Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Importance of Sleep

Today I read an article about a British study of teenagers and sleep that showed that teens who had an established bedtime at 10:00 p.m. were less likely to be depressed than those whose parents allowed them to stay up until midnight or later. The speculation was that continual sleep deprivation is likely to lead to depression and a rise in suicidal thoughts and suicide. This is really no surprise, as the link between sleep deprivation and depression is well established. One of the problems with adults is finding out whether depression causes difficulties sleeping, or whether lack of sleep causes depression, though I suspect both are the case in a kind of vicious circle.

Our family unfortunately has a history of insomnia, which is bad enough when you don't have to get up early and go to work daily, but is far worse when you can't sleep later or during the day to make up for it. Leif suffered from insomnia, but beyond that, he didn't like to go to bed. He would stay up until the wee hours of the morning watching television and playing online computer games, which he loved, but that hyped him up so he couldn't sleep. Then he tried to drug himself to sleep with beer.

One reason Leif didn't like to go to bed at a decent hour despite the fact that he had to go to work was the family night owl gene, which nearly all of us seem to have, but two other factors were the just plain bad habit of going to bed really late (one that I have, too) and the fact that there wasn't anything attractive about the bed when he had to go to bed alone. Leif was a man who liked to cuddle up and there was no one for him to cuddle up with much of his adult life, and certainly not the last months of it, though he tried hard to find love.

Continual sleep deprivation has also been linked to weight gain, and Leif also had a problem with that.

Enough sleep would not have solved his many other problems, but he certainly would have felt better physically and mentally if he had slept regularly and long enough. Perhaps life would not have seemed quite so bleak or his depression so deep. The night before he died, in the early morning hours of April 9, 2008, he had stayed up visiting with friends and drinking. Lack of sleep and alcohol both increase depression and impair judgement. Could it have been as simple as him saying to himself, drunk and worn out, that it wasn't worth getting up in the morning to go to work just to try to pay his debts? We will never know, but I can conceive of it.

I look back at all the photos of his life, and I am grateful for all the smiles and joy in his childhood and teen photos, and I'm glad I made sure he got enough sleep in those years when I had some control over it.

I have been fortunate in my life that sleep deprivation has made me tired at times, but not depressed. I hope it never will. I am also fortunate that I no longer have to force myself to get up early every morning no matter how tired I am and go to work, especially since I seem to sleep most soundly after about 3:00 a.m.


This photo of Leif was taken at Fort Sheridan, Illinois in July 1987. He was 12 years old.

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