clockIn 1964, a young high-school student from San Diego, CA voluntarily decided to perform a stunt of breaking the Guinness World Record for the longest amount of time a human has remained awake with stimulants or drugs.

The record at the time was held by a young DJ in Honolulu who had managed to stay awake for 260 hours while participating in a series of wake-a-thons to raise money for medical research. At age 17, Randy Gardner decided that with the help of his two friends, he would beat that record.

After exactly 11 days, and after suffering hallucinations, paranoia, mood swings, short term memory loss, slurred speech, and major cognitive impairment, Randy Gardner broke the record by 4 hours. After he reached the 11 day mark, he was taken to the nearby naval hospital where he slept for almost 15 hours straight. Then the following night he slept for another 10 plus hours before returning to normal rhythms.randy gardner

His record stood officially for over a decade until a woman in England named Maureen Weston entered a rocking chair marathon and subsequently stayed awake for 18 days and 17 hours and is the last person the Guinness Book of World records ever chose to confirm for the record. They no longer publish the record because of the inherent dangers of sleep deprivation. 

The fact that these people voluntarily stayed awake for such lengths shows an abnormal mental and physical fortitude. For most people, remaining awake for longer than 16 hours creates physical symptoms nearly identical to being intoxicated with a blood alcohol content of 0.05% just below the legal limit to drive.

Another important thing to consider about these stunts is that they became sleep deprived “cold-turkey”. In other words, they had been getting healthy amounts of sleep prior to their stunt, performed the stunt, and then resumed healthy sleep patterns afterwards. By contrast, there are many people who have extremely poor quality sleep, difficulty sleeping, or broken sleep that can go on for years. The accumulated health problems that arise from this type of chronic sleep deprivation are much more serious.

Some people refer to the accumulated sleep deprivation as a “sleep debt”. This debt can come in the form of:

  • Muscle aches
  • Headaches
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased cortisol levels
  • Malaise
  • Obesity
  • Rapid involuntary eye movements called nystagmus
  • Hand tremors
  • Confusion
  • Irritability
  • Memory impairment
  • Depression
  • Hallucinations

Sleep deprivation can also produce symptoms similar to ADHD and psychosis.

For the rest of us normal people who are just trying to put in a good 8 hours so that we can function well the next day, sometimes sleep doesn’t seem to come easily. For those of us with varying degrees of insomnia of sleeping difficulties, we have it worse than someone who is fighting to stay awake, we’re actually fighting to fall asleep.

Difficulty sleeping can come from many different sources, some psychological and some physical. In order to figure out the source of one’s sleeping issues, we have to use a process of elimination. There are certain fundamental elements required for a healthy sleep rhythm. These elements are often referred to as ‘sleep hygiene’.

The first element in sleep hygiene is sleep and wake time consistency. If you get up at widely varying times and go to sleep at varying times, your body will have difficulty adjusting to these changes. Your body has what is called a ‘circadian rhythm’, something resembling a master clock for your body and it is slow to change and adjust. It uses external signals to determine when we should be awake and when we should go to sleep to coincide with a normal 24 hour day. Consistent wake and sleep times support natural circadian rhythm.

jet lagAirline pilots often have circadian rhythm problems, i.e. ‘jet lag’ and the associated mental effects is a major contributor to airline accidents, so if you are afraid of dying in a plane crash, be sure to pick an airline that allows their pilots sufficient rest and recovery time to overcome mental lapses caused by ‘jet lag’.

The second element is the sleeping environment, typically the bedroom. Most people focus on their mattresses and sheets, and this is perfectly natural and comfort is important, but they often neglect the other very important environmental features like light sources and noise pollution. One of the ways that the brain signals the body to go into sleep mode is through the release of a special hormone called melatonin. It is produced in a tiny pine cone-shaped gland in the brain called the pineal gland. The release of melatonin is highly attuned to the detection of light. More light equals less melatonin. Less melatonin equals more wakefulness.

There was an interesting study that found that women that slept in bedrooms that were abnormally bright had a significantly increased risk of developing breast cancer. This might have to do with the fact that melatonin is a powerful immune system modulator and is one of the reasons why the immune system works more efficiently when the body is asleep. Paying attention to how bright your bedroom is at night, and eliminating light during the night time sleep environment is an important factor to promoting better sleep.

This also applies to people who try to use noises and other means to fall asleep such as television, reading, and other activities. While for some people, this has become part of their sleeping routine and it works for them, but for many the television with its lights and noise interferes with the later stages of the sleep cycle and inhibit deeper and healthier sleeping patterns so avoid using television to fall asleep or falling asleep with it on.

Lack of exercise is another factor that makes it difficult for some people to fall asleep. Many of us have experienced those days where we really weren’t very active and then sleep was slow to come on those nights because we weren’t tired. Adequate exercise promotes a healthy amount of night time fatigue that encourages the body to rest and promote a deep healthy sleep pattern. Try to avoid exercising too late at night, however, because exercise also creates endorphins which stimulate the body rather than being sedative.exercise

Eating too late at night also impedes sleeping because the body has to digest the food and this biological activity impedes the body from resting, as well as promotes indigestion and fat production. Proper eating also includes avoiding the use of stimulant substances, primarily coffee, within four hours of your standard sleep time. Some people use alcohol as a sedative, but similar to television, it interferes with the body’s ability to reach the deeper stages of sleep and reduce the overall quality of the night’s sleep. Alcohol, however, should be abstained from altogether from an optimal health perspective.

Some people have psychological difficulties falling asleep. Too much stress, anxiety, and other emotional and psychological factors can inhibit sleep. Eliminating the sources of these negative emotions will help encourage normal healthy sleep.

When sleep still will not come, even after all of these possibilities have been exhausted, there are some natural substances that help promote sleep. They are not narcotics or pharmaceutical sedatives, none of these are ‘knock-out’ medicines, instead they help your body do what it is obviously having trouble achieving on its own. Testing for Cortisol levels might prove useful. Also Acupuncture has been shown to be highly effective in high stress reduction which will contribute to better sleep.

For example, melatonin is available in supplement form. Melatonin encourages your body to get ready to fall asleep. It doesn’t actually put you to sleep, but it helps your body make the transition from being awake to the first sleep stage which is often the most difficult hurdle for people with sleeping problems to overcome, and melatonin is an excellent option.

Another great natural supplement for improving sleep quality is L-tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that is a precursor to serotonin, a critical neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood. Serotonin is a heavily targeted brain chemical for anti-depressant medications, but that doesn’t mean that serotonin makes you active. Serotonin helps calm the body and restores balance. Serotonin is also abundant in the digestive tract where it stimulates the intestinal muscles to function regularly and there have been many associations with digestive health and mood disorders. Promoting a healthy serotonin level not only helps improve mood, but also increases the body’s ability to go through all of the different stages of the sleep cycle more smoothly.

Tryptophan might sound familiar. It is often thought to be the source of the ‘Thanksgiving Sleepiness’ that happens after people have their turkey dinner. In truth, turkey has no more tryptophan than any other poultry, and the drowsiness is typically from over eating. Nonetheless, tryptophan is a safe and natural substance that can greatly improve sleep quality.

sleeping angelSleep doesn’t have to be something you fight for or hard to achieve. It can, and should, come easily and naturally. Though it may seem hopeless and frustrating at time, with a little patience, and possibly some natural help, you can finally get the good night’s sleep you deserve.