I know a few people that claim to love sleep more than anything. This is ironic because those that claim this are often times the most chronically sleep-deprived of us. Americans on average sleep about 6.8 hours a day. This is an hour down from 1942 (1). This fact is really depressing and ends up causing a malaise of sleep deprivation in the general populace.
Out of all the things one can do to promote a healthy lifestyle, good healthy sleep (while acknowledged) is often the first thing to suffer from cutbacks and created excuses. This is mostly just a byproduct of how our society operates these days. With so many 24 hour stores in our cities, easy access to light sources and now mobile screens to stare into like some magic crystal ball, it is no wonder that it is difficult much of the time to get some solid shut eye.
But with a dash of discipline and some key knowledge on how sleep works, the benefits can be ours once again.
Table of Contents
- 1 Function
- 2 Chemistry
- 3 Unhealthy Slumber
- 4 Healthy Slumber
- 5 Resting
- 6 Don’t Forget to Sleep!
When we talk about what sleep actually is in the brain, we are talking about one of life’s biggest biological rhythms. While sleep isn’t easy to understand, it’s cycles are predictable and well understood (one of the few things about sleep that actually is).
To begin with, there is what is termed Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) Sleep and Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep. Together they form a sleep cycle of 90-100 minutes in length. In general, we get four to five cycles a night.
To break it down even further, NREM is broken down into four stages that are passed through in order. Each is characterized by different brain wave states.
Stage 1 NREM – Typified by Alpha and Theta waves. This is drowsy sleep.
Stage 2 NREM – Typified by Theta waves but including spindles and K-complexes.
Stage 3 NREM – The first stage of Slow Wave Sleep (SWS), typified by theta and delta waves.
Stage 4 NREM – The second stage of SWS, also typified by theta and delta waves.
This 4th stage is followed by REM sleep. Characterized by beta waves. It should be noted that beta waves is what your brain is putting off while awake (3). It is the normal wake state of alertness.
The amount of time spent in SWS is directly proportional to the amount of sleep deprivation that has been experienced. The amount of SWS is also higher in the first few cycles giving way to higher amounts of REM in the last few cycles (3). While we dream in all cycles of sleep, those dreams we actually remember the most are found in REM cycles and this is why we tend to experience (remember) our dreams in the early morning more so than in the middle of the night.
What is Sleep for?
This is all well and good but what’s the point of sleep anyways? Why do we do it when it seems like a perfect way for something to catch you unawares and eat you? Researchers are still unclear about the ultimate purpose of sleep. It has to have many very important functions to account for us spending a third of the time we are alive doing it. The evolutionary advantage must be pretty big too if every form of life spends some amount of time in a state of quiet, non-responsive activity (even amoebas!) (2).
It seems that out of all the competing theories on why sleep evolved, three broad ones seem to make the most sense (3):
- Cellular restoration
- Energy conservation
- The consolidation of memory and learning
A lot of sleep science has investigated the memory aspect. Sleep, it seems, is similar to the way a computer defragments its memory into smaller more organized bits to save space and make it more efficient.
Sleep researchers have found that sleep is vitally important for transforming short-term memories into long-term memory storage. It is a mechanism for the neuronal network to shave back excess ‘noise’ and thereby reinforce those neuronal pathways for when we are awake (3). This is where using sleep to improve and master skills and movements is the very best tool we could use.
More sleep correlates to better problem-solving and critical thinking in humans and other mammals. Deficient sleep effects the learning of certain higher-thinking tasks and retention of memories (3). This is the reason teachers continually advise not to cram late into the night before a test. The chances that all that information will be retained is significantly lowered by not getting a good nights rest.
Sleep deprivation is no joke. Many studies have found that high levels of it while driving a car correlates very well with the abilities of drunk drivers. It seems to effect certain parts of the brain more than others (3).
For instance, motor control in a 17-year old student was found not to be affected even after 10 days of not sleeping he was able to beat a non-sleep deprived interviewer at pinball. His memory skills and ability to concentrate and make decisions were severely hampered though. Combine that with moodiness, hallucinations (in his case at least) and paranoia, sleep deprivation sounds like a powerful recreation drug (3).
A really weird aspect of sleep deprivation is that even while awake, different groups of neurons will go into a sleep cycle. This shows us how the function of pruning the noise is necessary to prevent over-stimulation of neurons. It is also probably a big part of why the brains functionality is so impaired by a lack of sleep (3).
Larks and Owls
Morning people, how I envy them.
When I am forced to be up early and the noise of human life is still faint and far away, that is the magic hour. The air possesses a certain newness that is not felt at any other time of the day. If only I could pull my dragging ass out of the sleep inertia I am in to get out and enjoy it!
