I think it’s fair to say that the majority of us are aware of just how important it is to get our forty winks. More and more research is being published on the subject; infographics on sleep deprivation are circulating around social media sites; and clinics are opening up all over the world specifically designed to help people with insomnia and other sleep related issues.
The thing is, for me it’s all very well hearing that we need 6–8 hours of sleep and that we should turn off all the lights at night, but what really makes me sit up and listen is learning what is actually going on inside our bodies and how things like light can affect us.
Based on that, I wanted to gather a little information on the wonders of our body. Here is what I found out:
First things first . . . what IS sleep?
Sleep is essentially an altered state of consciousness in which our voluntary behavior stops. We become immobile, our muscular activity decreases, and we start to dream. Our awareness and interaction with the environment is also considerably reduced.
As humans, we sleep and wake in a 24-hour cycle, which is called a circadian rhythm. This cycle itself is created by a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which is also involved in producing many different hormones in the body, as well as regulating body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, and mood.
In a healthy person, the circadian rhythm goes through two different phases: An anabolic phase and a catabolic phase.
The anabolic phase peaks between 4 a.m. and 10 a.m., and during this time the body builds and repairs itself. The nutrients needed for this phase are protein, vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, C, folate, sodium, potassium, zinc, iron, and chromium.
The catabolic phase peaks between 4pm and 10pm, and during this time the body breaks down and eliminates toxins from the body. The nutrients needed for this phase are vitamins A, D, B6, B12, calcium, magnesium, copper, and selenium.
Sleep disorders can actually remove the chance for anabolic activity to happen, thus preventing the body from building and repairing, while simultaneously preventing the catabolic phase from functioning properly and so toxin elimination is compromised.
We can also see here how a balanced diet is so important, as getting the nutrients we need from food can actually impact our sleep and how our body heals.
The circadian rhythm is further regulated by two mechanisms that alternate between activating the brain and supressing it in order to control sleep and wakefulness. These two mechanism are called the Reticular Activating System (or RAS for short), and the Bulbar Synchronising Region (BSR).
The RAS contains cells that help create alertness and wakefulness. This area of the brain is stimulated by many senses as it receives information from visual, auditory, pain, and touch stimuli. The areas of the brain that control thoughts and emotions (the cerebral cortex and limbic system) also stimulate the RAS. When this stimulation occurs, the RAS releases chemical messengers such as adrenalin, which we all know keeps us ready and raring to go!
So no wonder when people wriggle about, make noise, or elbow us in bed, we can’t sleep. Not to mention, this is where the lights in the room can scientifically make a difference! With all these things as well as over thinking or having strong emotions, the RAS is stimulated and so keeps us in a wakeful state—it’s a wonder we ever get any sleep!
After a whole night of sleeping (hopefully) we actually need the RAS to wake us up and so this area of the brain needs stimulating. Again, this is where light, touch, movement or a loud alarm clock is necessary, and adrenalin is released from the RAS and consciousness arises.
(Interestingly there is no input to the RAS from our olfactory receptors—which detect smells—and this is why smoke alarms are essential!).
During the day when our bodies use energy, a chemical called adenosine is produced. Adenosine binds to receptors on parts of the RAS that cause arousal and can reduce its activity i.e. reducing arousal, which in turn can cause sleepiness.
This is where late night coffee and tea drinkers or chocolate eaters need to pay attention. Caffeine can actually also block adenosine receptors, which prevent them from binding to the RAS and allowing us to sleep. This is also why caffeine helps us to stay awake during the day.
In addition to all of this, a hormone that most of us have heard of in regards to sleeping is melatonin. Melatonin is produced in the pineal gland in the brain and helps to regulate the sleep/ wake cycle. If levels are low we are unable to rest and there is no slowing down of our cognitive activity.
Normally, in the mid to late evening melatonin rises and remains high during the night; in the early morning, melatonin levels begin to drop.
Light affects the amount of melatonin produced in the body. During the winter when the days are shorter, melatonin is produced earlier, which may contribute to symptoms of winter depression. This is also why hiding LEDs and turning off lights and television in the bedroom is essential, as melatonin production is halted when they are on, and so our sleep wake cycle is disrupted. It has also been found that electronic devices like computers and smart phones can prevent melatonin from being produced up to 4 hours after use due to their lighting.
Melatonin is a powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and immune system support. So when we disrupt its functioning or even stay awake at nighttime, we prevent this powerful hormone from restoring our health.
Rather than just being told that we need our beauty sleep, all this information provides a deeper picture of just how complex the body and brain is.
In conclusion, here are the things we can do to help our bodies:
- Eat a balanced diet so that we consume all the nutrients essential for the circadian rhythm
- Meditate or journal earlier in the evening to release unwanted thoughts
- Turn off all lights and electronics before bed to calm the brain down and allow melatonin to do its thing
- Don’t stay up too late
- And maybe consider putting a pillow barricade in the bed to prevent anyone from elbowing you during the night!
Just remember: sleep is restorative and it heals—make it a priority.