by Carolyn Denton, MA, LN
"Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise." —Benjamin Franklin
A bold premise, but research on the topic of sleep shows that Ben was at least two thirds right (and the wealthy part cannot be ruled out either).
All living beings require a period of restoration. Sleep is part of the natural rhythm of a 24-hour day for humans and other animals. Sleep is central to health and yet, according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), at least 40 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders and 60 percent of adults report having had some sleep problems.
The Sleep Cycle
Being healthy, wealthy and wise depends on an exquisitely designed system called the sleep cycle. The sleep cycle is divided into five continually flowing stages, defined by the types of brain waves present. These brain waves are considered either fast or slow and indicate lighter or deeper sleep.
Stages 1 and 2 are lighter more conscious sleep. Stage 1 might be considered drowsiness. Stage 2 is when you are asleep but the wall creaking might wake you. Stages 1 & 2 reflect the presence of faster brain waves known as alpha waves.
Stages 3 & 4 are deeper, restorative sleep. During this deeper stage of sleep the body repairs itself. All systems “reboot”. All the hormones and all the glands realign. Pain messages are muted. Stages 3 & 4 reflect the presence of slow brain waves known as delta waves.
From deep sleep the brain cycles into a stage known as REM sleep (rapid eye movement). This is the part of the sleep cycle where the brain is excited but the body is in a state of paralysis. Periods of REM sleep are quite short at the beginning of the night and longer toward the end. By comparison, 20-25 % of sleep is REM for adults while a newborn may spend 80% in REM sleep. From REM sleep the cycle begins all over again. Stages 1 & 2 leading into 3 & 4 followed by REM. Ideally during a normal night of sleep there are about five periods or complete cycles.
There are many factors influencing whether or not the sleep cycle is successfully sequenced. Causes of interrupted sleep include:
• Stress (number one cause)
• Worry or thinking a thought over and over
• Consuming caffeine in the afternoon or evening, and for some people even in the morning
• Drinking alcohol shortly before bed
• Eating a heavy meal within 3 hours of bedtime
• Exercising vigorously in the evening
• Working or other overly stimulating activities before bed
• The environment of the bedroom such as temperature, sound, as well as the comfort of the bed and pillows
• A restless sleeping partner
Health Consequences of Poor Sleep
Poor sleep raises the risk of multiple health issues and disease processes. Research points to deterioration of the immune system, the detoxification system and the nervous system. Sleep disorders have been linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and mental and emotional health. Even weight can be influenced by inadequate sleep.
Everyone’s individual sleep requirements vary. An average of six to nine hours of sleep a night are generally needed to function at peak performance during waking hours. And, contrary to a common belief, the need for sleep doesn't lessen with age, but the ability to achieve deep sleep or remain asleep for an extended period of time may be reduced.
Wisdom and Poor Sleep
The connection between poor sleep and memory has been established but the mechanism has remained uncertain. A study published January of this year in the journal Nature Neuroscience shed some new light on the link between the quality of sleep and memory loss, particularly “age-related forgetfulness”.
Each day new memories are established and stored short-term in the part of the brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus is also involved in concentration, creativity and reason. During deep, restorative, slow wave sleep the memories get transferred to longer-term storage in the pre-frontal cortex, a “hard drive” of sorts.
When deep restorative sleep is not achieved, memories may not get moved, remain stuck in the hippocampus and are then overwritten or “dubbed over” by new memories the following day.
The study suggests that one way to improve memory is to improve sleep.
Dr. Timothy Roehrs, the Director of research at the Sleep Disorders and Research Center at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit conducted a recent study measuring the effect of sleepiness on decision-making, risk taking and money. During the study both sleepy and fully alert subjects were paid money to complete a series of computer tasks. At random times, they were given a choice to take their money and stop. Or they could forge ahead with the potential of either earning more money or losing it all if their tasks were not completed within an unknown period of remaining time.
Dr. Roehrs found that the alert people were very sensitive to the amount of work they needed to do to finish the tasks and understood the risk of losing their money if they didn't. But the sleepy subjects chose to quit the tasks prematurely or they risked losing everything by trying to finish the task for more money even when it was 100 percent likely that they would be unable to finish.
Strategies for Improving Sleep
• Consume ample protein throughout the day. This provides tryptophan, the amino acid required to get the sleep cycle started.
• Turkey, avocado on a whole grain cracker or whole grain cereal and milk before bed. These bedtime snacks also contain a large percent of tryptophan.
• Passionflower, a calming herb that can be found in the form of tea or a tincture.
• Magnesium is a mineral involved in making the hormone serotonin and melatonin need for deep, slow wave sleep.
• B vitamins are also vital to deep slow wave sleep. A B-complex supplement may be necessary to get optimal amounts. A B-complex is best taken with breakfast or lunch
• Implementing a calming bedtime ritual. For example:
- An established regular bedtime
- A bath or shower
- Reading or listening to music
- Turning off the television and other devices like computers, phones and electronic readers, which can be too stimulating to the brain.
- Relaxation practices such as deep breathing, meditation or prayer
- See One Simple Step in this issue for the recipe for sleep
To Snooze Or Not Snooze
Experts say that hitting a snooze alarm over and over again to wake up is not the best way to feel rested. In research conducted in 2004, Dr. Edward Stepanski, PhD, studied sleep fragmentation at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “The restorative value of rest is diminished, especially when the increments are short,” said Stepanski. Research concluded that dozing and waking causes shifts in the brain-wave patterns and that “snooze-button addicts” are likely to shorten REM sleep, impairing mental functioning during the day.
While sleep at times feels elusive and may get the short end of the stick during stressful, busy times, it is vital to our health. Consider dedicating time to achieving a restful night’s sleep with the strategies reviewed here. Sweet Dreams!
One Simple Step: The Recipe for Sleep
• Tryptophan found in protein such as turkey, soybeans or milk
• Vitamin C found in citrus fruits, tomatoes, kiwi, broccoli and parsley
• Vitamin B6 found in bananas, spinach and white potatoes
• Folic acid found in orange juice, lentils, chickpeas and asparagus
• Magnesium found in brown rice, hazelnuts and Swiss chard
• Carbohydrate found in whole grain such as wheat, oats and quinoa
- Provide the above ingredients on a daily basis.
- Tuck yourself in at bedtime and count some sheep.