Am I cursed to always see greener grass on the morning person side of things or can I change this aspect that has seemingly plagued me since before high school began?
Perhaps not. The propensity for being a morning individual (Lark) or a night person (owl) has recently been found to be genetically determined much like the colors of our eyes. The gene in question has been labeled PERIOD. You have a copy from each parent and what has been found is that if you have one that makes you more of a lark and one that makes you more of a night owl (about 50% of the population), they blend together and place you somewhere in between true lark (10% of pop) and true owl (40% of pop) (2).
What is interesting is what was found about some behavior patterns that may result from this gene. Lark types get tired much earlier than owls obviously but they also don’t handle sleep deprivation well at all. Owls while often morning deficient are way better at operating well under sleep deprivation (2).
Age Effects Sleep Patterns
While we may be more genetically inclined towards one end of the day than the other, age can slowly change us from an owl to a lark. As we get older after the teenage years, we slowly require less sleep than before (situational variations notwithstanding) So even if you are an owl now, you maybe be an early riser one day (2).
The main reason that people start to ‘require’ less sleep is that the circadian sleep cycle narrows with age (3). This means we literally become morning people whether we were before or not. It also means because of sleep disruptions, naps become a necessity to get the adequate range of sleep hours into the day. This is on average 7 ½ hours for the elderly (3).
Quality light becomes even more important to the aging than those of a younger disposition. As dementia affects more than 50% of people over the age of 85, studies have found that appropriate blue light at the right hours (meaning being outside in the morning) can actually slow the onset of this disease and cognitive decline in general, probably corresponding to the fact that better sleep was the result (3).
As all matter is essentially energy at the quantum level, it makes perfect sense that our biology uses photonic energy in something akin to a nutrient. Much like a plant, our skin cells and eyes possess the ability to absorb and convert sunlight into usable forms. Our very health depends on it.
The pale and sickly kid with skin eruptions that spends all of his time on the computer stands in stark contrast to the healthy glow of the tanned hippy who spends most of his time barefoot outdoors. The obviousness of this fact is, however, lost to many.
Light is what sets our circadian rhythms. Without light you begin to fall away from the natural light/dark cycle of our planet. This, of course, means disruptions in our sleep patterns that will affect our health and potentially lead to a negative feedback loop if it is not corrected with appropriate action.
The circadian biological clock is one of two systems that controls our sleep, sleep/wake homeostasis being the other. Basically, the clock aligns us with the day and night cycle, peaking in sleepiness between 2-4 am and 1-3 pm (depending on your owl/larkness of course). Sleep/wake homeostasis tracks how LONG you have been awake, making you more tired the longer you stay awake (4). These two systems counter balance and act as back ups for each other.
The circadian clock is entirely dependent on light (though some people point to the fact that grounding ourselves to the planets natural negative ion field also plays a role with this). It is controlled by the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus, a 20,000 patch of cells in the hypothalamus that receives light signals from the ganglions cells located in the optic nerve. It directly controls many aspects of the body that make you feel ‘awake’ like body temperature and bathing the brain in a cocktail of neurotransmitters that promote the arousal state (not the one you are thinking of).
The easiest and fastest way to adjust your readjust your circadian clock to be in sync with the rising sun is to spend time outdoors. Ideally, being able to spend a week outside will do the trick as the light plays on with your melatonin levels (see below) (5). I believe this is one reason people feel so pulled to go camping in the outdoors. They say they wish to unplug but really it is that they are plugging back into the natural rhythms of their bodies by being in an environment that we are evolved to be live in.
Perhaps you know that taking melatonin helps people get to sleep. Many people will know this but why this works is another matter entirely. First we must understand the point of melatonin. Our bodies are very adaptable beings and contain many overlapping systems that can back up one that fails. This is the beauty of the fine evolution life has undergone to ensure the passage of genes from one generation to the next at all possible cost.
Melatonin is the signal to the body that the night is upon us. Its production only begins in the absence of light which is monitored by those photosensitive retinal ganglion cells located in our optic nerve already mentioned. These cells contain a light-sensitive pigment called melanopsin (which has nothing to do with melatonin) that detect blue-light levels. Blue-light is normally good but as will be discussed later, our society’s overuse of it is severely disrupting our sleep patterns (3).
Production of melatonin is primarily done by the pineal gland (which means its VERY important to keep this gland healthy). It is converted into melatonin from serotonin, which is essentially built from the amino acid tryptophan. The reason SSRI’s disrupt sleep so well is because of this serotonin-melatonin relationship (3).
