In Defense of Sleep (3/12/13)
Recently a journalist asked to summarize important facts about sleep.
Here’s an attempt to defend sleep – and it’s role in human regeneration. Some will be interested by a new large European study showing that the worse the insomnia, the worse future heart failure. Yet the story is much bigger than that:
The body processes information. Most of that information is processed unconsciously. Sleep performs much of that processing.
Information continually changes the body. It uses new information to update, remodel and remake all its systems. Without that remake, the body dies.
If sleep is prevented, the body dies.
The human body’s remodeling is astonishingly quick. Most of the heart is remade in three days. Much of the body outside structural factors – like bone – is remade in three to four weeks.
The goal of health should be to foster this regeneration. A newly regenerating body and brain is much more effective in dealing with a constantly changing environment.
People don’t see their bodies regenerating – quickly or slowly – for at least two reasons 1. Most biological changes are not conscious to us. They happen “under the hood.” Witness our supremely active immune system – fighting off hundreds of different bacteria, viruses, fungi, not to mention chemicals – and you’ll get an idea of how much non-conscious information and biological changes goes on – prominently including sleep. 2. Our image of self. We see ourselves as stable throughout most of life – even though we “know” we’re constantly changing. Our bodies, brains, personalities, memories, even autobiographies shift markedly from ages six to sixteen to sixty. Yet we think we’re “the same.”
Sorry, folks. The person who read “War and Peace” at sixteen is very different from the one picking it up today – and finding it indeed a different reading experience.
Sleep is a period and process by which much our regeneration takes places – including memory, immunity, body remodeling, and informational planning for further retooling. Short shrift sleep and critical processes suffer. The end results include early death, heart disease, stroke, increased infections, more depression, higher levels of anxiety, increased tumors – on and on.
To improve our health – individual and collective – we have to ditch the machine model of the body.
Machines are dead; bodies are alive.
Bodies do not just “return to normal” – what medical care calls homeostasis . That’s not our way to health. Species evolve, individuals evolve, information evolves. It has to – we learn or we die. The environment outside – bugs, pollutants, weather – continually changes. If adaptation to the outside world does not continue apace, everything falls apart. Including us.
Sleep is a critical part of human regeneration. And the power of human regeneration includes:
1. Allowing people to exert effective control through their own actions – for what you do is what you become.
2. Seeing the body as continuously regenerating allows for much more effective public health. It also aids medical efforts to regain health for the sick.
3. It provides hope to the hopeless.
4. It implicitly recognizes health as greater than laboratory values or lack of subjective symptoms. There is physical health, mental health, social health, spiritual health. All support the others. All are synergistic.
5. It’s economically cheaper. Maintaining or improving health is vastly less expensive than health care.
6. It fits hand-in-glove with the growing information revolution in systems research physics, chemistry and biology.
7. It sees the body as a system that continually grows and progresses to stave off entropy and decay. And that can give us hope of combating everything from environmental ills to social conflicts.
Regeneration is what we do. Sleep is one third of life. We can’t regenerate without it.
So why do we think we can do without it?
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