To Sleep, Perchance, To Sleep

woman sleeping
Image by Claudio_Scott

“To die, to sleep – to sleep, perchance to dream –
ay, there’s the rub, for in this sleep of death
what dreams may come…”

– Hamlet

There’s a lot going on in those lines spoken by Hamlet.  Sleep and death are often connected – which was something that scared me as a child. The nuns taught us a prayer with the line “If I should die before I wake..” which terrified me for years.

Maybe some of that fear still remains on my insomnia nights. But I prefer this idea that sleep may bring dreams. Not dreams of death, of course, but the pleasant and mysterious kind.

Followers of this blog know that I have written often about sleep and about dreams. I have read a lot about both topics and still find myself attracted to research on both topics.

I have done a number of my own experiments around sleep. Recently I tracked the Moon’s possible influence on my sleep. (I found no correlation.) I have kept track for a month of how exercising might affect my sleep. (No correlation.) And I have recorded (via my Fitbit) my sleep hours, deep sleep, and REM and how it changes when I take something before bedtime. That ranges from prescription sleeping pills to antihistamines, melatonin, magnesium, kava, valerian and other supposed aids, and also the negative effects of things like caffeine or alcohol. (Results vary widely by substance and person.)

You have probably noticed that one day of travel to other time zones, jet-lag and also daylight saving times can throw off your internal clock and sleep for several days.

Still, I read the suggestions about how to improve my sleep. Over the years, I have found certain basic good health suggestions repeated.  Here is a list of things that are not only good for your health in general but may help you have a better night’s sleep.

Go to bed at the same time every night.
Early to bed generally helps. When I go to bed at 1 am, I still tend to wake up at the same time which means my actual amount and quality of sleep is less.
Have your bedroom as quiet, cool and dark as possible.
Stay away from screens.
Exercise during the day and be active (but not in the hours before sleep).

Don’t engage in heavy mental activity before going to bed. Most reading seems to be okay, in fact, many people fall asleep while reading. People also fall asleep watching TV and I read that our brain waves watching “mindless” TV (comedies, some dramas) are similar to the waves during sleep. That lighter mental activity is different than reading serious non-fiction, academic texts or more engaging programs. Some game shows (Jeopardy?) and news or documentaries have a heavier cognitive load.

It is clear that many Americans lack sleep (less than 7 hours) and research on sleep deprivation is pretty clear. Research beginning in the 1940s, (sometimes done on prisoners of war) found that sleep deprivation would lead to hallucinations and even a kind of insanity. Depriving people of their REM dream time is even worse.

We seem to be clear now that your brain clears out toxins during the night. Sleep is the mind-body’s primary biorhythm, regulating every other biorhythm. Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease are linked to low-grade inflammation that occurred years before symptoms appear, and the markers for inflammation increase in people who suffer from insomnia or who don’t get a full night’s sleep.

Poor sleepers often report a lack of energy, headaches, irritability and lack of focus.

One piece of research that I have seen validated in my own little experiments is that dreams (REM sleep) can occur even during a brief nap. It had been believed that REM sleep occurs only in longer nightly sleep.

You can’t fully compensate for lost sleep by sleeping longer the next night but there are some benefits to catching up on lost sleep.

I was pleased to read that waking up with an alarm clock is a bad idea. I never liked alarms. Our sleep progresses in waves and in a good night’s sleep we move from deep sleep to waking through transitions. In a full sleep night, your brain secretes chemicals needed to be awake bit by bit through those waves or cycles. If you interrupt at the wrong time, you may be awake but it won’t feel that way to you.

Polls show that the average U.S. adult feels tired during the day at least three out of seven days each week. 25% of us feel tired five to seven days a week. Some of this can be attributed to not getting enough sleep, but some is from poor sleep quality. I suffer from moderate sleep apnea. I can sleep for 8 hours and still wake up feeling tired.

For adults (18 to 64) it is still recommended that you get 7-9 hours per night. After age 65, 7-8 hours seem to suffice.

Hamlet’s “what dreams may come” has been used in novels and films, and despite my not-so-unusual fear of death in sleep, many people talking about death will say “I just hope I die quietly in my sleep.”  In ancient Greek mythology, Sleep was the twin brother of Death. They were the children of the personified gods of Darkness and Night.

I’m sorry Hamlet but I am not ready to “shuffle off this mortal coil” but it does “give us pause.”

Published by


A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

One thought on “To Sleep, Perchance, To Sleep”

Add to the conversation about this article

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.