You know that you slept some last night, right? Do you know what happened as you were sleeping? Many believe that sleep is a period of total inactivity and that our mind and body shuts down. However, research has shown that our bodies use this time of slumber to reboot and recharge—to help us wake up feeling refreshed, energized and alert for our day.
Sleep not only impacts how you feel, look and perform on any given day, but it is vital in healing and repairing your heart, brain, nervous system and blood vessels. Research repeatedly confirms that sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of cognitive impairment, heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, weight gain and stroke — as well as affecting your daytime functioning, hormonal balance, appetite, and immune system. This speaks to the power of sleep!! Yet sadly, the facts are millions do not get enough sleep.
How much sleep do you regularly get? Understanding what’s happening is important as you plan (and stick to) your nightly, healthy ritual.
Not Getting Enough Sleep and Not Sleeping Deeply
The National Sleep Foundation reports that millions of people are suffering from the widespread problem of insomnia, a medical condition involving difficulty falling or remaining asleep. Added to this, reports are that less than 50 percent of Americans say they regularly get a solid night’s sleep.
We are still learning about the dynamics of sleep. The American Sleep Association along with other notable organizations and experts agree that sleep consists of five phases (or stages) that we pass through every 90-120 minutes and then a repeat of the cycle.
—Stage 1 — light sleep, that we drift in and out of, and easily awaken from. Our eyes move slowly, and muscle activity slows.
—Stage 2 — eye movements stop, brain waves slow down, and body temperature drops. We spend 50 percent of our time in this stage.
—Stages 3 and 4 — Known as “deep sleep”; it is the deepest and most restorative sleep where brain waves slow down further, breathing rate and blood pressure decrease, muscles become relaxed, and hormones are released.
—The Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Stage — the brain is very active and dreaming, and the eyes dart back and forth. It typically begins after 90 minutes of falling asleep and recurs about every 90 minutes. Generally speaking, we spend 20 percent of our time in this stage, and children spend even more… dreaming!
A good night’s sleep has a strong impact on your brain’s ability to consolidate both procedural and factual memory. Memory is necessary for adaptation to changing environmental demands — and in humans it also plays a complex role that enables us to experience joy, happiness, satisfaction, and even sadness. When awake, we are acquiring or creating memories. While we are sleeping, the brain state optimizes memory consolidation — “stabilizing, copying and filing” memories. What this means is that not only does it strengthen our memories, it allows the brain to comb through newly formed ones and possibly even identify which ones we should keep and selectively maintain or enhance these aspects of a memory.
There is literal and figurative meaning to the term “sleep on it.” While we are awake, our brains are inundated with relevant and irrelevant information. As a result, the brain often relies on “rules” or stereotypes to help sift through, arrange, and process information. And sometimes biases may factor into the decision-making process.
The Society for Neuroscience eloquently compares the way our brain works while asleep to an organized court trial. Information that is gathered via sight, sound, and sensation are introduced into “evidence.” The brain can impartially weigh each piece of information—-important versus trivial — and make the best, impartial decision.
In a study by the National Institute of Health, researchers found that while sleeping, the brain’s glymphatic system, which is akin to its “plumbing system,” opens up and facilitates fluid and waste flow through the brain. They determined this by injecting beta-amyloid into mice and measuring how long it remained present when awake and when asleep. While sleeping, the toxin disappeared more quickly.
This animal study is important because beta-amyloid has been shown to destroy cell-to-cell signaling at synapses and contributes to the development of Alzheimer’s dementia. This finding corresponds with other data showing that those suffering from sleep disturbances have an elevated risk of developing Alzheimer’s dementia.
Surprisingly, the production, release, and suppression of a number of hormones corresponds with the sleep-wake cycle. For example, when we are sleeping, our body produces leptin, an appetite-suppressing hormone and decreases ghrelin production, a hunger hormone. And when we are sleep deprived, this throws them out of whack, elevating ghrelin levels and the likelihood we will reach for foods that are high in fat, calories, and carbohydrates.
Another example is cortisol—a hormone that assists the body with managing stress, including blood sugar management and alertness. While asleep, cortisol levels are decreased. And not getting good quality or the proper quantity of sleep can result in increased levels of this stress hormone. When chronic, this can elevate your risk for developing obesity and diabetes.
And, too, a growth hormone is released while asleep — promoting growth during childhood and in adults. It plays an important role in maintaining tissue health, including muscle mass and bone density.
Getting your ZZZ’s can help your body fight off germs. While asleep, our immune system is busy at work manufacturing various weapons against foreign invaders. Consequently, sleep deprivation can result in an inadequate arsenal. And, too, researchers from UCLA found that not getting enough sleep can trigger a maladaptive immune system response that increases inflammation and tissue damage. Over time, this can elevate the risk for heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and some cancers.
Sleep is incredibly important — it is exceedingly powerful for your health and well-being. Ensuring you get both quality and quantity of sleep is important. For adults, that is 7-9 hours of sleep. And many of us try to “catch up” on a sleep deficit with a nap or on the weekend. However, this does not provide the same beneficial and restorative effects that take place during specific stages of sleep.
Many of our struggles with shuteye may be self-imposed — and I encourage you to practice good sleep hygiene which means:
—Going to bed and waking up at the same time — even on weekends
—Cooling down the room
—Turning down, with activities that calm and soothe you — reading, meditation, prayer
—Avoiding bright lights that can suppress melatonin
—Avoiding stimulants — caffeine, nicotine, and heavy exercise before bedtime
—Having a quiet, comfortable bedroom, mattress and pillow are also important for facilitating good, restful sleep
If you (or someone you love) is having difficulty sleeping or getting enough sleep — talk to a physician or sleep specialist. Take the necessary actions to harness the power of sleep — to ensure that your sleep cycles are not fragmented and that you are getting regular, restful nights of sleep. The rich benefits of sleep cannot be overestimated — getting a good night’s sleep is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself!! Make it a priority, every day… you’ll be glad you did!!
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This article is for general information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions and cannot substitute for the advice from your medical professional. Dr. Nina has used all reasonable care in compiling the current information but it may not apply to you and your symptoms. Always consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions.