More than 1/3rd of American adults don’t get enough sleep regularly, and chances are, you’re one of them if you’re watching this video. Many different sleep disorders affect people, but a very common one often gets overlooked, as many people don’t realize it affects them.
Because the effects are subtle and linger under the radar, that’s what makes it the stealthiest sleep vampire of them all; something called delayed sleep phase disorder, aka delayed sleep phase syndrome.
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To understand how this works, let’s first understand how our Sleep is regulated. Two main processes regulate our ability to CONSOLIDATE our Sleep.
What does it mean to consolidate our Sleep?
Essentially, humans can dedicate 1 block of our 24 hour day just for Sleep instead of having to break it up into multiple sleep episodes. So think of one block of Sleep as a sleep episode, for example, going to sleep at 9 pm and waking up at 6 am. So our ability as humans to do this is regulated by both our Circadian Clock and our Sleep Homeostat.
So your Sleep is held by many things, but the 2 BIGGEST factors are
1) your sleep homeostat and
2) circadian rhythm.
Vampire Stealing People’s Sleep
When you’re awake, the hypothalamus part of your brain secretes something called orexin, a chemical that makes you alert. It circulates in your brain during wakefulness and virtually disappears during non-REM Sleep. Also, the accumulation of adenosine in your brain is the primary biochemical process of lulling you to sleep. So the longer you’re awake, the more adenosine accumulates in the brain, and that’s what makes you tired.
Once you fall asleep, the drive for Sleep dissipates as the night progresses. So the further you are along in your sleep episode, the drive for sleep decreases. And the further you are into your sleep episode, the percentage of time you spend awake slightly increases, for example, tossing and turning, or perhaps looking at the clock or something.
So you spend slightly more time being in the awake phase the closer you are to the end of the sleep episode. Your circadian process, which is driven by your circadian pacemaker, aka circadian clock, is located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus, next to the optic chiasm. It’s no coincidence that it’s located there because the optic chiasm collects nerves that sense light from the environment. Think of these nerves as an extension of your eyeballs.
The percentage of time that young, healthy people are awake during a scheduled 8-hour sleep episode will vary by the time of day. In other words, sleeping 8 hours during the day is not the same as sleeping 8 hours at night.
When it comes to the circadian rhythm in humans, the peak drive for wakefulness actually occurs very late in the evening, around 8, 9, or 10 pm, just before most people’s bedtime. Then, the time that the circadian pacemaker sends off the strongest drive for Sleep is near dawn, just before most people wake up in the morning.
Some might say….well, that doesn’t really make sense, now does it.
Shouldn’t our circadian clock tell us to be sleepy in the evening and be wakeful in the morning?
So, why does it happen like this? The circadian clock is set up in our brains like this because its purpose is to facilitate our ability to remain awake for 16 hours. After all, the drive for wakefulness increases as the day progresses, even though we have this other drive that competes against it, meaning our sleep homeostat.
So remember, with the sleep homeostat, we build up an increasing drive for Sleep as the day progresses. But when it comes to the circadian clock, as the day progresses, it increases the drive to stay awake and actually peaks at the end of the day.
Doctor Mike Hansen, MD
Internal Medicine | Pulmonary Disease | Critical Care Medicine
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