Melatonin is pumped out of pineal cells when the body calls for it. Its production is directly linked to your biological clock. When you circadian rhythm is off, production is off (3).
Any amount of blue light will put the brakes on this biochemicals production(3). This is why oversleeping in a blacked out room is so easy to do. On the flip side, is the potential for great sleep when you can remove all possible light from the bedroom as will be explained later.
Our history extends many thousands of generations into the past and most of that time we slept under the stars in the blackness of night and woke with the first rays of the sun. In the limited time that we have had around the clock lighting, our biology has not changed. We are creatures of the sun while on Earth, journeying to other places in our dreams when the darkness descends.
But the story is never that simple. Perhaps the strangest thing about melatonin is that nocturnal animals also produce it but only at night when they are wide awake (3). This means the direct relationship between this neurotransmitter and sleep continues to be a mystery.
Acetylcholine and GABA
Remember I mentioned two methods of controlling our sleep, the one I haven’t talked about is sleep-wake homeostasis. The two primary neurotransmitters that control this cycle are acetylcholine and GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid). One is essential for staying awake while the other tells the brain to go to sleep (3).
Acetylcholine has many jobs to do in our brains. But one of the main ones is carrying signals from the brainstem up to the rest of the brain. This action is causing the brain to be in a state of arousal (wakefulness).
GABA, its counterpart, does the opposite, telling the brain to sleep (3). GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. Basically, GABA tells neurons to calm down and stop firing as much. When there is a deficiency of GABA it is hard to fall asleep (6).
While acetylcholine is not inhibited while we are in NREM sleep, it actually is more active in REM sleep than when we are awake! Twice as much of it is in the brain as when we are conscious (3).
It is important to note that serotonin actually counteracts the activity of acetylcholine. So since REM sleep requires extremely high levels of acetylcholine to get into. increasing serotonin levels can prevent REM activity (3).
This is exactly what happens with Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), a common anti-depressant drug. While more serotonin in the system can make a person happy, by decreasing REM time, slow wave sleep increases (3). Alcohol also increases SWS as we shall see.
The reduction of acetylcholine in NREM sleep is fundamental to how the brain consolidates its long-term memories. To move information from the hippocampus (where most short-term memories are stored, it being a sort of brain central station for all information collected) to the neocortex requires the absence of this neurotransmitter. SWS could just be a way to lower this chemical to allow such a transfer to happen (3).
A lot of the time, people can’t sleep. Either it is hard to fall asleep (3), wake up in the middle of the night with some frequency (3) or wake up really, really early no matter when sleep begins (3). This can easily lead to sleep deficiency.
One of the surprising findings of sleep science, however, is the fact that much of what insomniacs perceive as a lack of sleep is actually in their heads. Because they are stressed about not being able to sleep, they incorrectly believe that their sleep time is less compared to what they actually get (2).
Belief is a powerful tool that is a double edged sword. Lack of belief often makes certain medications not work. Holding a belief will also make individuals gain more from those same medications. This means, if we believe we are sleep deprived, the body will often make it feel so.
The mind becomes a very powerful tool for insomniacs to utilize. If you think about not being able to fall asleep or to return to sleep and consistently worry about the coming dawn, your mind is clearly not in a relaxed state. Sleep is the most relaxed state we find ourselves in (unless you are counting death). Getting into a relaxed state of mind will help with the problem.
This is where some form of meditation is especially helpful to those of the insomnia variety. As an overactive mind is often a problem for these individuals in general anyways, quieting the mind can be a very effective prescription for their life in addition to getting to sleep.
Counting the sheep in your head is actually a form of meditation. But since breath is everything in this life, it is usually a more effective thing to stay focused on the breath and its happenings.
Habitual long-term insomnia is perhaps a problem of being more sensitive to sleep than the normal person. This means that the problems and their solutions that everyone can apply for sleep are especially important for the insomniac to pay attention to.
As with many problems, this one can be a very hard negative feedback loop to break. But once one is pushing out the bad habits and partaking the more helpful ones, more sleep will ensue, which will make it easier and easier to get to sleep as time goes on.
Accepting the problem instead of fighting it can relieve much tension and allow easier sleep. If you can’t sleep, go read or do something that calms the mind. Embracing the problem means there is no problem. After all, a problem is only a problem because we think it is one (7).
A known sleep inducer practiced for generations, alcohol does affect sleep in some negative ways. It will help a person fall asleep and, significantly, does promote those slow-wave sleep (SWS) delta waves of deep sleep. This normally would be an excellent thing except that it also promotes alpha wave activity (wakeful rest) at the same time (8).
