The Science of Sleep

60 Minutes, The Science of Sleep — We’re sleeping less than ever:

In 1960, a survey by the American Cancer Society asked one million Americans how much sleep they were getting a night. The median answer was eight hours. Today that number has fallen to 6.7 hours – that’s a decrease of more than 15 percent in less than a lifetime. And from what the scientists 60 Minutes met are finding, we may be putting ourselves in a perilous situation.

.. and we’re paying dearly for it. Test subjects allowed to sleep only four hours per night are able to metabolize sugars at about the same rate as pre-diabetics, and have a voracious appetite. In other words, there may be a connection between cultural sleep deprivation and the obesity epidemic. And of course, memory and mental acuity in general suffer dramatically as well. Not to mention nice-ness (tired people are cranky people).

But what refrain is more commonly heard in the workplace than “I’m exhausted?” We’re compensating for the insane pace of everything by staying up later, perhaps fooling ourselves that we’ll be more productive if we just trim off a few of those hours “wasted” on sleep. But it ain’t natch’l, what we do.

“But you know I find it amazing to see how many people are asleep within five minutes of boarding an airplane at 11 o’clock in the morning. You know, sit down and boom. It shouldn’t happen. A normal adult shouldn’t be falling asleep at 11 o’clock in the morning, minutes after sitting in a small, uncomfortable airplane seat. It just shows that, you know, people are exhausted.”

Ever since Miles was born, I’ve been deep in this pattern, getting by on 5-6 hours/night (7 on a mellow day), day after day, week after week. I used to try and get one full 8-hour night per week, but now even that doesn’t happen regularly. You just get so used to being a zombie, it starts to feel normal. Every now and then you get a full night or something close to it, and the mental clarity is astonishing, this feeling of alertness like you remember from a long-ago life. I swear I’m going to reform, get back on the 8-hour track permanently… but I never do. They say we’d be more productive sleeping more than less – that the increase in sharpness more than compensates for hours lost in sleep. But it’s hard to convince myself of that.

Anyway, it’s well worth the watch (or read).

How many hours of sleep do you average per night?

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Music: Dengue Fever :: Oceans of Venus

Shop the Perimeter

J-School professor and Birdhouse Hosting customer Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, has a new book titled In Defense of Food – a common-sense manifesto for eaters. Fittingly, Pollan is blogging this month at Don’t have time to read the book? Pollan gives away the kernel:

  • Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
  • Avoid food products with more than five ingredients; with ingredients you can’t pronounce.
  • Don’t eat anything that won’t eventually rot.
  • Shop the perimeter of the supermarket, where the food is least processed.
  • Avoid food products that make health claims.
  • Eat meals and eat them only at tables. (And no, a desk is not a table.)
  • Eat only until you’re 4/5 full. (An ancient Japanese injunction.)
  • Pay more, eat less.
  • Diversify your diet and eat wild foods when you can.
  • Eat slowly, with other people whenever possible, and always with pleasure.
Music: Herbie Hancock :: Solitude

Oak Hymenoptera

Milesoak     Milesoak2

By the grin on my face, you’d never guess I just got 14 sparkling new stitches in my right hand.

Headed out for Crockett Hills Regional Park with Miles on a gorgeous November morning – felt like late spring, amazing day. Halfway through the day, arrived at a cache under a giant oak … which we just couldn’t nail. Knew it was a tiny camouflaged micro, but it wasn’t about to give itself up. The clue was “Oak hymenoptera,” which of course was all Latin to me, so called Amy for a lifeline. She described a fungal growth related somehow to hornets or wasps. OK, the tree had its share of tumors and testicular outgrowths, and I searched them all while M ate cashews and an apple from his perch in the tree. But this one just wasn’t willing to be found.

A bit bummed, we moved on. Had intended to do a big loop around the park, but suddenly found ourselves at trail’s end. Realized we’d have to cross a road and hop a fence to continue our circuit – either that or hike two miles back the way we came and miss caching half the park, so went for it. Lifted Miles easily over the barbed-wire fence, then went to get myself over. OK, know this: I like adventure, and I’m not what you’d call “risk averse,” but I don’t think I do dumb things at the expense of safety. Studied the situation carefully to make sure there were no alternative crossings, then carefully got my feet into position on the top rung of the fence. Intended to sort of do a light vault over and spin down to the other side (this was only a 5-foot fence).

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How Often Do You Shower?

I know that some people shower a lot, but was surprised by the results of this poll showing that 23% of people shower more than once a day, and that an additional 55% shower every day or almost every day. Several people in the comments on that page also mentioned wanting a clean towel for each shower! Even though I bike daily and hike on the weekends, and Amy works in the garden almost every day, we’re both light showerers – we average 2-3 showers/week each, and neither of us take showers lasting more than 10-15 minutes (how long does it take to lather up, shampoo, and shave anyway?) Miles gets one or two baths per week, depending on what he’s been up to. Neither of us have ever been accused of stinking, nor do we feel dirty. I can’t help but think that personal perceptions of cleanliness don’t correspond neatly to cultural standards of cleanliness (in other words, people don’t consider us “dirty” based on our appearance or smell, even if they think daily showering is necessary for cleanliness).

