Science and Medicine of Sleep

A great deal of scientific research has revealed the physiological underpinnings of sleep and dreams. In this section of Night Club we will unpack how staying current on the science and medicine of sleep can provide real benefits for you. This section of Night Club has the widest applicability, being relevant to anyone who sleeps — and wants to improve the quality of their sleep.

In order to engage in the nocturnal meditations most effectively, we have to start from the ground and work our way up. If you’re not sleeping well, you’re probably not dreaming well. The Science and Medicine of Sleep section will help you appreciate the miracle that is sleep. Once you realize how critical it is for your very survival, you will do what is needed to ensure you get your restorative sleep. From that basis, we can progress into more refined applications of sleep and dream, as provided by the nocturnal practices.

Sleep Patterns and Cycles

In this track of Night School we will review the typical sleep patterns and the changes in the functions of our brains and bodies as we sleep and dream. We’ll look at what happens during both REM and non-REM sleep and the issues related to not getting enough of either type. And we will investigate how sleep patterns vary from one person to another, depending on a person’s health, age, work schedule, and other factors. Have you ever wondered why different people require sleep in varying amounts and at different times? Does the concept of being a “Night Owl” or a “Lark” have any basis in science? What regulates our circadian rhythms? What other chemicals in our bodies regulate tiredness?

The Importance of Sleep

This track will also explore the question of why sleep matters and the consequences of sleep deprivation. What happens to your body when you don’t get enough sleep? What are the symptoms of sleep deprivation, and the often severe consequences of not getting enough sleep? The reality is that in many ways, sleep is more essential than food. Science has shown that lack of sleep can affect judgment, our ability to learn, and powerfully affect our moods. A recent study shows that people who sleep less than 8 hours a night are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety.

“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”

While that phrase makes for a catchy title for songs and movies, the reality is that minimizing your need for sleep is dangerous to your health. The scientific studies around sleep continue to reveal that people who sleep poorly are at a significantly greater risk for a number of diseases and health problems. Lack of sleep is a silent killer, contributing to diseases like hypertension, diabetes, stroke, and a litany of other pathologies. There is even a rare and tragic form of insomnia called Fatal Familial Insomnia that tends to occur around middle age, has no cure, and always ends in death. These people literally die from lack of sleep.

Every known animal sleeps, and some data suggests, as philosopher Evan Thompson writes in his book Waking, Dreaming, Being; Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophythat “Like a miniature version of the wake-sleep cycle, neural systems alternate moment to moment between phases of optional excitability, when they’re most “awake” and responsive to incoming stimuli, and phases of strong inhibition, when they’re “asleep” and least responsive.” In other words, awareness itself seems to pulsate, or reiterate the wake-sleep cycle in microcosmic form.

Insomnia and other Variations in Sleep Patterns

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine reports that insomnia is the most common sleep complaint, occurring in up to 50 percent of adults. In a July 2018 Consumer Reports survey of 1,767 U.S. adults, one-third of people who complained of occasional insomnia said they had used an over-the-counter or prescription sleep drug in the previous year. Although they are widely used, science has shown that sleep medications actually have limited benefits and some serious risk factors. We’ll look at other less dangerous and more effective alternatives for treating insomnia.

We’ll also explore the many factors that contribute to your sleep patterns. There are intrinsic factors such as age and genetics. Do we need less sleep as we age? Have you wondered if you should cut your teenager some slack for sleeping in? Schools are slowly recognizing that their sleep patterns are different than adults. There are also a host of external factors that affect our sleep patterns. What are the physical and psychological effects of shift work and jet lag? How does caffeine, melatonin, and alcohol affect our sleep and dreams?

My Transition into Sleep Medicine

Over the past few years I have been transitioning out of my clinical practice of general and surgical dentistry and into sleep medicine. As a member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and a longtime student of the science of sleep, this transition is a perfect fit for my interest in the nocturnal meditations. While I am well versed in many sleep disorders (there are over one hundred), my clinical practice is mostly in managing nocturnal bruxism, obstructive sleep apnea, and other parafunctional disorders.

Nocturnal bruxism is a virtually epidemic condition in this stressful world and occurs when people clench and grind their teeth while they sleep. It leads to a host of oral-facial dysfunctions, including TMJ (temporomandibular joint) disorders, muscle soreness, headaches, periodontal disease, tooth sensitivity, occlusal wear (abfractions) and the like. Nocturnal bruxism is due to a host of central and peripheral factors, which need to be teased out for proper treatment. In this track I’ll show you what to look for, when to get this condition treated, and what the treatment options are. I have found that there are many misdiagnosed or undiagnosed cases of nocturnal bruxism, and even more mis-treatments — resulting in costly and sometimes unnecessary care.

Sleep apnea (a sleep disorder second only to insomnia in frequency), is when people wake up dozens of times each night because they aren’t getting enough oxygen. It’s a silent killer. Sleep apnea is prevalent in our increasingly overweight society, and wildly under-diagnosed. If you don’t have it yourself, it is likely that either a spouse or family member does. In this track we’ll explore the causes and symptoms of sleep apnea, and the risks of not treating it. I’ll show you how to screen for it yourself. We’ll also look at the treatment options. If left untreated, sleep apnea contributes to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia, weight gain, high blood pressure, obesity, and a host of other diseases.

In my clinical practice, when someone comes in with an intractable infection (one that is not responding to the initial line of antibiotics), the first thing I ask is, “How is your sleep?” Without good sleep you become resistant to antibiotics (and even immunizations). Many of my medical colleagues, along with me, are now prescribing sleep as a powerful way to manage a host of diseases.

In this track I will also interview sleep doctors, sleep scientists, and other experts in this field to keep you up to date on the latest research and medical breakthroughs.