Sleep as important as diet, exercise

Notre Dame prof says memory, creativity rely on Z's

South Bend Tribune

"The best cure for insomnia," W.C. Fields once wisecracked, "is to get a lot of sleep."

But many of us wish a blissful night's sleep were only that simple.

Jessica Payne, a sleep researcher and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, knows the feeling herself. She told a group at Chicory Cafe a few weeks ago as part of Science Cafe, a monthly sharing of science topics, that when she can't sleep, she gives up and gets some work done.

"Rather than ever lie awake in bed and trying and trying and trying to get back to sleep, the best thing you can do is to get out of the bed and the bedroom, even, so you don't learn to associate the bedroom in a fearful way," Payne tells the group. "You don't want to start to fear sleep, and that's a big part of what insomnia is."

Payne's research focuses on the importance of sleep, stress and memory. She describes the order of sleep in stages 1 through 5. The most active stage, rapid-eye movement, or REM, is when the brain is most active.

"How many of you -- especially those of us who are getting a little older, and those of us who have had a few too many beers -- how many times do you wake at 3 or 4 in the morning and you just cannot go back to sleep?" Payne asks, to a cafe full of raised hands. "That's because every time we transition into REM sleep, we're at risk of waking up or arousing ... and that's also going to be your problem if you have any amount of anxiety, that's right where you're going to wake up."

An adviser of hers once called that middle-of-the-night waking time "the 4 a.m. screamies": "That's where you start to obsess or ruminate about stuff."

But Payne doesn't downplay the importance of insomnia, or of sleep. Far from it. Her work has convinced her that sleep is crucial to brain health, to creative thinking and to memory.

During sleep, your brain is sorting through the day's knowledge and deciding what's important and what's not, perhaps spotting patterns you couldn't fully recognize when awake. The phrase "sleep on it" in weighing a difficult decision carries some science behind it, the scientist says.

"The last thing you want to do if you're having a hard time is go without sleep," Payne says.

"This conversation is actually attached to a larger social conversation about this sort of Puritanical culture that we're really a part of that really thinks that working harder is literally equated to working longer, even though we have data showing that's not the case," she says. "Working efficiently is what's important. And part of working efficiently is letting your brain do what it evolved to do, and part of that is going offline."

A recent study raised an interesting possibility that a lifetime of poor sleep habits might have some role to play in dementia later in life, Payne says.

She addressed an audience member's concern that night-shift workers might be "killing ourselves slowly" by noting no causal link between early death and irregular sleep habits.

However, she says studies have noted higher heart disease rates in those workers and the difficulties for those who work odd schedules most of the time who then try to fit in with friends and family other times.

"There's evidence we're not a species like the rat, the cat, that's nocturnal," she says, "and it does put stress on some very critical cardiovascular vessels."

The power nap

Payne is a strong proponent of a nap during the day -- when used well.

"We should all be napping not only prophylactically but also strategically, so that we can remember things and be at our cognitive best," she says. "Even for people who say, 'Oh I've never been able to nap,' it's very clear that for most people if they try, in three or four weeks, they will learn to nap and nap fairly well, 15 minutes or so. Most people can teach themselves to nap."

Operating on a conventional schedule, after lunch, lie down and set your alarm for 30 minutes. Don't try to nap longer, or else you risk going into slow-wave sleep and will wake groggy.

"The power of power naps is really quite incredible, even if you sleep quite well at night," Payne says. "Even as little as a seven- to 10-minute nap can be enormously beneficial for you to really be at your best for the latter part of your day."

Responses from last week

The story of a professor who was accused by a Meijer cashier of being intoxicated and initially not allowed to buy two bottles of wine drew various reactions.

Deb Ray: I'm offended when I have to show my ID. I would be even more offended if some smarta** kid accused me of being inebriated. I'm tired of the state of Indiana infringing on my right to buy a bottle of wine at the age of 60 but not worrying about a bunch of lunatics buying guns and allowing them on school property. The liquor law is overkill as is Meijer's store policy.

Sue Wilden: And if this guy was drunk and the cashier let it slide and that guy killed someone, it would have been the cashier's fault. No-win situation for the cashier. I think this guy is playing the immigrant card for some reason.

Gene Knop: The embarrassing part was buying moscato.

Tammy Holmer: But just because he misread an ad on paper towel means he is drunk. And his slurred speech was probably his accent. How rude of someone to make a scene and embarrass someone. I think it could have been handled differently. I think if she had a suspicion she should have called the manager over in the first place.

Julienne Cwidak: No one especially someone drunk should ever be confronted. If he had been it could have really escalated into a bad situation. Second never assume either because diabetics can appear drunk also. Management should have been called if there was suspicion. No one should handle a situation and confront a paying customer without the facts. Whatever happened to the customer is always right. Poor judgment in customer service here.

Jeff Broadwick: Businesses with an alcohol license are REQUIRED to do just what Meijer did. Doesn't mean it's perfect, but that's their obligation.

University of Notre Dame sleep researcher Jessica Payne began a recent talk with this "embarrassing admission": "Here we are in the year 2014, and I as a, I hope, fairly well trained sleep neuroscientist stand up here and admit to you that I don't know why we sleep." But although the process is still a bit mysterious, Payne went on to describe her work and how it has tied the importance of sleep to memory and creativity. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)