Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Have you seen a racoon mum?

Here's a label I haven't heard before: "Racoon mum". Or more precisely, "racoon mom", because the example I saw was from Canada. I suppose if we actually were racoons - the variety that sit up and read stuff on computers - then we would already know all about racoon mums/moms and there would be nothing further to add.

But for any non-racoon readers, the phrase "racoon mum" describes a particular pattern of sleep deprivation. It is the way that already sleep-starved mothers of young children become even more exhausted by staying up all night messing round on Facebook, playing Tetris, Googling their old school friends or watching re-runs of Friends at three in the morning on UK Bedsit. In general, staying up half the night doing nothing in particular.

The reference to the racoon is because this behaviour is both nocturnal and rather secretive, hanging around alone in the lamplight of the small hours, black-ringed eyes bulging with tiredness.

The theory is that the racoon mum spends all day either at work or at the beck and call of their children. Any parent will know that children can be tough and unrelenting task masters and after a full day and evening of them-time, the racoon mum still wants some me-time. Going to bed early will mean a day without any adult time.

So the racoon mum gets the white wine and the computer or television and spends some quality time alone.

Except it gets late very quickly and going to bed so late means exhaustion the next morning. Lack of sleep makes the following day even tougher and when you're sleepless, everything is twice as stressful. So the racoon mum is in even greater need of a restorative fix of spare time.

I suspect there are plenty of racoon dads out their too. We manage to make our days so overcrowded that there isn't any room for ourselves in our own lives.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Sleeping with the insects

The male sleeps longer than the female, is more likely to sleep during the day and the female is more likely to have her sleep disrupted. Sounds familiar? This is research into fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) rather than the adult human male (couchus potatus), but it casts a light onto our own propensity to kip.

For a start, sleeping behaviour is hard wired into living creatures. It's written through us like a stick of rock. The humble fruit fly, the hapless butt of so many experiments, has 1,700 genes associated with sleep patterns. These might affect when and for how long an individual fruit fly might snooze. Mess around with these genes and sleep patterns are altered.

What should we make of this? Does the long sleeper have a genetic drive for such inclinations, in the way they might have their own thumbprint or eye colour? Is there some ancestral sleeper who has passed on these habits? Why should the comfortable kipper be turned out of bed when their genes are telling them they need just five more minutes?

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Driven crazy by lack of sleep

Sleep must be one of the most powerful mood-altering drugs on the planet. Refreshed and rested the world can seem a manageable place. Exhausted and sleepless, it can seem an impossible and overwhelming challenge. Every task can seem like towing a caravan uphill, against the wind, in a car that's breaking down. Too much of too much.

A really interesting piece of research from Harvard University has been reported this week raising the idea that lack of sleep might be linked to mental health problems. Rather than saying that people with mental health problems might be more likely to suffer from poor sleep, it looks down the other end of the telescope and suggests that people who are wrecked by bad sleep could start to develop mental health problems as a consequence. As the Daily Telegraph describes it: "Having trouble sleeping can literally drive you mad."