Why Autism is linked to Insufficient Deep Sleep.

Sleep is of two types: “light sleep”, and “deep sleep”. During the two phases of deep sleep we are paralyzed. Deep sleep can be either Slow Wave Sleep, (the brain waves that are measured from the scalp during this phase appear in a slow rhythm), or Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep where our eyes are moving back and forth in a regular rhythm. Based on my patient experience, those who have less deep sleep than their body needs, wake up feeling tired. This suggests that we only repair our bodies during deep sleep.

Our bodies, and all of our individual cells do different things during the day than they do while we’re sleeping. During the day we use up our chemical stores. During the night we make repairs and make and store the chemicals we will need to function properly tomorrow. Surprisingly a fat cell, taken out of the body and grown in a dish, still knows what time it is. The cells grown in the dish still make certain chemicals during the day and different chemicals at night. This has been found to be the case for many other cell types as well.

We know that growth hormone is only secreted during slow wave sleep. This means that children only grow during that specific phase. If they don’t stay in slow wave sleep long enough they don’t grow normally. All children must also develop their brain while they sleep. So if the time spent in deep sleep is shortened the brain must decide what aspect of development to abandon. Based on the astounding increase in autism that has occurred in the last 20 years, the brain appears to leave off the normal development of social interaction. What we call “autism” refers to social awkwardness, an inability to recognize social cues and interactions that are very important for normal humans. Humans, like all primates, are inherently pack animals who are very sensitive to status, we can survive without those skills but our ability to mate or interact in community is very limited without them. We have seen a significant rise in the incidence of autism during the same time that sleep disorders have become epidemic. There is also quite a bit of literature linking vitamin D deficiency to autism. Based on my patient experience the brain still remembers what it is supposed to do, therefore given back the time in deep sleep and the necessary raw materials, the brain can make up for the deep sleep it missed and develop these skills even in teen years.

“Not a Morning Person” is actually an important sleep disorder !

Most children with milder sleep disorders just have a hard time getting out of bed.  That inability to wake up means the brain has really not finished what it needs to do, biologically the brain wanted to sleep until 10:00 am to finish last night’s tasks. More severe sleep disorders present as children who can’t fall asleep or can’t stay asleep. Bed-wetting means that the child is not getting into deep sleep to make anti-diuretic hormone, a hormone that limits our urine production during sleep, so we won’t have to get up and interrupt our period of repair. That hormone is only released in deep sleep. Children who cannot get into or stay in deep sleep make too much urine and wet the bed.

Over the last 10 years there has been a significant increase in gender dysphoria. This means feeling as though one’s “gender” does not match the sexual organs one was born with. Though babies are born with male or female genitalia the sexual development of the brain is dependent on the release of sex hormones during deep sleep throughout childhood.  Sexualizing the brain to match the genitalia is a nightly, chemical event that is followed by the pubertal physical changes that make us recognizably male or female. My patient experience has shown that teen boys who still have a feminine body shape, once sleeping normally, can transition to a masculine body shape even after significant pubertal delay. So both the social interaction and the body shape are determined by having the right amount of deep sleep during childhood.

1 Comment

  1. Fascinating. I’m a family doc staying home with my teenage autistic son. I’ve been diagnosed with migraines, OSA, depression. Burn-out contributed to leaving my job. I have never been a morning person. I can sleep at almost any time of day. I want to help myself, my son, and patients when I return.

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