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Part One in a 6-Part Series
Have you ever heard someone say:
“I would give anything if I could just get a good night’s sleep.” Or “I just don’t know why I can’t get to sleep.” Or “It seems I just lie awake and can’t stop thinking about stuff.”
Everyone is talking about sleep. Nearly everyday, a news article or internet post appears about the topic. My own research about sleep is eye-opening. So, for the next few blogs, I want to share some of my lessons learned.
Restful, refreshing sleep is undoubtedly one of life’s great pleasures. But we have become a nation of sleep-deprived adults, teenagers, and children. We can’t get to sleep because we’re stressed out and we’re stressed out because we can’t sleep.
Lack of sleep is not just stressful. Scientific research links poor sleep to depression, heart disease, obesity, anxiety, increased colds, poor work performance, work related accidents, and even Type 2 Diabetes.
Why do we struggle to sleep? After all, sleeping is a natural activity. We were born to sleep. It’s written in our DNA. So, sleeping should be a simple biological function. We get tired, we go to sleep. Babies do it all the time.
In actuality, falling asleep and staying asleep are part of a complex symphony of physical and environmental conditions working in harmony. Several different stages of sleep and many different structures within the brain contribute to sleep.
It all begins with something called circadian rhythms. The world runs on circadian rhythms. These are natural periods of light and dark, day and night, and changing seasons, resulting from the rotation of the earth.
All living organisms, from bacteria to plants, to animals, and to humans. Circadian rhythms govern us all. In fact, circadian rhythms influence sleep/arousal cycles, hormone release, eating, digestion, behavior, migration patterns, and even sexual activity.
Humans, like all other vertebrates (animals with backbones), have biological, internal master clocks similar and related to the environmental circadian rhythm. Our internal master clocks form our own personal circadian rhythm. They regulate our sleep/arousal cycles, bodily functions and even moods and behaviors.
Located deep within the brain is our master clock, which is located in a peanut-sized area known as the hypothalamus.
In addition to the hypothalamus, several structures within the brain contribute to the regulation of our sleep/arousal cycle. In the next blog, I will discuss some brain anatomy and physiology involved with the sleep/arousal cycle.
I hope you stay tuned and watch for my next installment.
Part 2 of a 6-Part Series
Sleep is essential for our bodies to function. It is during sleep that the body removes toxins, and our cells divide, grow, and repair. Without sleep our brains cannot create new neurons, make connections between neurons, and lay down memories. Sleep affects every tissue and system of the body and is crucial to brain function.
Sleep and arousal are dependent upon circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythm is the cycle of day and night, light and dark, and changing season resulting from the earth’s rotation. Deep within the brain are several structures that are responsible for falling asleep and waking. Light and darkness are the triggers that begin a series of events that bring on sleep and help us to awaken.
In addition to being tuned into environmental circadian rhythm, we also have our personal circadian rhythm and our personal internal clock, our chronotype. Whether you are a morning bird or a night owl is actually a genetic trait.
Morning people wake naturally, often not needing an alarm. They love mornings, enjoy breakfast, feel less fatigue during the day, and go to bed early. They often find it difficult staying up for late night parties and outings. Night people frequently have difficulty waking and usually need that alarm, often hitting the snooze button. They like to stay up late and sleep in. Getting up and going in the morning takes them a while. They make great night shift workers because it fits right in with their natural rhythm.
Our sleep/arousal cycle is controlled by several structures located deep within the brain. The hypothalamus, a peanut-sized structure deep within the brain is our internal master clock. The hypothalamus regulates our sleep/arousal patterns, body temperature, hormone release from the pituitary gland, hunger and thirst, sexual behavior and reproduction, and even moods and behavior.
Inside the hypothalamus is a cluster of thousands of nerve cells that receive information about light exposure directly from the retina of our eyes. The brain stem, a structure at the base of the brain that is the beginning of the spinal cord, communicates with the hypothalamus to control transitions between sleep and arousal.
Both the brain stem and the hypothalamus have sleep-promoting cells which produce a chemical called GABA in response to decreasing light and approaching darkness to help us fall asleep. GABA inhibits our level of arousal.
When darkness approaches, the light-sensitive cells within the hypothalamus communicate with pineal gland, a tiny, pea-shaped structure located deep within the brain. The pineal gland then releases melatonin, which increases sleepiness and helps us fall asleep.
