We all need good sleep habits. We know that. But it seems to be difficult to come by in our overly busy and stressed out daily lives. I’ve heard time and time again, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Well you may be taking that permanent nap sooner than you’d like.
Sleep is required for the healthy functioning of our entire body. From our central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) to our immune system to our endocrine system (hormones). When we get a good 7-8 hours of restful, uninterrupted sleep at night, we wake up feeling energized, destressed, happy and ready to take on the day. Our bodies have had a chance to heal and regenerate during our nighttime slumber. We are less prone to heart disease, diabetes, obesity, colds and flu, hormone imbalances and anxiety .
Sleep occurs in stages throughout the night. There are five stages (some say 4, but really who cares) of sleep, including REM sleep.
Stage 1: is light sleep and you can easily be awakened. If someone awakens you during this stage you will likely deny that you were actually asleep. You may also have that jerking movement when dozing off and it wakes you up (like falling asleep in class and jerking awake).
Stage 2: brain waves slow down and eye movements stop. This is when we consolidate memories and prune synapses in our central nervous system (brain and spinal cord).
Stage 3: your entering deep sleep. Extremely slow brainwaves called delta waves predominate with interspersed faster brainwaves here and there.
Stage 4: delta waves are produced almost exclusively. You are in deep sleep.
During REM sleep, breathing is more shallow and quicker. Muscle contractions occur. Heart rate increases. This is when most dreams occur. We experience 3-5 cycles of REM sleep per night.
You cycle through these stages multiple times during the night. Slow wave sleep occurs mainly in the first half of the night. REM sleep occurs mostly during the second half of the night.
So all that is great and what does it mean for you? Let’s look at what happens when we do not allow our bodies to cycle through these stages of sleep. When do not allow our brains to relax and repair, our hormones to cycle normally, and so on. Let’s look at cortisol. Cortisol is our main stress hormone and is made in the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands sit on top of our kidneys, one on each kidney. Cortisol works by moving glucose (blood sugar) from the blood into our cells for extra energy. It is part of the fight or flight response. You’ve heard of superhuman feats of strength when a parent is trying to save one of their children. This feat of strength is accomplished with a rush of cortisol. Pretty cool right? But what happens when we are under chronic stress? Such as being on a deadline all the time, driving in traffic every day to and from work, looking at e-mail until midnight and getting up for work at 6 am? Cortisol, like the majority of hormones, has a natural rhythm. It is high first thing in the morning to give you that burst of energy and feel-good mojo bright and early. Then by nighttime it lowers to get you ready for a good night sleep. But when we are up late watching TV or pouring over email, our cortisol stays high. This gives you that “second wind.” You tend to be ‘wired and tired.’
Now, what you need to know is hormones do not exist in a vacuum. Hormones effect one another on a regular basis. High levels of one hormone will affect the action of another hormone. Cortisol, in this case, when high can interfere with thyroid hormone. Thyroid hormone drives your overall metabolism. When cortisol is chronically elevated, it blocks the thyroid cell receptor and the thyroid hormone can’t do its job. This is one reason why being stressed tends to pack on weight around the midsection. High cortisol lowers the efficiency of the immune system, sex hormones such as progesterone and human growth hormone. Human growth hormone (HGH) is released in greater amounts at night when we are sleeping. At this time cortisol is supposed to be low. When cortisol is high, it suppresses HGH secretion. HGH is how we efficiently repair the cells in our body. So when we’re not sleeping, we are not repairing our bodies. This eventually breaks us down faster than we are repairing and disease ensues.
If we are not sleeping and repairing our cells, we are at greater risk of coronary heart disease and high blood pressure. While we are sleeping, our immune systems produce cytokines and antibodies that help protect us from foreign invaders.
Some basic steps for getting to bed at a good time, which most experts would agree is around 9-10 pm. Turning the TV/computer/iPad off about an hour before going to bed. Reading for about half an hour before going to sleep. Getting more exercise is always great. It’s a myth not to exercise at night. Remember sex is, among other things, great exercise. Try your best to stick to a regular sleep schedule. Make your bedroom conducive to sleeping – dark, quiet, lavender scented – whatever works for you. Sometimes a little snack before bed will help stabilize your blood sugar and help you sleep. Do not stress over not sleeping, it will make it worse. Figure out a good strategy for making your bedtime routine as stress-free and relaxing as possible in order to help you feel better physically and mentally. Sweet dreams!