Column: Sometimes learning can be a real pain

Sometimes the universe really has to shout to get my attention. And some of its lessons can be painful. Literally. When my back went out last week I became acutely aware of the effects of sleep deprivation.

And I learned to reset my priorities in accordance with my body's limitations. I hate that.

Even with serious medication, sleeping through the night was next to impossible. And during the day - when I was supposed to simply "take it easy" - I was cranky, frustrated, and couldn't concentrate.

And what is more, I have company coming tomorrow for a family reunion. Beds to make. Bathrooms to scrub. Food to prepare. A column to write. I haven't got time for this! My body, of course, had other ideas.

Because I know I need eight hours of sleep a night, I've developed little rituals to ensure I get them. After washing up, I slip into some comfy jammies, rub scented lotion onto my feet and hands, plump three pillows behind me and read until my eyes refuse to stay open. A final goodnight kiss and an "I love you" from my husband usually seal the deal.

Not this week. Even with four pillows behind my back, two under my knees, and a handful of prescriptions, I could count on only an hour or two at a time.

However, while stuck on the couch during the day, several news stories about sleep caught my attention and caused me to wonder if this was this yet another message from the universe. For one thing, I'm not alone in this sleep-deprived state. According to one study at least 30 percent of the population isn't getting enough sleep. In addition, sleep deprivation can be blamed for a host of problems including lack of concentration, irritability, poor performance, and impatience. I can vouch for that.

It's also been linked to high blood pressure and car accidents.

Consider the cycle many of us operate on. We try to load more onto our already full plates, so we stay up later or get up a little earlier, missing a few of those required 40 winks. We rely increasingly on caffeine to get us through the day. "Make that a double shot latte," we shout at the drive-through.

Furthermore, a newly published study in the journal Nature Neuroscience tells us that a good night's sleep actually improves learning. It's not just that well-rested people perform better on tests. That would be - pardon me - a "no-brainer." During the REM sleep phase, areas of the brain associated with learning are active. The brain is actually consolidating and organizing new learning while we sleep.

All of us are - or should be - learning new things every day. How to program a new cell phone or VCR. How to mix a perfect martini. How to drive the roundabout.

Imagine all that learning you do as mail coming into your house. If you dont take time to sort through the mail as it comes in, it just piles up on the counter. You can't find anything. The same thing happens in your brain when you don't get enough sleep. Sleep allows your brain to tidy up and make sense of it all. While you sleep you sort the "mail," save the good stuff, throw out the junk, organize it, and prioritize it so you can make the most of it.

As we dream, new learning actually burrows into our subconscious and takes root. Gives a whole new meaning to the advice to "sleep on it," doesn't it?

But how can you tell if you are getting enough sleep to make the most of the learning you do? Answer this question: Do you wake up naturally or do you rely on the alarm every morning? If you must rely on the alarm, your body is trying to give you this simple message: You need more sleep! Morning alertness, not evening alertness should determine your bedtime.

I know I didn't get enough sleep this week, but I did learn two lessons. First, I'm not at my best without eight hours of sleep a night. And second, I should listen to my body and let it heal.

And as for my family reunion, luckily the Darr clan isn't expecting Martha Stewart. They are coming to see each other, not to inspect my house, nor to judge my cuisine.

And that's a good thing.

Lorie Smith Schaefer and her husband have lived in Carson City for over 20 years. Their daughters are now in college. Lorie is a reading specialist at Seeliger School.


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