Sometimes it seems we can take on the world if only we are able to get a good nights’ sleep. Sleep is the great healer of what ails us and is the natural cycle in which our body repairs vital systems from the prior days use. Many clinical issues such as sleep apnea or insomnia are regarded as major disruptors in natural sleep cycles. Less acknowledged are other minor sleep disturbances such as sleep anxiety, sleep walking, or simply not going to sleep quickly. Anything that disrupts our sleep cycles has the potential to become a negative weight on our health. Ensuring you have the best mattress for your sleeping position, some natural sleep aids if necessary, and the discipline to avoid sleep disruptors before bed can help you get more restorative sleep.
What is Sleep & Why does it Matter?
We all sleep yet so few of us truly sleep like we are mean to. Maybe we find that sleeping with sirens is actually disruptive of our natural cycles, maybe we find street lights decrease the amounts of melatonin released; there are many modern perils to getting healthy sleep. Drawing from 2014 data, the CDC has reported that as many as 100 Million Americans suffer from lack of sleep1 Even more disturbing is that these numbers show the highest prevalence of sleep disturbances among areas known for high obesity rates and also high rates of chronic disease. Correlation certainly doesn’t assert causation, but it’s an alarming facet of the data. What this could mean, is that either poor sleep is a major factor in overall health, or that overall health plays a large role in us being able to sleep. Most likely, it’s a dynamic balance of both—we sleep better when we’re healthy and we stay healthier when we sleep better.
Sleep is essentially our bodies’ time of the day to repair itself. Nearly all mammals on Earth exhibit some form of sleep, even if they are bizarrely-different from one another in terms of schedule. Sleep can be characterized Scientifically by the observation of distinctive brain-wave patterns. When we are awake, our brains are in Beta or Alpha states. This can be measured by the frequency of the electrical activity in our brains. When we are are in transitory stages such as drifting to sleep or deep meditation, our brains function on the Theta wave frequency. Non-Rem and Rem Sleep occurs when our brains are in a Delta wave state. This state of consciousness we are currently experiencing can be cataloged by these differing measurements accurately. During these periods of brain activity we are observed as exhibiting very distinct types of behaviors, and having very differing types of perceptions. To better understand the differentiating factors involved with brain waves and mental states, as they relate to sleep, it’s useful to better understand sleep cycles.
Different Sleep Cycles
The brain, the body, and our overall conscious perception is largely regulated by secretory hormones, neurotransmitters, and many different types of signaling compounds. These compounds are useful tools within our body to help start, stop, and maintain certain metabolic cycles like digestion, sexual arousal, and especially the sleeping/waking cycles. Generally speaking, our sleep cycles are regulated in a combination of two primary facets. One; our circadian rhythms signal our body to release certain sleep hormones like melatonin. These chemicals catalyze a series of other reactions and activate cellular pathways responsible for signaling our body that it is time to check out for awhile. Second; our body needs to accumulate certain hypnogenic compounds that induce our bodies into a sleep-like state. Adenosine is the most-commonly studied hypnogenic sleep compound, though it’s exact impact on sleep cycles isn’t understood2 Data has shown that Adenosine agonists have been able to produce sleep-like states, while adenosine inhibitors conversely promote longer periods of wakefulness. Before we go any further, it’s important to appreciate how fundemental these compounds are to sleep and how detrimental to natural sleep cycles they could become if irresponsibly affected.
There are essentially 4 unique stages of sleep, and we complete a full cycle of these stages 4-6 times per night
When we sleep there are actually several different cycles which we go through. These types of sleep can further be categorized as Rapid Eye Movement (Rem) Sleep and Non Rem Sleep. The first sleep cycle is characterized largely by Theta waves and is a light transitory time. This is when our body starts getting lethargic, our eyes start getting heavy, and our heart rates begin to slow. The second sleep cycle is considered light sleep—characterized by further reduction in heart rate, muscle relaxation, and a decrease in body temperature. Stage three of the sleep cycle are categorized by even further reduction in temperature, heart rate, and slowing of breathing. This is a deeply restorative sleep state that typically occurs most frequently in the first half of the night. Stage four is the period we enter REM sleep. REM sleep is marked by faster, irregular spikes in brain activity with an increase in heart rate and breathing. During this period we experience a form of paralysis to keep us from moving about in response to dreams. These different cycles are fairly well-established and predictable in research, though the exact roles as they relate to our health aren’t completely known. We are constantly moving in and out of these cycles throughout the night, each lasting approximately 90-110 minutes. A complete nights sleep typically results in the completion of 4-6 of these cycles.3
Sleep is Essential to Health
Science knows a lot about the different processes that are triggered by sleep—hormones, antioxidation, liver detoxification, and musculoskeletal repairs. As with most processes in the human body, most all sleep cycles can find their roots of origin rooted in the brain. The hypothalamus is a tiny structure deep within our brains that can detect and respond to changes in light. Specifically, the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) is a cluster of cells within the hypothalamus that is thought responsible for this action. This sensory perception isn’t limited strictly to visual perception as we may think of it—as blind people are still able to demonstrate a response to changes in light. The brain stem itself is also integrally involved in sleep cycles, and within it and the hypothalamus gland there is an abundance of a compound named Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) produced when we sleep. GABA is often sold in supplement form and is often described as a counter-balance for high-energy brain states. When your brain is running full-bore—GABA is one of the compounds your body uses to calm it back down.
