Teresa Sue Wiley, better known as T.S. Wiley, is a researcher, writer, drug developer and a publisher of peer-reviewed papers in the fields of endocrinology, chronobiology, molecular medicine and genomics. She has studied sleep extensively and, best of all, is my grandmother.
Question: What was the background for your work with sleep?
Answer: I was on a quest to understand Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer — the basic diseases of civilization. So 20 years ago with a partner, Bent Formby, a molecular biologist and chemist, I started to research the effect of eating. Everyone assumed it was diet that caused heart disease and diabetes. It turned out nobody had asked what affects your diet, however. And diet is not just food; it is why you eat it. What you want to eat and when you want to eat is totally defined by how you sleep.
Question: How does the timing of sleep influence things, as opposed to just how much sleep a person gets?
Answer: When you sleep is how much you sleep. The hours of darkness, before midnight, program a hormone called melatonin. When you don’t sleep in the hours of darkness before midnight you don’t make enough melatonin, and it [melatonin] comes back again in the morning. That is why some people can’t get out of bed. How fast you age also depends on melatonin. Every hour you don’t sleep when it’s dark is taken off the end of your life. You only get so many hormones for daylight and darkness, so when you have the inside of your house like like it’s daytime when it’s really dark outside, you’re using up two days at once.
Question: Do teenagers get enough sleep?
Answer: Teenagers are a specific situation of chronobiology where timing is changing because sex hormones are coming into play. So the idea that teens shouldn’t stay up late is wrong. Teenagers stay up late to block the melatonin to get more receptors for estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, DHEA and growth hormone. You shouldn’t have to get up early in the morning, either, because you need to catch up on some reparation of brain cells and organ cells. So the way school is run is completely off.
Question: How does not getting enough sleep affect people?
Answer: Well, we can go back to cancer, heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. Without enough sleep, mental illness is more prevalent because your serotonin goes so high that you are completely depressed. The biggest clock in your body is your heart, and it needs downtime. Everything needs a hibernation period.
Question: Can you elaborate on what hormones do for sleep?
Answer: Old people cannot sleep because they run out of estrogen. The estrogen receptor is a big part of sleeping. In men, testosterone is converted into estrogen for libido and sleep and memory. So men use estrogen in the brain, and women use it everywhere. Your adrenals are a big clock, too, and they pump out stress hormones episodically. There is an insulin clock: How much sugar did you eat and in which season? For example, you should get three months of long light and lots of carbohydrate intake — i.e. summer — in one trip around the sun. We have four summers a year now because the sugar never stops and the lights never go off. Then you age four times as fast and your sex hormones run out, which means you are … immunosuppressed, so infectious diseases can come get you sooner.
Question: Do you have anything else to add?
Answer: People are dying for a good night’s sleep right now. Houses are laced with electricity through the walls, and now wireless is in the air. If you think about physics, no energy is ever lost or gained. That means wireless, in effect, if left on all night, is like having the lights on. I would say go to bed two hours after dark, if you can, and get up when the sun comes up. Turn off the wireless modem at night, and don’t look at the blue light. It turns on so many more hormones.
Harvey McGuinness is a senior at Santa Fe High. Contact him at email@example.com.