Sleep: What, Why, and How
Posted on December 23, 2013
What is sleep?
Seems like a simple question, doesn’t it?
Well, the simple answer is a “temporary loss of consciousness, enabling our bodies to rest and recover.”
Now different parts of our body benefit differently from a good night’s sleep. So let’s take a look at these in detail.
Understanding why our bodies need sleep will hopefully drive us to develop better sleep habits, since good sleep is good health!
Sleep and the Brain
Perhaps no other organ benefits the most from sleep than the brain.
It is believed that the brain recharges and “retunes” itself during sleep.
In other words, that fogginess that one feels prior to sleep, is managed while we sleep.
To put it another way, if you sleep 6 hours or less, may find yourself with an end-of-day decrease in performance that’s analogous to drinking several glasses of wine.
That’s not a good way to impress your boss!
This may be the reason why many of us have unusual or even bizarre dreams. It’s these odd dreams which take place while our brain is repairing and retuning itself.
It’s like retuning an instrument. The sounds one generates while retuning an instrument can be odd. But the instrument sounds beautiful once the retuning is complete.
The brain can also “rethink” problems that come up during the day. Many scientists and mathematicians attest to this fact.
As they face problems in the lab, a good night’s sleep sometimes brings fresh solutions and perspective to them.
The brain also takes in energy stores in the form of glycogen, which is then used as an energy source the following day.
Now consider what happens when we do not get enough deep sleep:
> We have reduced mental sharpness and function due to lower glycogen and a lack of recovery time from the previous day
> Moodiness and other emotional disturbances appear
> Odd, unusual, or unfocused thoughts can occur. Even hallucinations can occur when sleep deprivation is significant.
Sleep and Energy
It sounds obvious, but many of our other systems and processes decrease as we’re falling asleep.
It’s believed that as our various systems rest, they are recharging and recovering the essential chemicals they need during the day.
As an example, our muscles rest and recover while we sleep.
This also means that our digestive system is very active while we sleep.
Our intestines and liver work together to finish processing the food we ate during the day, extracting a variety of nutrients from the food and shuttling them to the brain, muscles and wherever else they are needed.
This may be the link between low sleep and obesity. If we sleep less, our bodies actually use less energy, or use it less efficiently. In respond, the body stores this unused energy in the form of fat…which leads to obesity.
How do we lose sleep?
It’s common, and perhaps even normal, to experience an occasional night of sleeplessness.
Poor diet is incredibly common cause of sleeplessness. Caffeine in coffee, tea, chocolate, and other foods is an obvious cause. But late-night, heavy meals can cause our bodies to shift a lot of blood flow away from the brain and towards the intestines.
This reduced blood flow to the brain is what causes the lack of sleep.
Plus, the normal digestive processes can create enough noise and other disturbances to disturb our sleep.
Pain and other stresses cause by many diseases can obviously lead to sleeplessness.
In fact, minor aches and pains that are not noticeable while awake can come to the fore as we’re trying to fall asleep.
Bad Pillow and/or Mattress
Thin, lumpy pillows and mattresses can be a primary cause of poor sleep quality. This is because minor discomforts can prevent us from spending enough time in the deep, REM sleep our body needs.
So a night full of shallow, fitful sleep can result.
It’s amazing that many of us spend hundreds of dollars a year on a mobile phone service, yet only $5 on a pillow.
Remember, you get what you pay for…
Grumpy bosses, financial difficulties, disobedient kids…the list of everyday stresses that can cause decreased sleep is endless.
Addressing these stresses directly can, for some of us, result in a far better sleep experience.
Over the counter sleeping aids are basically nothing more than antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine, just like the ones found in cough and cold products.
They definitely cause drowsiness, and can help users fall sleep.
However, as with all other sleeping pills, they should not be used repeatedly for extended periods of time.
For decades, prescription sleeping pills were limited to strong sedatives, such as diazepam.
While they definitely caused drowsiness, their habit forming nature made it an unattractive option for many physicians and patients alike.
In the 1990s, newer sleeping pills, such as zolpidem, became available. While these have less of a habit-forming potential, they’re nevertheless for short-term use only.
Tips for getting more sleep
So how do we get more sleep? Here are ten tips for you to consider:
Tip #1 - Keep Technology Out
Televisions, computer, tablets, and cell phones can all reduce sleep quality when used prior to sleep.
The reasons for this are unclear. But it is believed that these devices can reduce sleep by two different ways.
First, the exposure to bright light can trigger responses in our brain similar to being in bright sunlight. This light exposure tricks the mind into thinking it’s daylight, reducing levels of melatonin and other biochemicals which help us fall asleep.