In addition to the hypothalamus and brain stem, the pineal gland produces the sleep hormone melatonin. Supplemental melatonin is often an effective way to help trigger your body’s natural sleep cycle and is extensively used by people traveling between time zones. It’s a bit hacky—but it can really make a difference in helping get to sleep. Throughout the night, many parts of our brains exhibit different types of activity. The general impression is that while sleep may seem simple from the outside-looking-in it’s actually a very dynamic process involving many different biological pathways. There has been a large correlation between certain neurotransmitters and sleep quality. Chemicals like adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol, and acetylcholine which are typical to high-energy brain states need to be lowered. Other compounds such as GABA and serotonin need to be elevated periodically for deep, restful sleep. Our sleeping/waking cycle can be regard as a type of homeostasis—in which we ebb and flow from side to side. There are many more compounds that play a role in sleep and they all work together to help maintain a healthy cycle, night after night.
Health is Essential to Sleep
Getting good sleep is essential for good health. However, maintaining good health is also essential for getting good sleep. An extreme example; recall how poorly you slept the last time you had a really bad cold. When we are sick, our body is fighting with all its might to destroy any pathogenic compounds in our body. This involves puking, diarrhea, coughing, sneezing, mucus, fever, and almost always poor sleep. During these periods of duress people are most likely to seek medications such as cough syrup or prescription sleep aids. There are arguments for and against both of these approaches—though both are centered around how important sleep is. Virulent episodes are the easiest to relate sleep issues to since they are often the most profound. Chronic health issues such as back pain, inflammation, allergies, or even food intolerance can all influence our natural sleep cycle as well. Even the most-subtle of disturbances physically, emotionally, or mentally can cause a deep ripple in our natural sleep cycles. If you are 60+ minutes into your first sleep cycle, just about to enter REM sleep, and you have a back spasm—you don’t get to go right back into REM when your muscles calm down. You have to start back at square 1, and dive back in. Imagine having 3 of these types of waking disturbances each night—it could have a serious impact on your health. Oftentimes, people aren’t even aware they aren’t getting enough sleep (or enough quality sleep) until they actually get a good night’s rest.
Health Impact of Sleep Deprivation
Insufficient amounts of sleep or disturbances in the natural sleep cycles can start to show an impact on health almost immediately. The first areas of health impacted by improper sleep are cognitive aspects, such as memory, learning, and attention. In people suffering chronic improper sleep cycles, cardiovascular health is one of the most-noted areas of impact. This is correlated by such risk factors as hypertension, and well-supported by research. One such study found that among ~1500 men and women, those receiving less than 6 hours of sleep per night were 66% more likely to have symptoms of hypertension compared to those getting 7-8.4 Additional research suggests that shorter duration periods of sleep are in fact correlated with increased risk for major cardiac events5 It’s not clear how cumulative amounts of sleep among those on polyphasic sleep cycles might relate to this data. These types of routines break the 7-8 hour sleep cycle into multiple cycles during a 24-hour period. For example, someone on a polyphasic sleep cycle may sleep from 12am-4am; wake from 4am-12pm; sleep from 12pm to 4pm; then wake from 4pm to 12am.