Once we are asleep, we experience several stages of brain activity, known as the sleep cycle. In addition to the hypothalamus and the brain stem, several other structures of the brain are involved with the regulation of our sleep cycles and are active during sleep.
Check back shortly to read part 3 of my series on sleep. I will discuss the stages of sleep and the parts of the brain involved. So, stay tuned!
Part 3 of a 6-Part Series
“To sleep, perchance to dream.”
Ah Shakespeare. Sweet dreams, the ultimate good night’s sleep, something we all treasure. Dreams are just one part of our nighttime journey. Besides dreams, what else goes on while we sleep?
There is a kind of circadian rhythm dance of light and darkness that goes on within neuron centers inthe hypothalamus, thalamus, the brain stem, and the forebrain which produce both wakefulness and the need for sleep.
We have light sensitive neurons in the hypothalamus which produce neuro-chemicals that promote wakefulness. The longer we are awake, and as the day goes on, different neurons within the hypothalamus produce neuroactive chemicals, known as somnogens, that promote sleep. Somnogens accumulate during the day, promote drowsiness, and prepare the brain to sleep.
Eventually somnogens take over and we sleep. There are many different somnogens involved in sleep. The most studied somnogen is adenosine. It is interesting to note that caffeine (not just from coffee) blocks adenosine receptors, which is why caffeine helps to keep us awake.
Many people have heard of the somnogen Melatonin. It is often used as a helpful, natural aid to falling asleep. Two other very important neurochemicals are GABA and galanin. Both GABA and galanin are produced by neurons in the hypothalamus and are distributed throughout the brain. They inhibit all wake-promoting areas of the brain.
Stages of Our Sleep
Galanin is very important in learning and memory. It is during sleep that memories are laid down, another reason sleep is so important to learning.
So our neurochemicals have done their job and now we are asleep. Actually, sleeping is not just one simple activity. Sleep happens in cycles of about 90 minutes each. During these cycles, brain wave activity changes and activity in both brain and body also changes.
When we think about getting enough sleep, we also need to realize it is important to have enough complete sleep cycles. The quality of our sleep is just as important as how long we are sleeping and whether we constantly awaken or enjoy several uninterrupted sleep cycles.
Sleep Scientists Divide Sleep Cycles in Two Major Groups
- Rapid Eye Movement (REM)
- Non- Rapid Eye Movement (NREM).
NREM has three stages: N1, N2 and N3
N1 is our time of drowsiness and transition from being awake to falling asleep. This is that phase when we sometimes have sensations of falling or our limbs might jerk or we experience restless legs. Our brain wave activity is moving from Beta waves of 12 to 38 HZ, our waking active brain activity, to Alpha waves of 8 to 12 HZ, our calming, relaxing brain wave activity, on to Theta waves of 3 to 8 HZ. In this stage, we are not fully asleep, yet not fully awake. Our attention to outside stimuli diminishes. Our brains create a mixture of both Theta and Alpha as we drift from drowsiness of N1 into the next stage, N2.
In N2 we are in the most prominent sleep stage. We are deeply asleep and our brain waves consist of varying levels of the Theta wave frequency. We are not dreaming and we are not yet into our deepest sleep. Our brain activity becomes limited as we move into deep sleep.
It is during this phase of sleep, and the deeper stages of N2, that our body detoxifies, cells repair, divide, grow and develop, cell waste products are removed, and children actually grow. Our bodies are relaxed and waste products are sent to the kidneys and on to the bladder. That’s why we need to go to the bathroom as soon as we awaken, or sometimes during the night.
N3 is our Delta wave sleep of .5 to 3 HZ. We are now deeply asleep. All systems of the brain involved with wakefulness have been inhibited. Most neurons are quiet, except for specific neurons designed to inhibit wakefulness. This stage usually occurs within 15 to 45 minutes after the onset of sleep. The duration of deep slow wave sleep depends upon age. The older we are, the less time spent in this stage. Babies and young children spend the most time in Delta wave sleep.
Finally, we have REM sleep. This is a unique brain wave pattern all it’s own. This is the stage where we experience dreams. During REM sleep, our thalamus and cortical areas become active and our eyes move rapidly. Heart rate and breathing increase. Neurons are triggered in the brainstem and down the spinal cord, which produce paralysis of our muscles and limbs to prevent us from acting out our dreams.
