Are You Restless? Sleep Loss, Irritability, and Violence
Sleep loss can make you much more than irritable.
Posted Nov 18, 2010
A Restless Population
Many people today facing economic, political and economic uncertainty are restless - uneasy, unquiet of mind, internally agitated. Sadly much of the population is literally not resting - experiencing insufficient restoration and recovery to rebuild their bodies and minds in healthy ways. And that makes us more irritable, and potentially violent.
Forget the potential part. We can now add anger and violence to weight gain, depression, cardiovascular disease and immune suppression as results of sleep loss - while discovering yet more unexpected social effects of the internet.
Sleep Loss, Anger and Violence
Most people know that sleep deprivation of almost any type - short, long, or chronic - makes them testy and irritable. Yet academic research on the topic is meager. Violence in sleep gets a lot more attention.
It deserves that attention. Maurice Ohayon, a distinguished epidemiologist, now argues 2% of the population will suffer from some form of sleep related violence during their lives. Sleepwalking murders not only make for decent movies (one starred Hilary Swank) but have also prodded better understanding of sleep physiology.
However, Bill Dement showed in 1960 that REM sleep deprivation led to aggressiveness and irritability. Sleep deprived rats are far more prone to aggression. Sleep loss has been correlated with aggressiveness and anger in large population studies. Curiously, much of the specific research on sleep loss and violence involves domestic violence.
The Boys of Brazil and Domestic Violence
It's hard to study sleep loss and anger, but not impossible. Haromi and others questioned women who suffered domestic violence in the area around Sao Paulo, published in Sleep Science in 2008. Their findings:
Perpetrators of domestic violence complained of major sleep loss to their victims 50% of the time, compared to 7% of controls; had much higher rates of insomnia and snoring; and described far more and highly disordered sleep wake cycles.
American studies of women experiencing domestic violence showed an average sleep time of just 5.5 hours per night. A synergistic result was also seen - more violence, less sleep.
Violence is certainly perpetrated by people on themselves, through cutting, self-mutilation, and the innumerable forms of suicidal behaviors. Yet the Internet, especially the popularity of texting, is adding a new wrinkle to expressions of anger and aggression.
Text Without Rest - The New Social Network
Much information is coming to light about how the Internet changes attention, learning, and the ability to critical analyze. By contrast, much of the interest around internet violence has concerned cyberbullying.
It turns out it's a lot easier to become a victim of a cyberbully if you never rest.
Scott Frank and company at Case Western Reserve just reported at the American Public Health Association meeting on a survey of 4000 Ohio high school students. Looking at those who sent 120 texts or more a day and spent more than 3 hours on social networking sites, they found this group twice as likely as non-users to get into fights; become victims of cyberbullying; binge drink; and consider suicide.
Kids who text that much rarely get much sleep, let alone rest. According to the Pew Memorial Trust, the average number of texts sent and received by 12-17 year olds is now at 110 per day. That number is rising.
Cause and Effect
There are many causes of violence, but sleep loss is generally not considered one of them. It should be. The riots that attend long hot summers are often mediated through lack of sleep - people don't rest well when the temperature stays above 80 degrees all night. Troops who have to contend with Iraqi summer temperatures of 120-130 degrees also experience considerable sleep loss beyond the unending interruptions of war, and must contend with a frightened civilian population who try to sleep without electricity, acceptable sleep temperatures, or nightly peace.
Below physical violence there remains the problem of irritability and social transgression. Here the effects of internet use will in time become more acute.
The Net has led to different forms of social discourse, where people who never physically meet have provoked their correspondents to suicide or murder. One South Korean couple was recently tried and convicted of negligence after allowing their infant daughter to starve to death - they were spending their time instead on an online parenting game. Near continuous net use, as seen in the young, certainly leads to considerable to greater sleep deprivation. The real problem here may be that people don't recognize rest is critical to their health and survival: just like food.
It's Time to Forget the Machine Model of Disease
Most people see illness as a breakdown or glitch in the machine that is their body. Aging is regarded as a slow (okay, sometimes speeded up) process of rusting and falling apart, like what happens with a car.
This model is only correct if your car engine regularly recreates itself within three days.
That's what your heart manages to do. That's what you do every day - renew yourself. Really fast. That's how you stay healthy. You need rest for that regeneration to work.
How fast is the process? Bill Bryson in his excellent "A Short History of Nearly Everything" wrote you can have up to a billion protein-protein interactions per second. That's in one cell. You've got ten trillion. He also explained that every strand of your DNA is attacked by change or mutation every 8 seconds. You have way more than 10 trillion strands of DNA.
The heart proteins pumping blood that lets you read this sentence are built, used, pulped and recycled inside 90 minutes. According to Einstein Medical researcher Alma Cuervo, most of your heart is replaced inside three days.
In fact, large parts of your body are replaced in three days. The process of replacing you is mostly over in a few weeks - with exceptions made for teeth, lens and bones.
So fortunately, you're a lot younger than you think. And you stay alive and can rebuild healthily because of this incredible regenerative power. Even better, the form of your regeneration changes every millisecond as your body takes in new information, learning new stuff that helps you rebuild.
Even your memory of this article will change every time you recall it.
None of this regeneration takes place without rest.
So you don't want to be "restless." Without rest we quickly feel uneasy, unquiet, agitated. Without rest your body's rebuild won't take place right. That means you can get sick.
And also feel far more pissed off.