According to one person’s calculations, the average 10-minute shower costs $1.12 and uses 26 gallons of water – they don’t come free! If you’re using low-flow toilets, reducing your lawn watering, or taking other water-saving measures for environmental reasons, you could cancel out your efforts pretty quickly by taking long or frequent showers. YMMV.

Curious whether Birdhouse readers have similar showering habits to the population at large, so I’m reproducing the poll here. Votes are 100% anonymous.

How often do you shower?

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One Ear Warm, One Ear Cold

Does it mean anything if one of your ears is warm while the other is cold? Even if you’ve been inside for hours and haven’t been wearing a hat and can’t think of anything you might have done that could have caused such a thing? Does this mean I’m going to die? Or just that my left brain is running hot for some reason? Ah well – I’m going to die eventually anyway.

William Shatner – “You’re Going to Die”

Music: Electrelane :: This Deed

Specialist Limbo

So I’ve been dealing with a persistent ear infection thing for the past 10 days. Started while I was sick, but has lasted long beyond the other symptoms, which have passed. Scarily, it has survived a round of antibiotics without diminishing. Feels like a knot of something behind the inner ear – either a vacuum or a clod somewhere in there, leaning against the cochlea maybe. My hearing in the left ear is diminished by about 50%, and there’s a persistent ringing. My voice reverberates in my head, as does my every footstep. It’s uncomfortable and scary and leads to hypochrondriacal thoughts about tumors and other dangerous nasties – not typical thoughts at all for me, but its resistance to medication and unrelenting nagging at my state of being is doing a number on me.

My M.D. has run out of theories and has referred me to an otolaryngologist. Here’s where my patience with the medical system runs into a brick wall. When you get referred to a specialist in this country, you go into this double limbo state. First, you’re given a list of doctors covered by your plan. In this case, I had 18 to choose from, with zero criteria to use in choosing one. Throw a dart at the wall and see where it lands. No Consumer Reports for medical specialists, no user rankings, no anecdotal assistance. Just pick someone at random to entrust with your most critical needs.

Fortunately, I did have one criteria: I needed to see someone yesterday or today, because I fly tomorrow to Austin for a week at SXSW/Interactive. That’s where you hit limbo state #2. Started calling names on the list, only to find that earliest appointments were three weeks out. If you need to see someone soon, you’re directed to the emergency room — where you end up not seeing a specialist, like your doctor ordered. These are your choices: wait weeks (while more damage is possibly caused, depending on the malady), or go to the E.R. where you’ll wait all day and see someone who doesn’t specialize in the problem (gee, isn’t that why my doctor sent me to a specialist to begin with?) If you’ve got something that needs rapid attention, you’re S.O.L. What really weirds me out is that when you try to talk about this paradox with nurses and receptionists, there’s zero sympathy. That’s just the way the system works, and my goodness, aren’t you a weird one for bringing attention to it?

Finally did find someone with an appointment for today (a cancellation), but it took hours out of my work day yesterday, wading through phone trees, waiting on hold, waiting for call-backs, having the same conversation over and over again…

Everything – everything – is wrong with this picture. The idea seems to be that medicine somehow stands apart from the free market. I would expect that there being more demand than supply would result in there being more practices. But it’s not even about that. A lot of the offices I spoke too said things like “We only see patients Tues and Thurs mornings.” Huhn??? If you’re setting appointments three weeks out, why don’t you work more hours?

Every time I’m forced to deal with Medicine in America I feel like I’m walking on a strange planet where the rules of reality are in permanent suspension. None of it makes any sense.

Continue reading “Specialist Limbo”

Dr. Miles, At Your Service

Amy and Miles decided to play doctor. Amy describes the scene:

Miles set up a doctor’s office in his bedroom yesterday, and I got treated. I thought you might like to hear about his techniques.

The nice thing about this doctor’s office is that you get to sit upon two pillows, so it’s kind of like having a little throne. The doctor first ran a green crayon down my arm and then kind of pushed it in to draw some blood. I got a Barbie band aid for that. At this point, the brilliant doctor already knew what was wrong with me. A bone had broken somewhere in my body, and when it fell off, it made a hole in my heart. He crammed my left hand into a toilet paper tube and then inserted the whole hand into a little plastic oven (from his play dough toys). There was a whooshing sound as more air went into my body. Finally, a small, plastic red thing was kind of plunged in and out of my mouth a few times and I was ready to go.

On my second visit to the doctor, I was diagnosed as having a crammed tummy. This procedure is easy. You just take a magnolia seed pod and crunch it around in the patient’s belly button. This will uncram everything.

