Why shut-eye matters: Michael Jackson was sleep-deprived for two straight months, expert says

The Globe and Mail

A sleep expert, Charles Czeisler, told jurors Friday, June 21, 2013, that Michael Jackson exhibited symptoms of someone who was totally sleep deprived when he died in June 2009. (Joel Ryan/AP)

Just when you thought the sad saga of Michael Jackson’s death in 2009 couldn’t get any more alarming, CNN is reporting that the pop star may be the only human to ever go two months without the kind of deep sleep crucial to life.

CNN reports that Charles Czeisler, a Harvard Medical School sleep expert, testified on Friday at the wrongful-death trial of Jackson’s concert promoter that the symptoms Jackson was experiencing – including forgetting words to his famous tunes, paranoia and severe weight loss – could have stemmed from total sleep deprivation and lack of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.

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Dr. Czeisler, who has acted as a sleep consultant for such sleep-challenged groups as NASA, the CIA and the Rolling Stones, said that the infamous 60 nights of propofol infusions his personal doctor Conrad Murray administered is in no way considered a reasonable treatment for insomnia, CNN reports .

While the anesthetic leaves a patient feeling refreshed, he said, it offers no REM sleep and none of the cell-repairing functions that comes with it.

He told the court that lab rats die after five weeks of getting no REM sleep.

“It would be like eating some sort of cellulose pellets instead of dinner,” CNN reports he said. “Your stomach would be full, and you would not be hungry, but it would be zero calories and not fulfill any of your nutrition needs.”

While Jackson’s demise is an extreme – if not the most extreme – case of what can happen, experts continue to drive home the message that the effects of sleep deprivation on the general population can be serious. As Jane E. Brody of the New York Times Well blog wrote this week, even shaving a few hours off a good night’s snooze can be damaging.

Brody writes that seven or eight hours of sleep is right for most of us to “function optimally,” and offers a long list of studies suggesting the link between fewer hours and pre-diabetes symptoms, cancer, weight gain and mental health problems.

A chronic lack of sleep “can compromise your health and may even shorten your life,” she writes.

And problems can crop up in childhood. She points to the research of New York psychiatrist Vatsal G. Thakkar who “recently described evidence associating inadequate sleep with an erroneous diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children. In one study, 28 per cent of children with sleep problems had symptoms of the disorder, but not the disorder.”

Something for all of us to sleep on.