Sleep isn't for wimps...

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Sleepless in Cheltenham – Dr Kirstie Anderson, Dr John Stradling and Russell Foster

It is well known that sleep is crucial to the functioning of the human body; the average person spends 36% of their lives asleep. At the age of 90 that is a staggering 32 years spent asleep! Sleep has been analysed by all manner of people throughout history, from playwrights and poets to doctors. The Greek even had a God of Sleep – Hypnos.

In Sleepless in Cheltenham it was explained that sleep was not monitored or linked to diseases until the start of World War One, when a pandemic of ‘sleeping sickness’ swept across Europe. In modern day medicine sleep is one of the first things analysed when someone is unwell.

Doctor Kirstie Anderson states that sleep patterns were studied in 1939, when brain wave activity was first recorded. It was found that sleep is not diffusely controlled by the brain. There are two major circuits in the brain which are either on or off, and this controls whether you are asleep or awake. The hypothalamus controls the sleep / wake cycle and therefore the day and night rhythm. As with food, the longer we go without sleep the more we crave it.

There are six stages of sleeping: 1 & 2 – awake, 3 – light sleep, 4 – asleep, 5 – deep sleep and 6 – dream sleep. We dip in and out of these stages of sleep every 90-100 minutes, with deep sleep mostly in the first half of the night and dream sleep in the second half. When these cycles are interrupted or become irregular, problems begin.

Sleep disorders such as narcolepsy, insomnia and sleep behaviour disorder can be detrimental to the sufferer’s quality of life and even the safety of others. Doctor John Stradling is an expert on the sleeping disorder sleep apnoea. This condition is the failure of the upper airway to stay open when muscles relax in sleep, this leads to the throat blocking and the person gasping for breath. This condition is particularly prevalent in overweight people. The main problem is that is disrupts sleep patterns, leading to unpredictable sleeping, notably whilst driving. Sadly an increasing number of fatal road accidents have occurred due to sleep apnoea, but the good news is that it is easily cured – by wearing an oxygen mask whilst sleeping. This highlights just how important sleep is to our health, and that it’s not (as Margaret Thatcher said) for wimps!