Second, these gadgets can trigger autonomic responses, such as increases in heart rate and blood pressure, which can make it difficult to fall asleep.
We recommend turning these gadgets off (or keeping them out of the bedroom) during the last few hours of your evening.
If the television is the problem, you should consider removing it outright, or at least keeping the remote outside of the room to remove the temptation to turn the television on while trying to sleep.
Tip #2 - Keep a routine
Establishing and maintaining a bedtime routine is a simple, but effective way to begin the process of falling asleep.
The exact routine will differ from person to person.
But, a regular routine of washing, brushing teeth, etc. can telegraph the brain that it is now time to start shutting down for the night.
Tip #3 - Plan for tomorrow
A great time management technique is to plan tomorrow’s activities the night before.
However, performing this planning while lying in bed is not the correct way to do this.
Instead, take 20 minutes to plan your day tomorrow, but make sure this 20 minute planning period takes place hours before bedtime.
That way, the planning process does not keep you from falling asleep.
Tip #4 - Leave your bedroom
This may seem like a radical idea for some. But, sometime, when sleep is simply not coming, leaving the bedroom and “starting over” may be the only approach.
Some people find that leaving the bedroom, and taking a walk around the house, then re-doing the pre-bedtime routine, can remind the body that it is time for sleep.
Tip #6 - Food and Sleep
The relationship between food and sleep is complex.
For some, a heavy meal triggers sleepiness, but that resulting sleep tends to be shallow and/or short in duration.
Heavy meals should be consumed in the afternoon, where possible.
Night time snacks should be kept to a minimum, such as light bread toast.
Tip #7 - Take a trip…
Fantasizing can be an effective technique for relaxing and falling asleep, as long as the thoughts are pleasant and relaxing.
Fantasies involving physical activities, sporting events, or similar can cause the heart rate and blood pressure to increase, thereby exacerbating the difficulty sleeping.
Thus, keep these mental trips pleasant and gentle...even boring, like a walk on a beach.
Tip #8 - Avoid the sleeping pills
Sleeping pills should only be used by individuals who have a diagnosis of insomnia, and for whom nothing else seems to work.
Even then, sleeping pills should only be used to recover from a loss of sleep, and not as a replacement for sound sleeping habits.
Tip #9 - Avoid naps
Cat naps during the day sound like a great idea, right?
You’re tired, so a short nap can help refresh and invigorate you for the rest of the day.
While this is true, the reality is that a person who sleeps soundly for 7-9 hours rarely needs to take a nap in the first place.
So frequent daytime napping can be a sign of a deeper problem.
Thus, shifting your sleeping pattern away from the day and more towards the night is a positive step towards returning yourself to a more regular, normal sleep pattern.
Tip #10 - Exercise
It sounds rather simplistic, but exercise makes you tired.
The more tired you are, the more likely you are to sleep soundly.
However, regular, vigorous exercise affects sleep in other ways:
> Weight loss normalizes our hormones which are dis-regulated in obesity, which can help improve sleep
> Regular exercise helps us relax and reduce stress, which can help our sleep patterns.
> Exercise aids and improves our digestion, resulting in more efficient energy consumption and recovery during sleep
The key is that the exercise should be vigorous.
For example, short sessions of running, cycling, or swimming will be more effective sleep aids, than leisurely walks late in the afternoon.
Can a new pillow help?
The problem with most pillows is that they’re made to be cheap, not necessarily to be comfortable.
Yet, considering how important sleep is for our health, it makes sense to invest in a good pillow.
Good pillows will run $40 or more, but compared to the price of lost sleep or the latest gadget, it’s a small price to pay.
There are many different types of pillow materials and configurations available, and it’s impossible to pick a specific pillow that works well for everyone.
However, for most people, having a pillow that is fully adjustable and that fully conforms to the shape of your head is ideal.
Here's one pillow suggestion that we just love:
Should I get a new mattress?
It’s certainly possible that a new mattress will help you sleep better.
However, the big issue with new mattresses is their cost…a premium mattress can cost thousands of dollars.
This is a small price to pay. However, we recommend starting with a new, adjustable pillow first, before investing in a new pillow.
This might solve your sleeplessness problem while saving you a ton of money.
A new mattress can be very expensive!
So what should you do if you’re having trouble sleeping? Here are a few conclusions:
1. Analyze your specific habits and problems that may be causing you to have trouble falling asleep, then address those specific problems directly.
2. Keep technology out of the bedroom.
3. Invest in your sleep and health with a new, adjustable pillow before investing in a new mattress.