Sleep: A Beautiful Thing



A Beautiful Thing

     It’s that moment we crave; the moment when we are under the covers, safe, and comfortable. We have passed the cut off point in our day and our body winds down and relaxes. Our eyes close and muscle by muscle we feel ourselves letting go and falling into the void. Like an irresistible force in the universe sleep pulls us in, but what is sleep and why do we need it. Have you ever wondered how much more productive we could be if we didn’t need to sleep, or even, why we need to sleep at all.

These are my findings after hours of research into the value and indeed the need for sleep in our lives. First of all, the concept of sleep is much more complicated than we might first imagine and needs definitive terms to explain it. In the early 1920s scientists regarded sleep to be an inactive brain state when the brain switched off. The modern era of sleep research however and the invention of the electroencephalogram, or EEG, machine has allowed us a more accurate view of things. The EEG detects electrical activity in your brain and has unveiled surprising discoveries. The brain can be more active when we are asleep than when we are awake.

Most people conform to monophasic sleep patterns where we are awake all day and asleep at night. Infants and most animals in nature use polyphasic sleep patterns. An example of polyphasic would be a sleep schedule with an afternoon nap or multiple sleep/wake incidents throughout the day. There is some evidence which suggests that humans were originally suited to a polyphasic sleeping routine, rather than the monophasic one which we are commonly used to. Children are slowly weaned away from this sleep pattern to conform to the dominant 9-5 work schedule of their parents. That said, in tropical countries it is normal practice to close shops and businesses for an hour or two in the hottest part of the day. This allows people to take a nap in the afternoon sometimes after a heavy lunch. The body’s internal alerting signal, which increases throughout the day to offset the drive to sleep, wanes in the afternoon. Studies have shown that daytime napping helps to restore energy and alertness. Indeed, it has been reported that many of the world’s geniuses, Nikola Tesla, Leonardo Da Vinci, Salvador Dali, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon Bonaparte, Thomas Edison, and Winston Churchill, slept less than seven hours per night and took multiple naps during the day favoring a polyphasic sleeping routine. 

So what actually happens inside our brain. Two interacting systems, the internal biological clock and the sleep-wake homeostat largely determine the timing of our transitions from wakefulness to sleep and vice versa. Sleep-cycles known as rapid-eye-movement-cycles (REM) and non-rapid-eye-movement-cycles (Non REM) combine with tiny electrical impulses, of varied frequencies, emitted by neurons inside our brains to send and receive messages. In short, sleep takes us through waves of complex restoration and repair. During REM sleep the brain is very active and dreams are at their most intense. But the voluntary muscles of the body are paralyzed by chemicals, recently discovered by scientists, glycine and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This paralysis keeps people still even as their brains are acting out physical scenarios to keep them from injuring themselves.

Brain Waves

Thought of as the continuous spectrum of consciousness, brain waves are at the root of our thoughts, emotions and behaviors. Beta waves dominate our normal waking state and can be measured at 13-60 pulses per second in the Hertz scale. Beta waves are produced when we feel consciously alert, engaged or involved in problem solving, decision-making and during focused mental activity. Beta is a fast rate.

Theta waves measuring only 4-7 pulses per second, a much slower rate, are emitted when we are in a state of reduced alertness. Our brain cells reset their sodium & potassium ratios when the brain is in Theta state, a reduced level of consciousness. The sodium & potassium levels are involved in osmosis which is the chemical process that transports chemicals into and out of your brain cells. After an extended period in the Beta state, alert or focused, the ratio between potassium and sodium is out of balance. This is the main cause of what is known as “mental fatigue.” A brief period in Theta, about 5–15min, can restore the ratio to normal resulting in mental refreshment. Naps are the key to direct Theta brainwave access. Theta brainwaves are the brainwaves of hyper consciousness. The more theta you have during your waking hours, the more creatively intelligent you are.

