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What Makes Us Tired

December 11, 2012 - Jen Zbozny
When I get tired, I become like a cat. I yawn and start looking for a place to nap. If I find a warm comfy quiet spot, chances are I won't want to get up and might not pay much attention to you unless you become really adamant. Then I just want to find another spot and resume my quest for sleep.

That makes sense to me. When sleepy, go to bed. I have no recollection of ever having been different. In fact my mother used to tell me that as a child, if she had taken me someplace and I was tired I was quite comfortable to go find someone else's couch or bed and put myself to sleep. Yay me!

Here's what puzzles me. Lots of children, including Eve, when they are tired do something completely different. They become crazed bullets. They throw themselves at us, the flail about like fish out of water, they actually bounce off things. Why? Why not become catlike and drift off to sleep? As parents we recognize it and we know that when they start bouncing off walls like that, they have actually hit the wall and it's bedtime, but does it really need to involve some kind of mini Cirque du Soleil performance with added full-contact impact?

Here's what I think. Your body makes stuff called cortisol. Cortisol's job is to light the the body's runways for anti-stress and anti-inflammatory responses and it also essentially kicks off the manufacturing of certain kinds of glucose (read sugar!) in the body. It also activates the adrenal system. Since stress signals the body to take care of its most important processor first, it basically trips the switch that feeds that sugar to the brain first. That's a pretty amazing self-preservation reflex.

Right. Read STRESS and SUGAR and ADRENAL system again.

Now, put that into the context of your wild little molecule over there firing him or herself off the couch. Here's what I think happens. Eve gets tired and her body is running on fumes. Just before I realize her tank is going below "e", her body does realize it. Her system manufactures cortisol because being tired (and not going to sleep) causes stress. Next, her little body goes into self-preservation mode and manufactures sugar which sends it to her brain. Now, she's just had her own personal cocktail of red-bull, made up of sugar and adrenalin. Which is why she's flailing like a fish instead of curling up like a cat.

That's my theory. It makes sense. It's a good argument for a consistent regular bedtime (so the body conditions itself to know it will be going to bed regularly and not go into nut-job mode) and a little low-sugar but maybe complex carbohydrate snack before bed.

As I said, it's my theory. Just because I think I understand it, doesn't mean I'm going to win the battle!


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