While we were playing, I asked Miles if he would like a doctor’s kit for Christmas and then immediately regretted it. What fun is a stethoscope when you can have your hand crammed into a toilet paper tube? Maybe he’ll forget that I brought that up.

Music: Herbie Hancock :: Succotash

Root Canal

Rootcanal As the nitrous kicks in, I am floating sideways, seven feet underwater, thinking suddenly about SSL certificates and dolphins. What is this lame music, I wonder, remembering that the RIAA is suing dentists across the U.S. and Canada to get them to pay royalties for the privilege of subjecting patients to Kenny G. Isn’t that “Grazing in the Grass?” Yes, but neutered. Don’t they know people prefer to listen to Ornette Coleman on laughing gas? I try to flatten the fifth in my mind.

The antibiotics did such a marvelous job of relieving the pain over the past few days. I ask whether we can just call it a sinus infection and forget the root canal, call it a day. “Your mouth is a time bomb, Mr. Hacker,” the endodontist tells me in broken English. Not the first time I’ve heard that one. Bite plate goes in. Dental dam goes in. I am submerged, I am Dr. Yeh’s supplicant. Do with me as you will.

These are not your typical dentist’s drills. The bits are long and flexible, and turn slowly. No whining, more of a whirr. She applies them quickly, changes bits with lightning speed, examines each one carefully. How many bits do you need here? 20? I remember the line in the disclaimer I had to sign, about the prospect of a bit breaking off inside my jaw. Fumble for my phone, snap some self-portraits at arm’s length. Suddenly the good doctor pips in triumph, temporarily bringing me up from the depths. “You see? You see? Dead meat! Dead meat!” She is dangling a nerve from the tips of a small pair of pliers. The nerve is about the size of a few intertwined hairs, a tiny darkened bulb on one end, in the process of dying. It is the culprit, the source of the infection. I start laughing, can’t stop. Let me repeat the scene, so I never forget:

I am now gazing at a nerve extracted from my own body, pulled out of my head by a slowly rotating flexible bit, now dangling from a thin pairapliers. I have never seen my own nerves before, and I am laughing hysterically. Dead meat! Dead meat! I am happy.

They stop every so often to make images. New digital x-ray, no development required, images on an LCD on swivel mount in front of my face, instant vision. Dr. Yeh exclaims again. “Four roots, not three! Less than 5% of population have four roots! You are very special!” And the work continues. The fourth root goes very deep. They have to remove another filling to get it all. Three hours in the chair, total. I could do this all day. Suddenly they’re increasing the oxygen in my mixture, desaturating nitrous in my blood. I am above water. It all seemed so vivid while happening, now suddenly a barely accessible memory. Today will be a couch day.

Music: The Fall :: Last Orders

Wisdom Teeth

Wisdom Teeth When the first dentist told me it was time to have my wisdom teeth erased at age 40, I ignored him. When the third one told me the same, decided it was now or never. Had heard horror stories of periodontists with their knee up on the patient’s chest, luxating (rocking the pliers forceps back and forth) madly. One friend told me they thought the dentist was going to break their jaw getting the beggars out. So when the perio told me we were going to do this without general anesthesia, I had palpitations. But the procedure went surprisingly smoothly — 5-10 minutes per tooth and they were delivered. Just as the luxation began the assistant walks in: “We have a call from Mr. Hacker’s wife — she’d like us to save the teeth.” I smiled through a mouthful of fingers and gear; that’s just so her (see next post). As the novocain wore off throughout yesterday, the aching began and my throat swelled up. Plenty of couch time, and liquid meals. Today faring better but still in pain. Could have been worse.

Music: The Eyes :: I’m Rowed Out

Super Size Me

Another unanticipated consequence of living with Tivo: With an always-on list of good content, Amy and I had forgotten for the past few months that we actually like to watch movies as well. Rented Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me tonight and were awe-struck. Spurlock challenges himself to eat nothing but food from McDonald’s for an entire month, “three squares a day.” In that period, he gains 24.5 pounds, nearly destroys his liver, shocks his doctors, endures depression, mood swings, and generates 13 garbage bags full of packaging material. His vegan girlfriend even talks candidly about how his erections lose steam over the course of the month.

The film has a few sidebars on topics like the frightening state of modern school lunch programs and the power of the processed food industry’s lobbiests over government. Funny MOS interviews with people who have no idea what a calorie is. But it doesn’t touch the immense companion topic of factory farming, which seemed a bit strange. Focus here is really on personal health. Part of what makes the doc work is that there’s nothing pedantic about Spurlock – he’s a regular guy, unashamed to admit that McDonald’s food tastes great. He’s not preachy, just straight up and ready to turn himself into a guinea pig, even though it half kills him.

Music: Impossible Underpants :: Gordian Pie