Cepeda: Scientific researchers seek to unravel secrets to sleep

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Esther Cepeda is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Email: estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

As I type this column, I am exhausted from sleep deprivation — a pretty standard state of being for me. Despite a lifetime of boring, monkish routine and impeccable sleep habits, my circadian rhythm has always been syncopated rather than regular or in any kind of harmony.

I’ve suffered from periodic bouts of insomnia for nearly all my life. As a young child, I would cry myself to sleep at 2, 3 or 4 in the morning and then feel completely wrecked at school. It drove my teachers absolutely crazy that I was half-asleep and headachy most of the time.

This inability to sleep and subsequent inappropriate nodding off continued through college (this was back when professors felt empowered enough to call out a student who dared to doze off right there in the front row of a 1,000-seat lecture hall) and even later in professional settings, during meetings when everyone wanted to fall asleep, but I actually did.

And as I get older, a new dimension has been added — not only do I have a hard time getting to sleep at night, but I also wake before dawn and struggle to get back to sleep. The days are then agonizing; there are headaches, burning skin, muscle and joint pain, odd fluctuations in hunger, and sensory sensitivities to be endured.

No, it’s not my thyroid, or narcolepsy. All the usual medical suspects have been ruled out time and again — I simply come from a long line of restless sleepers. Such medications as sleeping pills either don’t work or give me nasty side effects. Meditation helps, but only to a point.

My best hope is for science to figure this all out in time for sleep deprivation to not finally get me with its increased chance of obesity, Type 2 diabetes and possibly even Alzheimer’s disease.

We only understand how the delicate cycles of sleep and wakefulness are related to physical and mental well-being because of years of research. Last week, three researchers behind some of these insights got an acknowledgment for unraveling a few of sleep’s deepest mysteries.

Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their work in figuring out how the body’s sleep/wake rhythms regulate critical functions like sleep, hormone levels, blood pressure and body temperature.

Using fruit flies as a “model organism,” the scientists isolated genes they dubbed “period,” “timeless” and “doubletime” that regulate circadian rhythms. They found that these genes encode a protein that accumulates in cells during sleep at night, which then degrades during the day. Subsequently, they identified additional protein components of this machinery inside the cells. Eventually they found that these “biological clocks” function by the same principles in cells of other multicellular organisms, including humans.

Elemental and mysterious

The most stunning part is that these scientists dedicated their careers to something as elemental and mysterious as sleep.

“I just thought it was a terrific problem and maybe the toughest thing I could try to tackle,” Young told Adam Smith, the chief scientific officer of Nobel Media, “because it was behavior; you know, what could we learn about a fairly complicated behavior that we all exhibit, which was most easily represented by sleep/wake cycles. And frankly I thought we might find out maybe a little bit. I never thought we would really understand what the motor behind this was, at the time. We were very lucky, we managed to find genes that fit together like puzzle pieces to explain how this thing worked.”

The next frontier in sleep science is applying this knowledge about rhythms to the quandaries of preventing obesity and mental health disorders and how to optimize everything from exercise to the uptake of vitamins and medications.

Selfishly, I’m hoping that it won’t take another 30 years to figure out how to get reluctant creatures of the night to slumber. But I’m perfectly willing to wait for whatever scientific discoveries can make me sleep way better than I did when I was a baby.