What is sleep?
Sleep is a complex process affecting all parts of your body. Neither the body nor the brain shut down during sleep. In fact, they work really hard to keep your body running by restoring damaged cells, improving immunity and processing all of the information you consumed during the day.33
What affects my sleep?
Did you know you have a built
in biological clock that cycles between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals? This is referred to as our circadian rhythm.34 The circadian rhythm is like your brain’s sleep clock. Unlike a normal clock, it is not the same in everyone. Each person is unique and influenced by several things, including the following aspects:
1. Your age:
Babies need 15 hours of sleep a day because they are growing and processing new information.35
On average a teen needs 9 to
10 hours. Adults need a bit less, between 7 and 8 hours.36
2. Your unique set of genes:
Despite the averages, we are all different and our unique set of genes influence the amount of sleep we need. Some people genetically only need 6 hours, while others need 8 to feel refreshed.
3. Sleep habits:
Your brain loves regularity, so your habits around sleep influence your routine and ability to sleep. Studies show that when your body gets used to a certain waking hour, it can use sleep time more efficiently.37 If you chop and change your sleep pattern, your body hasn’t got a clue when it should prepare to wake up.
4. Stages of sleep:
We now know that when we sleep our brains do not completely shut off, but did you know that our bodies become temporarily paralysed? Our motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls our body’s movement, is actively sending signals, but our brain stem acts as a giant freeze that blocks these messages from getting to our muscles.38 The eyes, however, are not paralysed when we sleep. Every hour or so, our eyes bounce around really fast for about 5 to 30 minutes. This is called Rapid Eye Movement or REM sleep.39 We’ll delve into sleep in more depth over the next couple of pages.
REM sleep is responsible for organising and ‘cleaning’ the brain.40 This is especially important for your memory.
With a healthy sleep pattern your short-term memories can be transferred to long-term memories. This helps you to make more informed decisions based on past experiences, form deep relationships, reminisce, as well as free up vital space for new experiences!
Non-REM sleep, especially slow-wave sleep, is the stage of rest when your body focuses on physical healing and repair.41 The DNA in your cells suffer damage between 50,000 and 100,000 times a day.
When you are awake, large quantities of hormones (such as adrenaline and cortisol) are released.
A good night’s rest releases growth hormones instead. These hormones break down fats which supply energy for old or dead cells to replace themselves. Growth hormones also stimulate immune system regeneration, which increases healthy cell numbers to defeat disease, fight off infection, and even destroy cancerous cells.
MEMORIES, BRAINWASHING AND DREAMS
How are memories formed?
Memories start off as sensory data (external information taken in by your senses. E.g. smell and sound). These are then temporarily written and recorded in your neurons (cells which receive, process, and move information) as short-term memory.
Next, the neurons deliver these data records to the hippocampus (which is in charge of memory, emotions, and motivation).
Here, new neural connections are formed between the hippocampus and the cerebral cortex (which helps process short-term, and retain long-term, memories). This process occurs during the slow wave sleep stage.
The healthier your sleep pattern, the stronger these neural connections become. This means you’ll be able to enjoy and use your memories for years to come. Great news!
Stay with me, it’s not as scary as it sounds.
As mentioned above, when the brain is in sleep mode, specifically in REM sleep, it cleans itself. During this stage your brain shrinks its cells allowing for brain juice, otherwise known as cerebrospinal fluid, to flush out waste.
This waste builds up throughout the day as your body uses energy. If a large amount builds up between, it can become toxic and damaging.
This is one of the reasons why sleep deprivation feels terrible. You may experience symptoms such as impaired motor and cognitive function, irritable mood, and overeating. It can also put you at risk for some quite serious psychological disorders, such as depression and anxiety.46 It’s fair to say sleep is very important!
Ever wondered where dreams come from? Well, those crazy scenes you think up are simply formed from information we’ve stored as memories. This information presents itself in the form of images, thoughts and narratives.
Although you can have brief and disjointed dreams in non-REM sleep, your most memorable and detailed dreams happen when you are in REM sleep.47
Why do we dream?
Turns out there are many reasons:
1. We dream to remember
Certain memory processes can happen only when we are asleep and our dreams signal that these processes are taking place.
2. We dream to rehearse
We practice fight or flight instincts. Think of how you may dream of falling or fighting.
3. We dream to forget
The architecture of your brain is created by everything you think and everything you do. During REM sleep, the cortex dumps the unnecessary connections called reverse learning.48
4. We dream to keep our brains working
In continual activation theory, dreams result from the
brain needing to continually consolidate and create long-term memories to function properly. Much like a screensaver, so your brain doesn’t completely shut down.
