Ah, sleep. It’s one of those things that we have universally accepted since time immemorial to be a staple part of our daily routines. It’s that code that’s been running ever since our program of life first began its course. Very much so like the heartbeat and our breathing.
A good night’s sleep is crucial for optimal well-being, and we know that not just by its benefits but also by the disastrous consequences of sleep deprivation. Before we move on to how we can push the boundaries of the benefits we can derive from our sleep and make ourselves stronger in the process, let’s take a quick look into why exactly is sleep so critical to our physiology.
Sleep has been around since…well…us. From our own conception as Homo Habilis or ‘handyman’ some 1.4 million years ago in the heart of the African continent straight till today and probably till the end of time, sleep will be one of our primary functions every single day. Through a very easy calculation, it dawns upon us that we spend a third of our entire lives asleep. In the medical sphere, sleep has a separate domain of its own, and scientists study the phenomenon of sleep including how it affects animals and humans alike, and what happens if sleep is disrupted or the organism is left sleep deprived for long times (Think that rumored Russian sleep experiment that turned people into living zombies? Anyone? No?)
Sleep performs many astounding and vital functions for our body as we shall see and as researchers, we still believe we have barely scratched the surface of this weird yet incredibly crucial downtime we have evolved.
THE SLEEP CYCLES AND CIRCADIAN RHYTHMS
For most of any local population, sleep is simply one single “power down” session that we experience at least once in any given 24 hours unless you’re one of those consistent insomniacs in which case you may find yourself convinced otherwise by the end of this chapter. For doctors and sleep scientists, sleep is a non-uniform cycle of different patterns of activity or stages, labeled Stage 1 to Stage 4, or N1 to N4. And a typical night’s sleep is composed of multiple sleep cycles with the person going through all 4 stages and then repeating the cycle again and again. Each sleep cycle on average lasts 90 minutes but this can vary from person to person depending on their sleep hygiene (more on that later).
So, sleep is a step-by-step process with everybody beginning at stage 1 and subconsciously aiming for stage 4, then going all over again. Let’s take a brief look into each of these stages.
- Stage 1 (N1): The first stage of sleep is a simple dozing off as the body prepares itself to achieve deep sleep. This part of the sleep cycle is usually short, lasting anywhere between 1 to 5 minutes. Stage 1 is where the body starts to relax the muscles a bit but not all the way as evident by the occasional involuntary twitches or leg kicks you may have experienced, and the brain activity slows down slightly. In this early period of the sleep cycle, the person can be woken up with relative ease, but if left undisturbed, the person quickly advances to stage 2.
- Stage 2 (N2): This is a direct and essentially a more intense continuation of Stage 1. The muscles relax even further, the heart and breathing rates drop slightly and brain activity slows down even more. However, there are short bursts of brain activity noted in this period that is theorized to make waking up more difficult as compared to stage 1. Stage 2 usually lasts up to an hour and disruptions during this phase can predispose a person to an un-restful sleep or even insomnia.
- Stage 3 (N3): Stage 3 intensifies over stage 2 even more. Heart rate and breathing go down, muscles relax even further, and the brain activity slows down a very distinctive pattern called Delta waves, hence N3 also being called “Delta wave” sleep or “Slow wave” sleep. As you can probably expect, arousal becomes even more difficult in stage 3 and this stage is where all the benefits of a good night sleep truly take effect on the body as we will discuss later.
- Stage 4 (N4): Now we come to the good part. While the above three stages look like just each stage just one upping the previous, and you would be correct to think so, stage 4 is where the magic happens. Stage 4 lasts around 20-25 minutes and in it, the body undergoes a kind of atonic paralysis i.e. all the voluntary muscles of the body are now unable to move except for two key groups: the diaphragm and the ocular muscles. You may have expected the brain activity to also slow down beyond Delta, but it increases, sometimes even going as high as it is when we are awake. The eyes also make this interesting side to side darting movement in this stage, leading to this stage being called Rapid Eye Movement or REM stage, while N1 to N3 being called Non-REM stages.
