There’s something in the physiology of sleep that sounds like the economy of sleep. It’s called a sleep debt. Last night’s inadequate sleep makes you bleary-eyed, bad-tempered and possibly stupid today – everybody knows that. But it does more, immunologist Hiroyuki Kobayashi tells President magazine (July 30). It has a cumulative effect called a “debt,” whose creditor is the immune system. And the immune system, important always, is all the more so during a pandemic. Treasure your immune system, say Kobayashi and President. Give it sleep. It’ll reward if you do you with stalwart service – and let you down grievously if you don’t.
The insomniac flares up: “Give it sleep! Don’t you think I would, if I could? Give it sleep how?”
True, Kobayashi acknowledges, the stresses most of us live under, the obligations we must fulfill, the deadlines and quotas we must meet, the clients and bosses we must please, take their toll. The fatigue of a day’s work should put us to sleep, and would – if the stresses and anxieties of a day’s living didn’t come back to haunt us at night. Well, that’s life. Still, stress can be sung to sleep, Kobayashi assures us. That’s good news.
First, a little science. Bodily organs are regulated independently of consciousness by the autonomic nervous system. We don’t think about it, it doesn’t need our conscious input, it functions whether we’re awake or asleep. Its two main components are called sympathetic and parasympathetic. The former speeds us up for action, the latter slows us down for rest.
Stress upsets the balance. The sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive; the parasympathetic retreats in alarm.
Now – consider the brain and the intestines, says Kobayashi. The lay population rarely thinks of them in tandem. To Kobayashi they are “twins.” Next to the brain, there are more nerve cells in the intestines than anywhere else in the body. Moreover – and this is key to the present discussion – 70 percent of the body’s immune cells lodge in the intestines.
The intestines are acutely sensitive and vulnerable to stress, Kobayashi explains. Stress them beyond endurance and its not only digestion you’re impairing; it’s the immune system as well.
Our hypothetical insomniac replies: It’s not me that’s causing stress, it’s society; I’m the victim, not the perpetrator! Fine, says Kobayashi, conceding the point. Let’s see, he says in effect, how we can send you off to sleep in spite of society’s stresses and strains.
Devote an hour before bedtime to preparing for sleep, he suggests. First – take pen in hand. Write a “three-line diary.” Line 1: “What was my biggest failure today?” Written down, objectified, maybe it won’t seem so serious or embarrassing. Line 2: “What was the encounter or event or thought that moved me most today?” Line 3: “What goals shall I set for myself tomorrow?” While working on this, watch your breathing. Keep it regular and even. Your thoughts will pick up the rhythm. A warm towel around the neck also helps – as does, of course, sensible eating and moderate exercise through out the day.
Is it really that simple? the insomniac might wonder. If so, how come there’s still insomnia in the world? Maybe the answer is that simple things are the first to be overlooked. Or maybe it’s something else. Either way, the fact remains: a pandemic is no time for sleep deprivation. If only the heightened anxieties of the pandemic didn’t conspire to keep us awake nights.© Japan Today