Length of Sleep Cycles

It has been well established that the sleeping patterns progress in alternating cycles throughout the night. For most people they go to bed, fall asleep, dream, wake up and forget all of it. However, according to science, when you sleep you go through a series of regular sleep cycles just like your washing machine. Some people say they can function on four to six hours of sleep each night, but research shows that adults who get fewer than seven hours of sleep, whether for just one night or over the course of days, weeks, or months, have more difficulty concentrating and more mood problems than people who sleep seven to nine. So how long is a full sleep cycle? One sleep cycle lasts an average of 90 minutes: 65 minutes of normal, or non-REM sleep; 20 minutes of REM sleep (in which we dream); and a final 5 minutes of non-REM sleep.

Non-REM Sleep

Non-REM sleep happens first and is has three stages each of which lasts from 5 to 10 minutes. It is followed by  REM a shorter period of sleep. Then we go through the cycles again and again.

Stage 1: This stage of sleep is also called light sleep, somnolence or drowsy sleep which consists of about 5-15% of total sleep in adults. In this stage you go through a situation between sleep and wakefulness when you are neither sleeping nor awake. You can call this stage a relaxed wakefulness. You lie down, and your eyes are closed, but you can still perceive noise from your surroundings and it is easy to wake you up. You can still move your body when you are at this stage. This is also the stage where someone might be tossing, turning or rolling over in sleep.

Stage 2: This stage accounts for 45-55% of total sleep in adults. Here you go through light sleep stage. As you fall asleep, you cannot feel the surrounding anymore, and the function of your body gradually slows down. The body temperature, heart rhythm, respiration rate and energy consumption all decrease accordingly. In this phase, the body gets ready for deep sleep.

Stage 3: The third stage consists of 15-25% of total sleep in adults and is called deep sleep stage. When you go through stage three, you become less responsive to the surroundings, and it is harder to wake you up. If you are woken up in this phase, you would feel disoriented, and it would take a few minutes for you to adjust to the surroundings. This stage is of great importance for us. During this stage, the body repairs cell and tissue, builds bone and makes the immune system stronger.

REM Sleep

The REM sleep consists of 20-25% of total sleep in adults and usually occurs 45-90 minutes after you get asleep. It is characterized by the lack of muscle movements. The first stage usually lasts for about 10 minutes, and the subsequent stages get longer from the previous one. The final stage can last for about 1 hour. When you are in REM sleep stage, your brain becomes more active, and intense dreams can happen here. In this stage, it is harder for someone to arouse you than the other sleep stages.

Importance of Sleep Cycles

You cannot lead a healthy life without maintaining a sound sleep pattern. Yes! That goes for all of us. Lack of proper sleep can create a lot of complexities in your daily life. It may impair your ability to learn complex tasks. If you cannot complete all the sleep cycles, you may feel disoriented. You may experience some psychological disturbances, for example, anxiety, hallucination, difficulty in concentrating and so on. Certain types of depression are also associated with the deprivation of proper sleep.

Why Do We Need Sleep

A healthy sleep can boost your memory and facilitate you in learning intensive subject matters. A healthy sleep must contain the appropriate combination and proportion of non-REM and REM sleep stages. It is important in repairing heart and blood vessels and regaining the working energy for the next day. An ongoing deprivation of sleep is associated with the risk of heart disease, kidney disease as well as hypertension. A deficiency in sleep can have an effect on how well you feel, think and react to others. Sleep also plays a significant role in promoting growth and development of the body. When you sleep, the body releases different growth hormones that boost muscle mass. The immune system also relies on proper sleep. Lack of sleep has also been associated with a greater susceptibility to common infections. If you cannot sleep properly, your immune system changes the way in which it responds to harmful substances.

Final Word

Last of all, there is no alternative to a sound sleep to keep the body fit. To benefit from all the advantages of sleep, you must create a suitable environment where you can fulfill the sleep cycles. Who knows, maybe you will be rewarded with a sweet dream.