The Science of Sleep

Sleep is the ultimate practice.  We need it.  Our bodies and minds cannot function without it.   The joy of our days is an insight into how soundly we slept the night before.  Take it away and we notice the decline in our overall health and wellbeing.

"Researchers have also shown that after people sleep, they tend to retain information and perform better on memory tasks. Our bodies all require long periods of sleep in order to restore and rejuvenate, to grow muscle, repair tissue, and synthesize hormones." National Sleep Foundation

I found out the hard way that sleep is the most precious gift we can give ourselves, it is a necessity.  During a time when I was exorcising, eating healthily and avoiding alcohol and toxins, I found myself suffering with insomnia and my whole world crumbled.  Luckily I had some amazing friends that stepped in to assist me, because the offshoot of sleep deprivation is loosing a grip on reality.  Luckily I bounced back very quickly and have learnt a great deal in the process.  For me the biggest lesson was about building boundaries and making sure I always prioritise my sleep from now on.

Sleep is so important because it allows our bodies and minds to rest, shut down and also process what has happened during the day.  Take that time away and it is a fast slippery slope towards sleep debt - the effect of not getting enough sleep - and a large debt causes fatigue, both mental and physical; diminishing our abilities to perform high-level cognitive functions.  And unfortunately we cannot bank our sleep, calling on those extra Zzzz's from when we had a good night to top us up on a bad one.  It's not just our performance that can suffer, sleep depravation results in increasing irritability, worsening mood and feelings of depression, anger and anxiety.  Some argue it leads to heightened emotional reactivity. 

"The amygdala, an area deep in the brain, is our emotional control centre.  When sleep deprived participants were shown emotionally negative images, activity levels in the amygdala were as much as 60% higher than levels in those who were rested"

The more sleep deprived you are, the more likely you are to suffer mentally; according to a discovery made by an international team of researchers under the guidance of the University of Bonn and King's College London.

Twenty-four hours of sleep deprivation can lead to conditions in healthy persons similar to the symptoms of schizophrenia."

There are many reasons our sleep can become an issue, and once it is, it has the ability to feed on itself and trigger a negative cycle.  The mental implications of disturbed sleep can lead to depression, anxiety and stress... And disturbed sleep can also be caused by these... I call this the mind trap, when you start thinking about a problem, going over and over it in your mind, until you are very much awake.  Mindfulness can serve us greatly in this situation - practicing to watch the thoughts rather than allowing them control and to instigate more thinking is the key, but a lot easier said than done when thoughts feel like immense pressure and the pressure of going to work the next day feels like impending doom.

And its not just emotional and mental turmoil that can impact sleep - physical issues can lead to impaired sleep.  I suffer with a malocclusion of my jaw - aka temporomandibular disorder - and due to a mal-alignment increases tightness and tension in the muscles around my jaw, neck and shoulders.  Yoga, movement and massage are key to loosening this area.

Ever wondered why it is we are awake during the day and sleep at night?   Well, most living things are affected by the daily cycles of daylight and darkness, and for humans, we use the information coming into our retinas for our brains to decipher the time and then programme our energy levels.  The control centre of our circadium rhythms being housed in the hypothalamus part of our brain.

"This signalling of light and dark helps us to be alert in the morning and be able to fall asleep at the appropriate time at night."
 *image borrowed from wikipedia*

*image borrowed from wikipedia*

And it's not just being awake versus being asleep, there are 5 identified stages of sleep, that we move through each evening.

During stage 1, which is light sleep, we drift in and out of sleep and can be awakened easily. Our eyes move very slowly and muscle activity slows. People awakened from stage 1 sleep often remember fragmented visual images. Many also experience sudden muscle contractions called hypnic myoclonia or hypnic jerks, often preceded by a sensation of starting to fall. These sudden movements are similar to the “jump” we make when startled. 

Stage Two Sleep

When we enter stage 2 sleep, our eye movements stop and our brain waves (fluctuations of electrical activity that can be measured by electrodes) become slower, with occasional bursts of rapid waves called sleep spindles.

Stage Three, Four & REM Sleep

In stage 3, extremely slow brain waves called delta waves begin to appear, interspersed with smaller, faster waves. By stage 4, the brain produces delta waves almost exclusively. It is very difficult to wake someone during stages 3 and 4, which together are called deep sleep. There is no eye movement or muscle activity. People awakened during deep sleep do not adjust immediately and often feel groggy and disoriented for several minutes after they wake up.

So it seems there is a lot more to sleep than we think and a lot we neglect to consider when we shut down for the evening.  For me sleep is no longer just a way to power up my batteries for the next day but an active engagement I need to commit to mindfully each and every evening.

These days I love my sleep, and it's that mentality that has helped me get back on track.

Ways to aid restful sleep:

1) Shut down.  Electronics stimulate the brain, so avoid these close to bedtime, put phones into airplane mode and use an alternative waking up device.  

2) Wind down.  Yin yoga, baths, meditation, yoga nidra - all ways to switch the body from sympathetic mode (flight or flight) and into a relaxed state, ready to shift into unconcioussness.

3) Herbal helps.  Camomile, lavender, melissa.. try herbal tea, pillow mist, a scented bath, nature has its gifts that are proven to assist us on the road to sleepy ville.

4) Find your rhythm.  Acknowledge and honour your bodies natural cycles, get into a consistent routine and plan your daily sleep patterns just like you would exorcise, meals or social time.

5) Boundaries.  This was the toughest for me as its very easy to blame other people for causing your lack of sleep.  Keep the bedroom as a sanctuary and invest in dark curtains and earplugs if needed.

But don't just take my word for it - here's Arianna Huffiington, creator of The Huffington Post talking about why we should all get more sleep.