Polyphasic sleeping effectively allows for 8 hours of sleep per day, while splitting it among to sleep ‘windows’. This sleep cycle hasn’t been well-studied for potential benefits, though it is known to naturally manifest to certain degrees in those with sleep disorders 6 The logic there being that polyphasic sleep cycles are a natural illustration of disturbed rest. However, intentionally structured polyphasic cycles likely allow for the body to adapt and potentially benefit in some capacities. Perhaps the most broadly related health impact of sleep loss is that of its’ impact on inflammation. Nearly all diseases have been able to be traced back to inflammation and our bodies’ ability to handle such stress. Inflammation is a natural response to such reactions as oxidation, and happens to a degree at a near-constant pace. When we sleep, our body produces many compounds such as glutathione for the purposes of dealing with oxidative damages. When our natural sleep cycle is disturbed, these types of processes get interrupted and the damaging effects of inflammation are more pronounced. While a few days missed sleep won’t cause any systemic damage, the dangers of increased inflammatory damage in cases involving chronic sleep disturbances are tremendous.7
Getting Better Sleep
With the deeper understanding of how important sleep is, how it affects our health, and the different cycles in which it takes place—you can begin to devise a plan to support proper sleep. The various sleep cycles illustrate that getting to sleep is only half of the equation; staying asleep is also vital to ensuring proper rest. There are many factors that can affect both getting to sleep and staying asleep. These may include racing thoughts, environmental stress, emotional trauma, physical pain, illness, and even diet. These types of health considerations should be weighted differently for every person, and will likely affect each of our sleep cycles differently. Without knowing the specific cause of sleep disturbances, there are some common actions that can be taken as a means of self-diagnosis. These shouldn’t be considered medically diagnostic, and likely won’t be effective in treating serious sleep disorders such as sleep apnea. That being said, these are all considerations to make when trying to get better sleep.
1. Consider Your Environment
Sleeping with sirens constantly buzzing by, allergens floating in the air, or light beaming in from street lamps are all potential threats to a good nights sleep. Noises are capable of disrupting our ability to sink into deeper cycles of sleep where real reparative processes take place, and sometimes can even inhibit us from falling asleep. If these types of events are common chronic sleep deprivation symptoms may start to present. Avoid these issues by utilizing light-blocking curtains, sleeping with headphones, and using quality air filters.
2. Consider Your Diet/Eating Times
Diet plays a major role in any and everything related to health. If your body is under some diet-related burden, there’s a chance that it’s impacting your sleep. As mentioned above, areas with higher rates of obesity are known to also have higher rates of sleep-related issues. This isn’t to say that obesity is a cause of sleep deprivation—or vice versa—only that health in general can play a large role. Eating natural, organic, whole food diets rich in micro nutrients can help ensure your body is being given access to the nutrients it needs to survive. Eating late in the day is also a cause of sleep disturbances for many, as it causes a prioritization of digestive processes before deep-cycle sleep processes can be effective. There are nearly an infinite amount of potential links between diet and sleep, and to really hammer out your particular circumstance it’s best to consult a licensed dietitian or nutritionist.
3. Use Natural Sleep Aids
Sleep medication has had a lot of adverse side effects reported over the years. These medications fundamentally alter the way our bodies work, in a hacky kind of way to trick it into sleeping. Sometimes these medications have their place, but we believe they should be considered only as a last resort. Natural sleep aids such as melatonin and GABA on the other hand, help support our natural sleep cycles. These compounds are produced by our bodies naturally, and ensuring ample amounts can help avoid sleep issues related to a lack of them. Herbal teas such as chamomile, lemongrass, skullcap, and passion flower are all known to help promote relaxation as well. These compounds are often rich in compounds like glutathione which is used during sleep as a means to repair damaged tissues. Magnesium glycinate is a supplement that is also reported by many as being effective in helping to promote relaxed sleep. This compound consists of elemental magnesium and glycine—both of which known to help promote healthy nervous system function and calm mindedness.
4. Consider Your Mattress
Sometimes the the answer is simple, and finding a better mattress is all you need to get a better night sleep. Traditionally, mattresses have required a lot of money in order to provide a product capable of supporting our full body weight well. Most mattresses are made cheaply from toxic materials and rigid steel spring designs. No matter how much pillow topping is put on these designs, the underlying structure is capable of producing pressure points. These can cause systemic discomfort throughout the night, creating a physical duress capable of disturbing sleep cycles. There are a lot of new mattress companies on the market that provide really quality products at much cheaper prices than retail stores. There are several mattress brands that offer similar products. About 5 years ago mattress companies started selling directly to consumers, and almost overnight the market saw a ~75% reduction in price. Check out our article on Nectar Sleep mattresses to get a better feel for what to expect from these companies.
Sleep isn’t some leisure activity we undertake to help us unwind from the day—it’s a natural cycle that’s vital to maintaining proper health. Science has described several different sleep cycles that we undergo each night. This awareness can help us understand how to better support the maintenance of these cycles. Ensuring you have a comfortable mattress, cutting down on environmental stress, and utilizing certain natural sleep aids can all help you better support your natural sleep/wake cycles. As with everything in our lives, sleep is simply a matter of maintaining a healthy balance. We are all different, and all need different considerations to ensure long and healthy lifespans—supported largely by a healthy sleep cycle.
- https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2016/p0215-enough-sleep.html ↵
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2769007/ ↵
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK10996/ ↵
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15851636/ ↵
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12546611/ ↵
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10087357/ ↵
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3548567/ ↵