The mystery of sleep

The talk above is by Giulio Tononi, of the University of Wisconsin on “Sleep function and synaptic homeostasis” – stop yawning at the back! Its about 20 minutes long and is comprehensible for around the first 5 minutes.

I have been dieting lately, restricting my calorie intake to somewhere around 1500 calories* per day. I am using the H-plan® diet – where the H stands for hunger: basically the idea is to avoid panic when I feel hungry and just get used to the feeling. Well I am losing weight (of which more later), but the diet has had a side-effect: I don’t need as much sleep. I know that after eating a big meal I would feel especially sleepy, and I wonder if this is just a re-bound from having previously eaten too many large meals?

Normally I sleep for just under 8 hours but crave for more. Currently I am sleeping for 7 and waking refreshed.  I have looked on-line for explanations, or corroboration that this is a genuine effect and found nothing. Why I should feel the need for corroboration of something I am experiencing is something else I don’t understand! But even though it appears to be just me, it certainly lifts my mood.

With my current surfeit of wakefulness, I came across a discussion on Quora about sleep, linked to a talk on YouTube (see top of the page) addressing the fundamental question: What is sleep for? Hearing the basic facts of sleep read out (about 1 minute into the talk) it seemed amazing that we don’t have an answer to the question. Sleep is central to our lives – both personally and as part of of our symbiotic relationship with our spinning planet – and essential to our health. And yet we not know the answer to something so basic as ‘What is it for?’. Wow.

I was reminded of the role of the Sun in our lives. Our lives and cultures are based around the action of sunlight on the Earth, and yet we never look at the Sun directly – it would damage us if we did so. Similarly with sleep, because we lose consciousness during sleep – it evades our gaze.

*1 calorie is a dietary unit of energy approximately equal to 4200 joules.

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4 Responses to “The mystery of sleep”

  1. Emma Says:

    My experiences of sleep include the following:

    I like to sleep 9 hours a night. I can survive on 7, as long as there is an unbroken period of 3 hours during the night.

    If I don’t get a continuous sleep of at least 3 hours at some point during the night, during the following day my temperature goes up around 4pm and I get all the symptoms of fever.

    If I breastfeed a baby back to sleep, I fall back to sleep immediately myself. If I’m woken up for any other reason it takes me ages to go back to sleep.

    When your sleep is disturbed night after night after night for 2 years you become obsessed… but you completely forget what it was like after just a couple of weeks of proper sleep.

    And related to the topic above – if my sleep is disturbed I get extremely hungry in the daytime.

    Good luck with your hunger diet (I hope there are nice soups in the canteen), though I question the sense in ignoring your body’s natural energy balance feedback system. Doesn’t it make it harder to keep the weight off when you stop the diet? I’ve found “eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re satisfied” (i.e. listen to your own body) to be a useful approach in controlling my own weight.

  2. protonsforbreakfast Says:

    There is a blog in the pipeline about my inability to keep my body weight stable. It is very irritating!

  3. Dave Says:

    Steven Pinker was on Radio 4 a while back. He made a point that sleep doesn’t have to be “for” anything. If the saving of shutting down for a period outweighs the cost of not being able to respond to events, evolution will select for sleep.

  4. Alex Says:

    This book will scientifically explain why we sleep.

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