This bipolar activity disrupts and actually produces poorer sleep than without the assistance of alcohol. The only other times researchers have found this bilateral brain wave action is with those suffering from chronic pain conditions or (in what I would call a weird study) while being zapped with electric shocks while sleeping (8).
It is believed that the poor sleep quality comes about from some wakefulness factor that is taking place while in deep restorative slumber (8). This has some to do with the reason why a lot of hard drinking can actually make people wake up long before they normally would in the early morning hours even with only a couple hours of sleep.
The other side of alcohols effect on sleep has been termed the rebound effect. Alcohol clearly can help an individual fall asleep due to its sedative effects. Once asleep the body adjusts the sleep cycles in response to the alcohol, entering a period of deep slow wave sleep. As the ethanol is processed out of the system in the second half of the sleep period, the bodies adaption to the alcohol becomes a moot point and a REM rebounding effect occurs (9).
This means that the slow wave sleep you are in suddenly becomes REM sleep where waking up becomes a very close possible event (9). Remember, REM has the same beta brainwave activity as being awake (3). This sudden shift may be jolting the body completely awake.
Other Unhealthy Sleep Habits
Avoid eating before bed.
If possible, don’t consume caffeine, especially if you are suffering from insomnia.
Avoid electronic devices before bed.
Staying up to around 11 pm or later, the body will often kick in a second wind that makes it difficult to sleep thereafter.
Lost Empire Herbs has begun to sell more herbs that work as nootropics and plans on having a formula for mental enhancement soon. These herbs work really well and there are plenty other more synthetic nootropics that may work just as well.
That being said, actually the very BEST way to optimize your mind is through sleep. It beats all drugs or herbs hands down. With its incredible effects on memory preservation and cultivation as well as its significant emotion stabilizing properties, it is no wonder that this is true.
This means focusing on cultivating the greatest sleep you can get for yourself will pay itself back in many, many multiples over. The advantage is that in many ways, this can be the cheapest way to optimal health that will make you better able to positively influence the world.
The Sleeping Chambers
Today, many of our bedrooms have become a place of high-energetics. Televisions, laptops and cell phones cohabitate these rooms with us, consuming our time and turning our beds into the largest couch sofas ever.
This is a huge problem for our brains. Not only do all these electronics spew blue light at an astounding level that disrupts our melatonin production but the room itself becomes an extension of the family room (or living room or wherever you hang out regularly in your home).
As highly adaptable animals, we will become evolved to any situation we continue to impress on our bodies. If your bed chambers (especially the bed) are used for other activities besides sex and rest, the brain will lose the clue that being in that place means lights out.
Making the area you actually lay your head comfortable for yourself and removing distractions like reading, listening to music, television, and/or the phone means YOU know what you are in there to do. This has been proven to actually help people go to sleep faster and more soundly.
Ditch the Mattress and Pillow
This is one I personally trumpet to the masses and haven’t seen much mention of in source material. There are many problems that must be encountered and dealt with regarding sleeping on the floor. Having personally gone through many of them and having practiced this for years now, the benefits far (at least in my mind) outweigh the beginning discomfort of making the transition.
Perhaps before attempting what many would consider a downgrading to their sleep arrangements, it would be better to attempt a less demanding goal of the comfort levels. This would simple be the progression to the use of no neck or head support in the form of an often times fluffy, sometimes feathery sack of comfort called a pillow.
There are a few upsides to the unnatural feeling of not using a pillow in the beginning. The neck muscles have to adjust to the new reality of lengthened muscles. This can be…strange at first. Given time, this will actually strengthen the muscles and bones supporting that large melon of yours, which means a far better chance of never again waking with some weird neck strain that prevents you from turning to look at something behind you on one side. Since doing this myself, I have never encountered this problem again.
Another upside is that the adrenals get a chance to relax. The thinking here is that your adrenals are actually what help keep you in that upright position. Whenever we are not totally horizontal (as we evolved to be in sleep) these little hard workers are pumping certain hormones to help us stay that way. That means they never truly get a chance to completely rest, suffering what is basically a continued source of friction that adds to any other friction being applied (10).
This would indicate that pillows are not allowing our bodies to reach those levels of rest that they could potentially be getting because we are not truly in a flat position.
The increased strength and mobility argued for in the no pillow doctrine applies to that of the floor, except this time with the whole being but especially the spine.
Sure, as animals, humans have always created nests of some kind to sleep upon, whether this be just a pile of grasses or more comfortable animal skins. But for the most part, these creations were on the ground or a surface of wood or stone. A mostly hard surface is what we evolved for and therefore, should be the healthiest bed material around.
Yes, coming from a heavily domesticated and bedridden population of humans twists our expectations and makes it hard to ‘convert’ to a simpler lifestyle without a mattress but if it were easy, would it even be worth it?
