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On this fond and fruitful date, we see hoards of couples flocking to the cinemas, scrambling for tables in Pizza Express and purchasing extravagant bouquets of lustrous red-velvet roses. Or, if you and my and my partner, getting a M&S take-away and binge watching Breaking Bad. I know, so 2010. Each to their own. It is the 14th February, a day which is more renown for its night, if you know what I mean. An evening to carelessly betray bedtimes, and consume alcohol beyond ‘school-night’ levels. The night-time is full of endless opportunities.
I am used to working during the night period but I should explain as to not elude to tales of frolicking and debauchery! That would be a reveal wouldn’t it? I am a sleep researcher. I work with children with rare genetic syndromes who are at increase risk for the development of psychiatric disorders namely a 25-30% increased risk for schizophrenia. These children have a menagerie of different problems both physical and psychiatric in nature. My work looks at how sleep plays a role in the development of mental health problems in this high risk population. By looking at sleep and understanding how sleep is affected in these children, I can hopefully see how mental health problems can be managed or helped. I travel around the UK undertaking sleep studies with these children and their unbelievably forgiving and welcoming families. I measure the brain activity of these children during sleep with the aim of comparing this to children without the rare genetic syndromes. Nonetheless, this is by-the-by in this blog however. I just wanted to convince you that I knew a thing or two about sleep. I have a different focus today regarding sleep.
So, let’s talk about sleep, baby. Let’s talk about you and me.
Mum used to always say to me ‘sleep on it, Hayley.’ Whenever I worked myself up into a tizzy before bedtime thinking about exams, boys, food…you know, the usual, Mum used to always tell me that I would feel better after I slept on it. As an accepting sponge of a child, I thought that this magical sleep thing erased all emotional negativity and could cheer me up all in one night. Easy peasy. Now as a slightly less porous sponge of an adult, I realise how wrong I was…right? All my troubles couldn’t be cured by lying down with my eyes closed, dreaming of Harry Styles could it? Surely sleep isn’t magic? Well, no sleep isn’t magic. Sleep is purely science. It manifests from changes in your brain’s activity from wakeful activity which is active, and bigger, louder, to slower, softer and calmer activity: your sleep brain activity. This change allows for you to be in an ‘offline’ state. Promoting rest, replication, memory consolidation and is vital for survival. Now why is this relevant to love?
Love is all about emotions. Emotions are all about neurotransmitters. During sleep, your brain undergoes changes and changes in these chemicals called ‘neurotransmitters’ which are released between synapses. Synapses are at the end of neurons – they are the toll-booths at the end of the bridge. Bridge = neuron, tool-booth = synapse and car = neurotransmitters. Got it? Oh and we have gates at our toll-booths don’t we? The gates are ion channels. These enable the neurotransmitters to enter in and out of the synapse and off into the neuron. When you sleep, there are changes in neurotransmitter concentrations and these changes help in the formation of memories and the regulation of emotions. In people with depression and anxiety, there are noticeable changes in serotonin, one of these neurotransmitters. Sleep problems are abundant in anxiety and depression also, with a high proportion of the night being rapid eye movement (REM) sleep1. This REM sleep is a light sleep and where those vivid dreams happen which you are convinced are real. We all have them. Deep sleep is a lot shorter in people with anxiety and depression disrupting how memories are stored and how emotions are understood when awake. In natural, non-disrupted sleep, sleep acts with a filing system: it filters through all the memories and things you have learnt, looking at the detail and the emotions with the memories. It then works out what you need to keep and what you can get rid of and how the emotions fit into those memories. In people with mental health problems or those who have disrupted sleep like shift workers, new parents or people with sleep disorders, that filing system is inefficient. Memories aren’t stored properly, emotions aren’t processed and there is still rubbish filling the files, stopping clear thinking and emotional resilience.
Staying up late, ignoring your bodies signals of tiredness and drinking late into the evening can seem fun and on Valentine’s Day sure can be! Adopting these practises throughout life however can cause irreparable damage and encourage the development of both mental and physical health problems. A consistent and maintained sleep/wake cycle with a concern and appreciation for sleep hygiene will make sure for a healthier, happier you, but can a partner or one you love help your sleep by just being there? We all know if a partner wakes up earlier than the other, this is disruptive. This is detrimental to your sleep. What if having a partner in your bed, a loved one can actually make you feel safer and help better rested sleep and a healthier night’s sleep? Some say it can!
The Social Psychological and Personality Science published study involved 698 people who were asked to say how responsive they felt their partner was and how well they thought they slept. In short, the evidence suggested interventions which worked to reduce sleep disturbances would be most effective in those individuals with responsive partners. It suggests that by having this partner, a loved one who is responsive, a safety-blanket and security is felt. Presumably, this mimics inate security felt as a child from parents. That is just my perception there.
Nonetheless, whether this is replicable and really a true representation of partner’s effect on sleep and intervention response, what we do know is that by reducing anxiety and maintaining mental health would aid in reducing sleep disturbance. If your partner is a conduit for this, then ace! This might not be the case, and this doesn’t mean those without bed partners are a lost cause. Not at all. It just suggests that there could be a benefit. Such findings can be sensationalised and media driven, a bit like our favourite lovey dovey day…Ah! It has all come back around here hasn’t it!
So, maybe not for tonight, but for all those other nights of the year, hear me bed partners out there. Take note and if you really love your other half, let them sleep through the night.
1Sleep Med Rev. 2013 Oct;17(5):377-90. doi: 10.1016/j.smrv.2012.11.001. Epub 2013 Feb 5