5. We dream to heal
We have fewer stress neurotransmitters during REM sleep, even while dreaming of traumatic experiences. Thus, we can process traumatic experiences. Basically, we dream to solve problems!
Does it take you a long time to fall asleep at night?
Sleep onset: If it takes over an hour for you to drop off to sleep, you have a sleep onset problem. These can often be caused by some simple daily habits such as drinking caffeine. There is genetic differences in the amount of enzymes everyone metabolises. Some people have caffeine sensitivity, while others have none.
Solutions #1: Stop caffeine
Caffeine (in coke, coffee, tea) in the afternoon or evening can impact sleep as it takes a long time to leave your body. Chocolate and nicotine also interfere with sleep. Try some hot water with lemon or an herbal tea instead. Test this for a week.
Solution #2 Distract yourself: If your over-thinking mind is keeping you awake, there are tools to help you as well. Try listening to a podcast, something light and humorous, to help distract from your thoughts.
Once you fall asleep at night, do you sleep well through the night?
Sleep maintenance: If you wake throughout the night, this is a sleep maintenance problem and can be caused by many things. Perhaps you need to go to the toilet, need a drink of water, or are disturbed by outside noise.
Solution #1 White noise
If your problem is noise disturbances, try out a white noise app. You will be amazed by how simple it is to block out loud sounds using constant background noise. You can download an app for free onto a smart phone or tablet (e.g.’Sleepstream2′) or put on a white noise video on YouTube.
Solution #2 Restrict liquids
If you’re getting up to go to the toilet in the night, try to stop drinking fluids or alcohol two to three hours before bed.
Does your sleep problem come from anxiety?
Psycho-physiological sleep problem: Your sleeping problem could be caused by anxiety. It can be a tricky cycle to get out of. This is called a psycho-physiological sleep problem — meaning there is a connection between your physiology and your psychology.
Learning to develop the relaxation response skill is a good strategy (check out the Breathe section). If you’re feeling anxious about a number of areas in your life it’s a good idea to speak to a health professional who can help you learn different techniques to feel less anxious.
What time do you go to bed? And what time do you wake up? Do you take many naps?
Sleep-clock problem: Many of us tend to go to bed too late for our body clock rather than too early. Then when we need to wake up early for school or work, this causes us to feel tired before bedtime! This can lead to a sleep- clock problem. Napping can confuse your body clock into staying awake at night.
Solution #1: Go to bed early
You can readjust your sleep clock by simply changing your bedtime hours consistently and avoiding naps. Set an alarm to remind yourself.
Solution #2: Light therapy: You can adjust your sleep clock by using light therapy. In light therapy, you sit near a special light box for about 30 minutes each day. The light from this box mimics outdoor light. This helps to adjust your circadian rhythm.
Do you have an achy body?
Pain related sleep problems: Some sleepers suffer from neck or back pain or an achy body. An achy body during or after sleep can be due to inflammatory health problems.
Solution: The right bedding – Maybe your mattress or pillow is too hard or too soft. Before investing in any new pillows or mattresses, try sleeping with different pillow height or type to see if that helps.
Solution #2 Investigate causes of inflammation Ask your health professional to assess if you have symptoms of inflammation. There are many simple anti-inflammatory lifestyle solutions. Changing your lifestyle, diet and nutrition can impact inflammation and reduce the need for medication.
Do you stay up late on the weekends?
Sleeplessness: You may be throwing off your sleep clock and causing occasional periods of sleeplessness. The body has trouble adapting its internal rhythms, hormones and chemicals if you constantly change your sleep time.
Solution: Consistent bedtime: If you can, try to keep your weekend sleep routine same as, or as close as possible to the times you follow during the week. Finish your weekend nights earlier, or your weekday nights later to try to find balance.
Are you feeling sad or down in the dumps?
Depression: You may be suffering from depression. These feelings can lead to poor sleep. Poor sleep can make you feel even worse
Solution: Exercise, sunlight, and professional support
It’s important to be aware of your mood changes and seek professional support to try to figure out what triggers these feelings. Sometimes simple things like exercise or spending time in sunlight and the outdoors can really make things better.
Do you feel refreshed despite not having much sleep?
Short sleepers: If you feel refreshed and well after consistently sleeping only four to six hours, you may be someone who needs very little sleep.
Lucky you! You may be a part of a small group of people called short sleepers Scientists have discovered a tiny mutation in a gene called DEC2 that’s present in those who need little sleep to function. Count yourself as very lucky if this describes you. Remember, we’re all unique!