REM stage is where you dream. The heightened brain activity reflects the process of painting an intricate picture of the dream in your head with anything from the most mundane to the most surreal. The eyes dart right and left to take in the scene, the muscles paralyze to prevent the dream world from affecting your real world and your time perception slows down so much that you wake up to think you spent hours and hours in the dream world when it was only a mere 20 to 25 minutes. Stage 4 really is Inception level awesome.
Have you ever travelled to a distant enough time zone and felt its effects in the form of the infamous jetlag? Sleeping all day and staying awake all nights the first few days if your trip as you adjust to the new clocks? Jetlag is an interesting phenomenon as it directly points towards a mismatch between two clocks, the external clock or time zone mentioned above, and a sleep clock inside of you.
The human body is a very adaptable machine and one of the few things we have seen consistently over the course of our evolutions is the regular rise and fall of the Sun. Night and day have lent us the ability to regulate our sleep times by way of a circadian rhythm within ourselves. We have synchronized our sleep cycles to the times of night and day where we live which is why a sudden change in those night and day times throws us off balance for a few days as we readjust to the new night and day schedule.
And it’s not just our sleep cycle either. All hormones that work in a pulsatile time-dependent manner like Cortisol (the body’s main stress hormone), Growth Hormone, Insulin, Leptins, Adiponectin all adjust accordingly as their own functions are tightly regulated by the body including at what times are they allowed to work. Growth Hormone for example is released during the night to facilitate growth and repair because that’s the time we are at our stillest. Similarly, Cortisol peaks at around 4am or essentially early morning time to prepare the body’s systems for a day of hard work. If we must name one hormone that is at the center of this circadian adjustment, it is Melatonin that is secreted from the Pineal gland in the brain. More on that in a bit.
WHY SLEEP MATTERS
We have seen so far what sleep is and how it works, how the body goes out of its way to make sure our sleep is progressive and restful, how the different stages of sleep ensure maximum rest and rejuvenation and how the whole body’s systems essentially set their schedule according to how night and day progresses. Question is why.
Why do we need sleep so much? Why is our physiology so attached to this downtime and what do we gain from this session of regular slumber?
Sleep has a myriad of benefits for the boy and a lack of sleep has an equally important list of disorders that the body becomes prone to as a result. This area is still under study as scientists believe sleep is a lot more than meets the eye. For the purposes of this book however, we will take a brief look at some of the benefits of sleep and consequences of sleep deprivation.
A good night sleep is often deemed crucial to our performance when we’re awake. This is because sleep performs the equivalent of what a software update does for a computer:
- Sleep allows the body to manage and flush out the cellular toxins accumulated throughout the day from our daily activities such as free radicals, inflammatory residue and lactic acid in our muscles.
- Sleep takes our memories of the day and consolidates them into long term memory especially during Delta wave sleep when the brain functions slow but smooth, protected from the distractions of the outside world, thus your memory power increases when you sleep.
- Sleep also uses all the available information in our minds throughout the day and connects the dots with them often in the form of dreams. Therefore, you can trace many elements of your dream the next day to the events or thoughts of the previous day. It is also why experts recommend ‘sleeping on the problem’ when you’re stuck at something. Let it work in the background inside the brain while your body refreshes itself.
- Sleep resets our energy levels for the next day by replenishing our body’s glucose reserves in the liver. During our waking ours we consume energy in the form of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP), this leads to a buildup of Adenosine which is a chemical marker that induces sleep when a certain level is achieved. This Adenosine is then recycled back into ATP during our sleep, so we can extract energy from it the next day.
- Sleep through complex mechanisms is also known to boost immune function and improve mood by its effect on the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.
