Most of us have trouble sleeping at some point in our lives. This problem is usually short-lived and most often occurs with some psychological problem that is occupying our minds and keeping us from relaxing. The degree of the trouble may range from being unable to get a full night’s sleep, to sleeping an hour or less, to not sleeping at all. This might go on from one night to a month or more. For most of us, this trouble sleeping suddenly comes to an end. We need to sleep, we are compelled, and sooner or later, sleep will have its way. Worrying about not sleeping may keep you from sleeping, so, unless you’re one of the very few who have a particular fatal sleeping disorder, you should not worry so much. More than likely, you’ll live to sleep again.
Unfortunately, for a very few, trouble sleeping does eventually prove fatal. Recent studies have shown that death and lack of sleep are correlated. The strange thing is that, after their deaths, science has not been able to determine what went wrong with their bodies. About 400 people in the world suffer from an ailment called fatal familial insomnia (FFI). This recent research shows that people with FFI all have a particular gene that makes them susceptible to this disease. FFI typically begins in a person’s 50s, starting with an inability to nap. Then, the normal length of time they sleep begins to decrease. A night’s sleep becomes a nap, then days pass before they nap again, and finally, they cease to sleep at all. In a year’s time, those with FFI will die. Analysis of their bodies during their tribulation and after their death do not reveal any organ damage – they seem to have died from lack of sleep.
While it is probable that some psychological disturbance keeps us from falling asleep, not all people who have trouble sleeping and who do not have FFI are being kept awake because of some psychological problem. Sleep scientists agree they have no consistent explanation as to why we may have trouble sleeping. Neither have they been able to explain why we must sleep at all. It is obvious to most of us that if we don’t have a good night’s sleep, the next day we feel tired or groggy. We can say we need sleep in order not to feel that way, but science has not been able to find out what happens in our brain and body when we sleep, that prevents us from feeling tired and groggy the next day. Without knowing what occurs in our body to refresh us when we sleep, scientists can’t tell us why we need to sleep. What sleep does for us remains a mystery.
Scientific studies on sleep have been going on for 50 years now. Studies have determined what the brain is doing when we’re sleeping, the phases of sleep, and common characteristics of sleep among different age groups. For example, we know that a cluster of brain cells sends signals to our brain and body to stop producing certain chemicals that keep us awake. We know that this cluster of cells is activated when the chemical called adenosine reaches a certain level in our brain, yet, often, this cluster doesn’t fire off its signals, or the signals will be ignored and we will remain alert, thus causing us to have trouble sleeping (also called insomnia). Why this cluster fails to signal or why its signals are ignored by the body – why we experience insomnia – we still don’t know.
Science continues to investigate insomnia, and different medications have been developed to help us sleep. Sleep research is currently not well funded. Unless that changes, we’ll have to wait a while longer before science can give us a definitive answer to the question: Why do we have insomnia? In the meantime, consult your physician if you have persistent trouble sleeping. Stay away from foods and chemicals that will keep you awake, and, for most of you, don’t worry. Chances are you’ll fall asleep long before science can tell you why you need to sleep in order to live.