REM sleep occurs about 80 to 85 minutes into the sleep cycle. REM sleep plays an important role in memory consolidation, the synthesis and organization of cognition, and mood regulation. Everyone dreams, we usually don’t remember them unless they wake us.
More About Sleep Yet to Come
Sleep and dreaming are essential to good health and clarity of thought. In the final segment of this series, I’ll discuss insomnia and tips for getting a restful, restorative night’s sleep.
Part 4 of a 6-Part Series
Do you remember what bedtime was like when you were a small child? You probably had a special bedtime ritual or routine.
I’ll bet it went something like this:
- First you a had a warm bath, filled with lots of bubbles for sure, along with fun bath toys.
- After the bath, while Mom or Dad dressed you in your pajamas, you probably talked about your day, asked questions and had your toes tickled.
- Then, while you were tucked into bed, it was time for a favorite story, and maybe a song or a prayer.
- Finally, a goodnight kiss and lights out.
Eventually, every parent learns the importance of a bedtime ritual or routine to allow children to relax, unwind from the day and get ready to fall asleep. As we grow up, it seems we usually forget the importance of spending time to prepare the body for sleep. It is equally important for adults to have a bedtime routine as it is for children.
With today’s stressed and hurried lifestyle, we all need to allocate time to prepare our minds, brains and bodies to unwind and relax as the first step toward falling asleep and achieving a restful, restorative night’s sleep.
Remember those light-sensitive neurons in the hypothalamus and the importance of circadian rhythm of light and dark? We need to allow our brains to wind down from both daylight and all of the artificial light with which we are constantly surrounded.
An extremely important aspect of preparing the brain for sleep is limiting light exposure. This means that we must turn off our televisions, computers, cell phones, and tablets at least 30 minutes to one hour before bedtime. Preparing for bed is not the time for stimulating or scary movies, TV programs, or video games.
Bedtime is the time to allow the wakeful inhibiting neurons to do their job, and they need increased darkness. Instead of watching screens, try reading, listening to music or an audio book, writing in a journal, doing a craft, or playing an enjoyable game with your partner or children.
Speaking of your children, the hour before bed is the time to unwind, not do homework. Considering homework and studying for that important test, remember that it is during deep sleep when memories are encoded and sleep is critical to learning. Even if your children are older or are teenagers, it is still important to have a bedtime routine and it must include turning off computers, televisions, cell phones, and video games.
The need for darkness should also include the bedroom. As much as possible, it is important to have darkening or blackout shades/curtains to shut out outdoor lighting. If you have a lighted alarm clock or clock radio, turn the light to the dimmest setting and turn the clock face away from directly lighting your bed.
By the way, for all of us women who wonder why our husbands seem to get to sleep faster and sleep better than us, wonder no longer. It’s a scientific fact that, on the whole, men do sleep better than women. There are differences in sleep stage cycles and circadian rhythm patterns in men and women that may account for differences in quality of sleep in men and women.
For the best night’s sleep, your bedroom should be cool, dark, and quiet. Believe it or not, we sleep better in a room with a cool temperature of between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit, because our body temperature naturally drops as we fall asleep.
However, that being said, some people sleep better between 65 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, so it’s important to experiment to find the best cool temperature for you. You should be comfortably covered, without the need for layers of blankets. Babies need it a little warmer and the best temperature for a baby’s room is between 67 to 72 degrees.
So, let’s say you have done all of the above things, but you still can’t get to sleep. Let’s not forget the relaxing effects of nice, hot bath. Adding relaxing essential oils to the water can help make the bath even more effective. Experiment with scents you find appealing and relaxing.
Here is a list of seven scents that are used in aromatherapy for relaxation:
- Citrus. (Depending on individual reactions, both sandalwood and citrus can be either stimulating or relaxing.)
There are many different natural remedies and supplements that can help you fall asleep. I’ll discuss some of them in the final part of this series. I look forward to sharing them with you soon.
Part 6 of a 6-Part Series
Modern day stresses and lifestyles often make falling asleep and staying asleep difficult. Many people turn to prescription drugs, but unfortunately, there are often unwanted side effects.Read More