Most neurologists will tell their patients who have epilepsy that they should take care to get quality sleep every night since sleep deprivation is thought to be a trigger for seizures in some. More generally, sleep deprivation significantly compromises the ability to think clearly. Indeed, many man-made disasters have sleep deprivation as a contributing factor: the  Challenger space shuttle explosion, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, to name a few. Thus, as someone who has epilepsy and who sails for several days non-stop, how do I get sufficient sleep to be lucid, to think clearly, as well as reduce the probability of triggering a seizure? 

Believe it or not – practice: practicing napping.  

Phil takes a nap in his bunk on board Cepheus.

Ocean sailor Dr. Claudio Stampi, who completed the 1975 Clipper Race from the UK to Australia, monitored sleep patterns and noted that sailors perform best with short naps. He continued to study this and developed the concept of polyphasic sleep that world class sailors still use today.   

Our normal sleep pattern is termed monophasic – we sleep in one block. With polyphasic sleep, we sleep in short blocks of 20-30 minutes. This gives one enough time to rest and reset some of the brain chemistry yet permits one to wake up to check on the boat and the sail trim. 

In my job as a neuroscientist at Tufts University School of Medicine, one of the topics that I study is sleep. From these studies, it is clear that animals don’t sleep a single consolidated sleep period. They cycle through napping and waking. As one follows some of the brain chemistry changes that result from these naps, it becomes clear that a sequence of naps has a similar restorative effect as uninterrupted sleep.  

If one can do this effectively it is feasible to push yourself as a sailor for months on end without stopping. Indeed there are races, such as the Vendée Globe, in which a single sailor sails a boat around the oceans of the world without stopping, and without ever getting what most of us would consider a normal uninterrupted night of sleep. But sometimes skippers do push too hard and don’t nap enough, ending up with serious problems. For example, a young racer had been sailing for days without sleep, but he was ahead of the fleet in the Solitaire du Figaro, a grueling, singlehanded race off the coast of France. Sailing into the harbor to the cheers of the crowd, he stepped from his boat onto the wharf to accept their congratulations—then his safety harness jerked him back. There were no crowds, no wharf. He was standing on the gunwale of his boat surrounded by empty ocean. He had hallucinated as a result of sleep deprivation. 

In neuroscience, the ability of the brain to respond to a stimulus is measured as a latency, or a delay from the stimulus to a response. With sleep deprivation the delay gets prolonged. I therefore measure this latency with an app on my phone and use it to provide feedback, helping me determine if I need more sleep, or naps. Not only is this important for my sailing but also to use to reduce the probability of a sleep deprivation induced seizure. 

Taking one more step to live a fuller life requires guardrails for safety

In my conversations with people with epilepsy I ask, “can you take one more step to live a fuller life?” The second question is, “what guardrails can you put in place for your safety?” As I sail, I use guardrails for my safety. First, I use a series of standard safety measures to prevent me falling off the boat. But also, guardrails are important for my epilepsy. Prior to trying offshore sailing, I took napping seriously and did test naps at home for several days to determine whether sleep deprivation might induce an aura or worse, a seizure. Better at home than on the ocean. Fortunately for me it was fine.  

Sleep is essential for everyone but due to the potential ability to trigger seizures, daily sleep is critically important for people with epilepsy. Though I have epilepsy, I use a napping strategy that allows me to sail but reduces the danger associated with sleep deprivation. With napping as my safety guardrail, I am able to live a fuller life through sailing.

What step will you take to live a fuller life, with the necessary guardrails in place? 

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