Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1225, (11-17 December 2014)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1225, (11-17 December 2014)

Ahram Weekly

‘In the still of the night’

Al-Ahram Weekly

You feel grumpy and clumsy, drowsy and lousy, and you know why! You had a bad night’s sleep, and this is going to be a long day.

Sleep deprivation leaves the brain exhausted, its performance diminished. During sleep the brain rests the busy neurons and produces proteins that help repair cell damage, without which you are prone to a long list of health hazards.

Insomnia and depression feed on one another, leading to heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and horror of horrors, wrinkles. We have no need of giving Father Time extra ammunition to produce that sallow skin, puffy eyes with dark circles that range from grey to blue. Who needs that?   

The loss of adequate sleep causes your body to release excessive amounts of ‘cortisol’, the stress hormone which breaks down skin collagen, the protein that keeps skin smooth and elastic, touted by all the skin creams on the market. It also causes the body to release less of the ‘growth hormone’, which obviously helps the young to grow. As we age, it increases muscle mass, thickens skin and strengthens bones, “patching the wear and tear of the day”, according to sleep expert Phil Gehrman, PhD.

Can you believe that sleeplessness makes you gain weight?  A 2009 Franco-American study reported that people who sleep less than six hours were 30 per cent more likely to be obese.  You would think it should be the other way around, but shortened sleep time is associated with decreases in ‘liptin’ and elevations in ‘ghrelin’.  ‘Liptin’ suppresses appetite ‘ghrelin’ stimulates hunger and cravings for fat and high carbohydrate.  Some physicians include adequate sleep as part of a weight loss diet. How easy is that?

The University of Denmark conducted a study among young men 20 and under, which concluded that lack of sleep lowers testosterone levels affecting male fertility. Alarming!

How desirable is a 7-9 hour constant, uninterrupted, blissful sleep!

So, you lie awake in the dark, angered that tomorrow will be infernal, and you develop even more stress and anxiety, leading to physical and mental perils and torments.

Absolutely do not accept life without adequate sleep! Sleeplessness dulls and depresses, hurts cognitive  processes, impairs attention, alertness, concentration and judgement.

No! Do not accept life without sleep! You need sleep as much as you need to breathe, eat and drink.

Enter historian A Roger Ekrich of Virginia Tech, who published a seminal paper drawn from 16 years of research, asserting that ancient humans used to sleep in two distinct phases, a theory which appealed to a majority of scientists.  In his book: “AT DAY’S CLOSE: Nights in Times Past”, Ekrich argues that early man slept in two distinct phases, unearthing references of 500 patterns of segmented sleep in stories, court-records, medical books, even Homer’s ODYSSEY.  This was a normal pattern in ancient, medieval and even modern times, until the 17th century and the industrial age.

This bi-modal pattern results in the experience of greater wakefulness during the day. The brain secretes high levels of ‘prolactin’, a protein associated with a feeling of peace, calm and well-being. This period was dedicated to prayer, reflection, meditation, reading and writing. Poets and authors were prolific in the still of the night. Prayer manuals from the 5th century were written during this waking period of 1-2 hours, followed by a 2nd sleep.

Craig Koslovsky’s new book “Evening Empire”, explains that before the 17th century night was populated by people of ill-repute, criminals, prostitutes and drunks. When street lighting became common, respectable people began to explore the hours of darkness. Paris was the first city in the world to light up its streets in 1667, thus the eponym “City of Lights”. By the end of the century 50 European cities were lit, darkness was diminished and sleep patterns disturbed.

People today have adapted to an eight hour sleep or thereabouts but Ekrich believes that may well be the root of all sleep problems, since the human body’s natural preference is for segmented sleep. Further proof is that insomnia is a condition that first appeared at the end of the 19th century, when night was king and sleep disappeared.

“For most of evolution we slept in a certain way” says psychologist Greg Jacobs, “waking up during the night was normal”.  The idea of sleeping in a consolidated time could be damaging. It makes us anxious and this anxiety not only prohibits sleep, it produces a host of physical problems. Still the majority of doctors fail to acknowledge that a consolidated eight hour sleep is unnatural, and 30 per cent of problems facing them stem directly or indirectly from sleep.

Russell Foster, professor of circadian, (body clock) neuroscience at Oxford University shares that view:  “Many people wake up at night and panic, I tell them that what they are experiencing is a throwback to their ancestors’ bi-modal sleep pattern.”

Dr Jacobs suggests that we should welcome that waking period which can provide rest and relaxation, an important part in the human capacity to regulate stress naturally.

The next time you wake up in the middle of the night, do not fret, think of your ancestors and relax. You can read, write, warm up some milk which contains tryptophan, like mother’s milk, an amino-acid linked to better sleep.

Lying awake in still darkness, may be good for you. You may even look younger the next day! 


 “Blessings to him who invented sleep, the mantle that covers all human thought”
 Cervantes (1547-1616)

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