Do you know that we humans spend 25 to 30 percent of our lives asleep? Do you know that the restorative powers of sleep help us avoid many chronic illnesses? Do you know that poor sleep is a marker of increased risk of cancer, infections and premature death from multiple causes? Do you know that sleeping pills may increase your risk of dying?

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about dreams and why we dream. Dreams, it turns out have a variety of benefits. Dreams and the associated REM (rapid eye movement) sleep help us consolidate memories, deal with emotionally difficult events, reflect our unconscious minds to us via symbols, meaning, and content. Dreams foster creativity, help us solve problems, and even act like a master piano tuner to bring our brains back to center. Think about the common term, “Sleep on it.”

So often, I find benefit in letting an email, a tough diagnostic challenge, some project, professional or personal issue incubate overnight. My sleep and dreams seem to inform a wiser choice than some immediate or overly emotional response. The unconscious mind connects things in ways that our logical, conscious mind does not.

So, I have decided to explore with my readers the critical role of sleep in our lives. If I put you to sleep with my ruminations, so much the better. Sleep deprivation, insomnia, and inadequate quality of sleep are a hidden epidemic leading to increased health risks. It turns out there are a hundred or so sleep disorders that can affect us. Some are common like insomnia, others bizarre like narcolepsy, and some too strange to believe such as familial fatal insomnia. The latter gives us a clue to how essential sleep is in our lives. A genetic and metabolic condition, FFI, causes people to be unable to sleep at all. It leads to their inevitable death in just a few weeks or months.

One of my references and an inspiration for writing more about sleep is a book by Dr. Matthew Walker, a neuroscientist and internationally known sleep researcher from Stanford. His recent book, “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams,” is an entertaining, informative read and brings us up to date on important research on the role of sleep in our lives and in our health.

I will share some of his and other researchers’ information on sleep in a few upcoming columns. I was especially motivated to dig more deeply into this subject when a dear patient, with multiple medical problems, complained of a new one: she couldn’t fall asleep until six in the morning. Of course, this caused daytime fatigue, worsening of her chronic pain, memory issues, muscle twitches, increased blood pressure and depression.

Sleep is not a well-taught subject in medical school. We rarely emphasize to students and trainees how important it is to take a good sleep history. So many common problems are caused or aggravated by poor sleep. While exercise and diet and similarly under-taught and under-emphasized in most medical consultations, sleep and sleep-related issues are almost totally left unaddressed except for problems like sleep apnea and chronic insomnia. There is much more to the story than this that I look forward to sharing with you in the next few columns. Meanwhile, sleep on it!

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.

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