Oh, those sleepless nights. Whether it's because you've got a newborn in the house waking you every hour and a half, you're pulling all-nighters to study for exams, you're experiencing stress about your job and finances, or any other reason imaginable, you have that awful feeling the next day like you're not quite all there. That may be because part of your brain has actually shut down and taken a snooze.
A recent study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has shown that groups of neurons in the brain may actually go to sleep while the rest of the body is wide awake.1 It calls into question our whole concept of falling asleep, which is based on the idea that one minute you're awake, and the next you're sound asleep totally and completely. This finding instead suggests that sleep comes when groupings of neurons in the brain synchronize and turn off at the same time. But if that doesn't take place because you are not sleeping well or long enough, the neurons will turn off a few at a time -- leaving you awake but not fully functional.
The researchers used a brand new technology that provides clearer, more detailed information on electrical activity in the brain than the electroencephalographic leads typically used. Its precision allows access to what is taking place in particular neuron groups within the brain, even in animal brains as small as a rat or a fruit fly. The scientists used this technology to examine the brain activity of sleep-deprived rats. Even though the rats were outwardly behaving normally, the monitoring equipment was able to show that parts of their brains had actually fallen asleep. Or to put it another way, studies with Swedish train drivers have shown that people can be asleep with their eyes wide open. In the study, conductors' brains were clearly fully asleep, even though they were standing up and staring straight ahead.2
It was not just a case of certain neurons not being actively used, as can also happen in the brain. The researchers' analysis determined that some groups of neurons were truly asleep and other nearby groups were awake and alert. Unfortunately, the neurons that had fallen asleep were in an area responsible for decision-making processes. Maybe not the biggest deal if a rat makes a few bad choices because of exhaustion; however, if it's an emergency room doctor awake for too many hours straight, it may very well be a life-or-death situation.
These findings are in line with previous studies that have shown that people lacking enough sleep do poorly on tests of cognition. Now we have at least a partial answer as to why this happens. It is a potentially huge problem, since most adults do not get either the quantity or quality of sleep needed on any given night. A 2009 poll by the Centers for Disease Control of more than 400,000 people found that 70 percent of respondents hadn't slept well at least some of the previous month.3 A full 38 percent hadn't had adequate sleep for more than seven nights in the previous 30 days, and more than one in 10 claimed they hadn't enjoyed a single good night's rest.
The study also found that adults now get considerably less sleep than they did a decade ago, and that sleep levels continue to decline. Experts say that, on average, adults need between seven and eight hours of rest every night in order to maintain health. But in this poll, 20 percent of the respondents reported sleeping less than six hours a night, far short of the minimum, compared to only 13 percent in 2001.
So what is causing all the sleepless nights? According to the CDC report, people work so many hours that their schedule cuts into sleep. Or, they stay up late entertaining themselves for too long on the Internet or watching television. Not to mention the other issues that lead to restless sleep such as drinking caffeine-laden sodas and coffees, indulging in sweets, and eating a poorly balanced diet. Not getting enough exercise also throws the metabolism off and makes sleep difficult.
Ultimately, it seems as if you might want to make some lifestyle improvements if you are one of the many who is not getting enough sleep regularly. No one wants a portion of their brain to be falling asleep during the day, especially while they are driving their car or even crossing the street. And keep in mind that this means if you're an air traffic controller, a bus driver, an airline pilot, or a medical intern, for example, the longer you're awake, the worse the decisions you will make. So if you're still having trouble getting a good night's sleep, try using some natural health alternatives to help guide you to slumber at bedtime. It just might save somebody's life.
1 Vyazovskiy, Vladyslav V.; Olcese, Umberto; Hanlon, Erin C.; Nir, Yuval; Cirelli, Chiara; Tononi, Giulio. "Local Sleep in Awake Rats." Nature. 28 April 2011. Nature Publishing Group. 6 June 2011. <http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v472/n7344/full/nature10009.html>.
2 Torbjörn Åkerstedt, PhD and Kenneth P. Wright, Jr., PhD. "Sleep Loss and Fatigue in Shift Work and Shift Work Disorder." Sleep Med Clin. 2009 June 1; 4(2): 257--271. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2904525/?tool=pmcentrez.
3 McKnight-Eily, LR; Liu, Y; Perry, GS; Presley-Cantrell, LR; Strine, TW; Lu, H; Croft, JB. "Perceived Insufficient Rest or Sleep Among Adults--United States, 2008." CDC MMWR. 30 October 2009. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 7 June 2011. <http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5842a2.htm>.