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Monique Keiran: As clocks change, sleep is a great healer

We can sleep a little longer this weekend. Most of North America sets its clocks back one hour tonight, marking the end of daylight time in 2013.

We can sleep a little longer this weekend. Most of North America sets its clocks back one hour tonight, marking the end of daylight time in 2013.

If we choose to slumber through the hour gained, we’ll wake up slightly more rested and slightly better able to deal with the coming week.

For some of us, that week includes Tuesday’s opening performance of the new show at Victoria’s Belfry Theatre. A Tender Thing, by British playwright Ben Power, presents Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as lovers grown old together.

As with so many aspects of life, Shakespeare had something to say about sleep. Four centuries ago, he described it as “sore labour’s bath/Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course/Chief nourisher in life’s feast” (MacBeth).

Sleep research, most of which has occurred within the past few decades, confirms the accuracy of Shakespeare’s 400-year-old descriptions.

So, how exactly does sleep help us? As the Bard says, let us count the ways.

1. Sleep helps us deal with life. Insufficient sleep impairs judgment and ability to process and act on information quickly. For instance, more traffic accidents occur during the days following the setting of clocks forward in the spring, when we lose an hour of sleep, compared to the rest of the year, and fewer accidents happen after the clocks are turned back in the fall.

Also, when we are tired, we are quicker to anger and likelier to misjudge other people. And, unlike alcohol, smoking and other ways in which people may self-medicate, healthy, natural sleep rarely has negative side-effects.

2. Sleep is essential for learning and remembering. Multiple studies show our brains need several hours of both dreaming sleep and deep sleep every night to consolidate information and ensure it can be recalled on demand. Researchers have also found that poor sleep is linked to increased risk of developing dementia in older people.

3. Sleep helps us heal. During deep sleep, our bodies release hormones that reduce inflammation and aid healing. Sleep deprivation is linked to increased inflammation and slower healing.

4. Sleep helps us fight off colds and infections. By sleeping and resting, we allow our bodies to direct more energy toward becoming healthy.

5. Sleep helps our bodies regulate appetite and blood sugar. Scans of sleep-deprived brains show increased activity in the region of the brain associated with hunger control. Signals between brain and stomach become less efficient when we’re tired, so we tend to eat more, more often and longer. Sleep deficits further prime the body to develop conditions like Type 2 diabetes by affecting insulin production.

6. Sleep helps slow aging. A study by cosmetic company Estée Lauder indicates sleep-deprived women are more likely than their well-rested counterparts to develop droopy eyelids, swollen eyes, paler skin, fine lines and wrinkles, and other signs of premature aging.

Of course, this is only a short list.

As Shakespeare counselled, and today’s sleep experts agree: “Where care lodges, sleep will never lie” (Romeo and Juliet). In the sleepytime-preparation manual of life, the experts advise us to deal with cares and worries early in the day, if possible.

They recommend we avoid caffeine and alcohol after noon, and start our mornings with outdoor exercise, or schedule walks at lunch — but avoid exercising in the evening. And they suggest we calm our minds and prepare our bodies for slumber by dimming lights and switching to quiet pastimes an hour or two before bedtime.

According to this prescription, I’ll be attending a matinée performance at the Belfry Theatre. That way, I’ll have time to wind down from Shakespearean couples on stage and couplets in verse, and prepare for healing, dealing, regulating, learning and beauty sleep — “O sleep, O gentle sleep” (King Henry IV, Part II).