Answering an Edge Question, My Take - Sleep

John McManamy Health Guide
  • What questions do we need to be asking? Funny you should ask.


    Each year, Edge - which bills itself as on online salon - poses one question a year to more than 150 of the deepest thinkers in the world. The list is heavy in physicists, evolutionary biologists, and cognitive psychologists. It is also well-represented in philosophers, technology writers, and social scientists. We also find the occasional novelist, historian, artist, and musician. 


    Around this time of year, Edge gathers the answers into a book. Its latest, just out: "What Should We Be Worried About?" I just ordered the book, which I will read, once I’m through with "What Have You Changed Your Mind About? Why?"

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    The other Edge books I have been reading include: "What Is Your Favorite Deep, Elegant, or Beautiful Explanation?", "What Will Change Everything?", and "What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody’s Cognitive Toolkit?"


    Naturally, I can’t help think about how I would answer some of these questions, myself. Then it occurred to me: Maybe I can, from a bipolar perspective, here at HealthCentral. Consider this the first in an occasional series. Bring on the first question: 


    What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody’s Cognitive Toolkit?


    This is an easy one for me: The restorative power of sleep. There is a reason we need to sleep. The brain science is pointing to two compelling ones, aside from the obvious one of rest and recovery. The first has to do with sleep as a tool to process our experiences from our waking day, to sift out inconsequential events, and lock in the important ones and integrate them into our memories.


    The second has to do with new studies showing that healthy sleep may delay the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Apparently, we need to switch off our conscious brains for routine maintenance. This involves the brain clearing itself of dangerous build-ups of amyloid plaque. Amyloid plaque is Public Enemy Number One in Alzheimer’s.


    As well as getting a decent night’s sleep, we can make a case for strategic napping as a way to reboot the brain and heal from stressful and disturbing events.


    Our natural pattern may be segmented sleep. Various narratives from the seventeenth century and earlier refer to “first sleep,” with no explanation, as if none is needed. Apparently, back before artificial light, it was natural for people to wake up in the middle of the night, and either lie in bed or get up and engage in some activities, then settle back into a second sleep.


    The references to first sleep disappeared with the advent of candle and oil and gas lamps.


    Then came the electric light and an all-out assault on sleep. Around 1900, average sleep dropped from nine to eight hours, then - in the 1950s - to seven-and-a-half. Today, we are down to six-and-a-half.


    Fatigue and lack of sleep are linked to poor job performance, accidents, foul mood, and bad decision-making, among many others. The only remedy for lack of sleep is - sleep. Coffee and stimulants at best only delay the onset of sleep.


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    Unfortunately, our world is not designed to promote good sleep. We spend our so-called waking hours comatose, on edge, stressed-out, with no time to punch out, no time to recover.


    Those of us with bipolar are especially vulnerable. I have yet to encounter an individual with bipolar who does not have major issues with sleep. Too much or too little sleep is a symptom of depression. Less of a need to sleep is a symptom of mania and hypomania. Even a slight disruption to our sleep puts us at higher risk of an episode. 


    So, the science is coming in loud and clear: How to fend off dementia and Alzheimer’s, how to optimize memory, how to heal our brains, how to enhance daily cognitive performance, how to stay mentally balanced, how to reduce risk of a bipolar episode? The answer is simple. Healthy sleep.


    Is this the most awesome tool in the cognitive toolkit or what?




    This is the first in an occasional series in which I will provide my own bipolar-oriented answers to Edge questions. Feel free to join in the discussion. How would you answer the same Edge question? Comments below ... 

Published On: February 23, 2014