- Because of growth hormone release and all the toxin flushing, the body can repair physical damage in its systems during sleep. Muscle fibers are rebuilt and strengthened, minor cuts and bruises are dealt with and all the nutrients we receive from food are distributed to where they are needed the most. That is why one of the most crucial components of exercise is to have a good sleep afterwards so that your body can rest, rebuild and grow.
From all of the above its pretty evident sleep is a pretty big deal for the body and also explains almost all of the disadvantages of sleep deprivation and insomnia such as consistent lack of energy, memory loss, decreased immunity and impaired healing of physical damage sites, increase in the risk of infections, a major dent in cognitive power such as brain fog, prolonged catabolic state leading to unhealthy weight fluctuations and even mental illnesses such as depression and emotional irritability.
MELATONIN AND THE ROLE OF LIGHT EXPOSURE
Looking at the above benefits of sleep and downsides of not getting enough sleep really hammers home the importance of the Melatonin-Pineal system we learned of earlier. In essence, the circadian rhythm is controlled by one external factor i.e. light. We have programmed ourselves to rise with the dawn and sleep with the dusk. Melatonin is a simple peptide hormone that sets the circadian rhythm from tiny little gland within the brain called the Pineal gland. The release of melatonin is regulated by the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN) in the brain, an area of neuronal bodies near the nerve fibers carrying signals from our retina to the optic processing area of the brain. This relation allows the SCN to stimulate or inhibit the secretion of melatonin into the bloodstream by measuring the intensity of the retinal signals travelling through the optic nerve pathways.
The interesting thing about SCN induced melatonin secretion is that it cannot differentiate between natural and artificial light signals. This has led to researchers determining the major cause of insomnia and sleep disorders especially among teenage and early adulthood is the bombardment of artificial light to our retinas by screens. Yes, you read that right. Your phones and laptops and iPads and TV sets are fooling your brain into thinking it’s daytime and inhibiting melatonin secretion. Among all the wavelengths that visible light is composed of, scientists have identified blue light to be the strongest disruptor of your natural sleep apparatus. Makes sense when you consider the greatest source of blue light we have that our circadian rhythm responds to i.e. the vast blue sky.
While mobile phone companies and social media giants are slowly getting around to educating people on how to avoid overuse of their products, another way you can re-hack the system is by supplementing yourself with melatonin.
While traditional sedative drugs like Benzodiazepines (Alprazolam, Bromazepam, Diazepam etc.) and sedating antihistamines have been used for a long time as sleep-aids, both carry the risk of developing an addiction to them, especially benzodiazepines. Melatonin supplementation is free from that risk and is one of the most commonly prescribed sleep-aids today. Melatonin induces sleep by augmenting stages 2, 3 and 4 of sleep and have an exceptionally strong effect of enhancing REM sleep. People on melatonin supplements may, therefore, experience much more vivid dreams than usual.
We know that light exposure disrupts our sleep cycle, especially blue light. Hence, it is advisable to limit your screen time in the evenings and avoid them as best you can a couple house before your bed time. Furthermore, the darker your room the quicker you can fall asleep. So, using an eye mask or blackout curtains can greatly improve your sleep quality, unless you’re afraid of the dark in which case you may need to find a balance between light and dark that allows you to sleep peacefully but doesn’t disrupt it entirely.
Melatonin levels in the blood are one method to hack your way into achieving better control of your sleep. In the next section we will discuss what you can do if the other half of the sleep apparatus, the Pineal gland, is disrupting your sleep.
PINEAL GLAND AND ITS CHANGES
The Pineal gland is a tiny structure in the center of the brain, with proximity to the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus and the Hypothalamus. Anatomically it is often cited as the size of a grain of rice and is responsible for melatonin secretion according to ambient light levels. The pineal gland, because of its dependence on light levels, is also called the ‘Third Eye’. We have discussed the importance of the SCN being around the pineal gland. The hypothalamus is another important structure that governs the hormonal levels of the body and its close association with the pineal gland predisposes, both the gland and itself, to certain pathologies. Even if one of these structures is anatomically affected, the other is at a higher risk of it as well. Conditions like pineal gland cysts and pineal gland calcifications can disrupt the regulator function of the hypothalamus, whilst hypothalamic tumors and cysts and Sheehan syndrome (bleeding in the hypothalamus after delivery in a pregnant woman), can affect melatonin secretion from the pineal gland. This is turn can give rise to a whole host of disorders such as sleep deficit, hormonal imbalances, depression and bipolar disease among others.