The benefits include again, the lengthening and strengthening of muscles. Many spinal injuries can potentially be alleviated after a time in this more natural position (be careful about this though and get your doctors opinion first). Just like shoes can act as casts for the feet making them weak and atrophy the muscle, so a very fluffy, unsupportive bed can make the body weak.
The toughening of the body through this route also has the amazing ability to allow you to sleep almost anywhere. I must say that sleeping in the outdoors or a prison cell (kidding but the idea is the same) is relatively easy when you can pass out because you are already in your comfort zone.
Herbs can help promote good sleep, especially in those suffering from insomnia or those that have nerves that cannot relax enough to allow sleep. (11)
Different herbs can help with different aspects of sleep. Some help you fall asleep more easily, while other ones keep you there. Some allow the mind to better relax, while others may be working directly on neurotransmitters. Experiment to find what may work best for you:
- California Poppy
- Kava Kava
- Passion Flower
- And many more
When a doctor tells us to get some bed rest, most of us assume they mean hang out in bed and read or watch movies, maybe even eat there too. This might be what doctors’ think is fine now, but back in the day, rest meant something else entirely.
When animals get sick or injured, they will try to find a small hidden spot somewhere to hole up and rest until they get better. That means they lay there whether in sleep or wakeful rest, doing nothing else. They usually will not even leave to go eat at this time as this would take valuable energy away from healing (digestion is heavily energy dependent).
We are animals too. Though we think we are a special animal that is somehow different from all the other animals just because of rationality and logical thinking, this doesn’t change the fact that we are still animals with animal biology.
This means what other animals do to get better in those situations actually works best for when we are sick or injured as well. This also means lying down with NOTHING to distract us is best for us. This includes reading, listening to music (though some studies have shown certain music and white noise can induce healthy sleep states), and definitely no electromagnetic activity of any kind.
EMF’s (Electro-Magnetic Frequency) have been shown to actually reduce healing time by disrupting mitochondrial function. While we do not know if it affects mitochondrial oscillations, we do know it disturbs their structure and function. This could result in ATP production decrease, which can directly lead to impaired healing (12).
These EMF’s have been described as the silent spring of our time. Certainly over-saturating our environment with stuff without caring and investigating its potential damage to our ecosystems has happened more than once before in recent human history.
We already know how blue-light can affect sleep itself, but to assume that because it’s invisible to the human eye, that it’s safe is a blatant disregard for self. We must remember that disconnecting from the world doesn’t mean the world is going anywhere. It will be there when we come back.
One of the better ways to get started on this is disconnecting by a certain time every night. Maybe 8 pm works for you. Besides giving you an ample amount of time for reading every day, people often end up going to bed way earlier simple out of nothing to do.
This also allows your body time before bed to not be stimulated by blue light, resulting in higher melatonin which translates into deeper sleep states which means feeling more rested the following morning and giving you more energy to create a beautiful, productive day that will lead you to be more tired the next night and fall asleep easier, etc. and on and on.
So hole up somewhere safe, take a moment to realize you are going to be spending some potentially good time with yourself and your thoughts and get about it. It may very well be what your body has been trying to get you to do for a long time now (what do you think a recurring sickness is for, to hinder us in life?).
Don’t Forget to Sleep!
Hopefully, this has opened your eyes to the importance of a good night’s rest. It is funny to think that by optimizing the quality of the time we spend unconscious we give our conscious states the greatest platform on which to work from.
There is so much more that could be including in this article because there is just a lot involved with good, healthy sleep and the functionality of sleep. Digging deep into the very many things that go into sleeping and waking can make the whole system seem almost magical.
“At this time, it appears unlikely
that there is a unique sleep neurotransmitter or brain structure – sleep and wakefulness seem to arise from a network of brain activity. During sleep, each person activates this network in a different way, integrating daily experiences and past emotions, and accompanying the aging process. Teasing apart, the dynamics of these endogenous and environmental contributions to both normal and abnormal sleep are going to keep neuroscientists busy for very many years to come (3).”
Just like fingerprints, the way we sleep is different from person to person, yet we all do it in one form or another. How incredibly unique each of us truly is while at the same time being completely the same.
(2) Lewis, Penelope A. The Secret World of Sleep.
(3) Lockley, Steven W. & Foster, Russell G. Sleep: A Very Short Introduction.
(7) Chiles, Eric. Zen and the Art of Sleep
(8) Time article on Drinking Sleep
(9) Why we wake up early after drinking
(11) Christopher Hobb’s Herbs for Insomnia
(12) EMF and Mitochondria
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