sleep occurs in bursts totaling about 2 hours a night, usually beginning about 90 minutes after falling asleep.


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