While management of pineal gland cysts and tumors depends entirely on the nature and location of the pathology, pineal gland calcification, something happens with age (hence called Senile Calcification) can be addressed non-surgically with a variety of supplements such as:
- Raw Cocoa Chocolate can help reverse pineal gland calcification due to its high antioxidant effect.
- Apple Cider Vinegar, owing to its Malic Acid content can also be used to extract calcium deposits from the pineal gland tissues, restoring its function.
- Iodine is a mineral often associated with the thyroid gland only, but research has found that one of the ways calcium salts get deposited in the pineal gland is by the excess availability of fluoride in our systems, particularly from fluoridated water. Iodine is therefore a suitable supplement to leech or chelate the excess fluoride so that just enough remains to enhance teeth strength but not enough to start calcifying the pineal gland.
- Melatonin while technically is not a decalcifying agent of the pineal gland but melatonin supplementation is one way to make sure the calcification of the gland does not disrupt you sleep as the source of melatonin shifts from the pineal gland to the supplement.
- Oregano oil is a natural purifier used in many detox diets around the world. One of its functions is to leech the excess calcium deposited in the body tissues whether they are the muscles, fat or even the pineal gland in the brain.
IMPORTANCE OF AMBIENT TEMPERATURE
Have you ever noticed how the temperature of your room seems to affect the quality of your sleep? While its not talked about as much as melatonin or eye masks and blackout curtains, the ambient temperature is just as important a factor in the overall quality of your sleep.
How do we know this? Multiple studies conducted on this subject have revealed that excessively high or low ambient temperatures can disrupt the sleep cycles of people including those who do not have any insomnia to begin with. Thermoregulation of the body is one of the many important processes occurring as we fall asleep and so the temperature of our surroundings has the potential to either enhance our quality of sleep or even mess with it. Studies have shown a positive association between overly warm or cold rooms and the frequency and vividness of nightmares in their test subjects.
So, is there a perfect room temperature to aid in sleep? Yes and no.
While most people have their own variations in the ambient temperature they best respond to when it comes to sleep, researchers have identified a sweet spot that hits home for the greatest number of people. That said, we advise you to set your thermostat to 65 degrees Fahrenheit as that is the average best room temperature conducive to sleep. However, if that does not work for you then feel free to experiment with it a bit and find your own sweet spot.
SLEEP AND THE MOON
There have been many theories on what can and cannot affect a person’s quality of sleep, some more grounded in scientific literature than others. One topic still under research but interesting enough to mention here is the phase of the moon that night. We know the moon’s gravity influences the tides. Scientists have posited theories on how the gravity of the moon may affect our sleeping patterns a well. Similarly, some studies have shown an increase in night time wakefulness during nights when there is a full moon, attributed to the increase in light reflection from the surface of the moon. However, other studies have disputed the claim with the opposite results i.e. people going to sleep earlier during full moons. Conclusive evidence remains to be determined, however it is interesting to see how we may as well be this connected to the world and by large, the universe we live in.
Sleep is one of our fundamental functions that helps us consolidate memory, strengthen neuronal connections, revitalizes our body for the next day and allows us our own virtual reality in the dream world. A lack of sleep therefore has equally devastating effects. Both these facts demonstrate the importance of a good night sleep and while we may not yet truly understand the complexities of sleep and sleep disorders, you can rest assured that there are ways you can augment your quality of sleep and make the best of your downtime.
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