The Mystery Of Sleep
Despite the fact that sleep has been a universal human experience for our entire existence as a species, it remains one of science’s greatest mysteries.
We don’t really know why we need to sleep, but we know that we miss sleep if we don’t have it.
And we know that no matter how much we try to resist it, sleep wins in the end.
We know that sleep is divided into periods of deep sleep and what is called rapid eye movement or REM sleep when the brain is as active as when we are awake but our muscles are paralyzed.
We know that animals sleep too even if during their sleep they become easy prey for predators.
This poses the question of what is the evolutionary reward for taking such a risk?
Our ancestors probably didn’t sleep in the same way we do. They went to sleep at sunset and rose at sunrise. They probably went to bed in groups and got up during the night several times, breaking their sleep into periods of sleep alternating with awake time every night in order to hunt or forage when the sky was illuminated at sunrise. Also, some slept outside, which made them subject to a more direct circadian rhythm – the process that regulates our natural sleep rhythm.
In some developing countries, people still sleep this way. In our world, however, our developed countries, we don’t sleep this way anymore. We tend to go to bed at a fixed time, sleep alone or with our partner and our natural sleep rhythm is very artificial. On average we sleep 1 and a half hour less than we did a century ago. So we fight the natural tendency of ancient rhythms that is hardwired in our brain and body. Those rhythms are very different from those that we impose artificially to our sleep patterns in today’s way of living, including the natural post-lunch drop in our circadian rhythm that in many Latin countries is known as the siesta.
All these changes to our natural rhythm and to the hours of sleep and rest that we have profoundly impact our functions, with effects such as fatigue-related mistakes, increased accident rate, mood disorders and more.
Science tells us that the brain demands sleep.
The question is “How does sleeping help the brain and why is it so important to have good sleep hygiene as a part of your self-care strategies?”
As far as we know from science, the only real reason we need to sleep is that we get sleepy.
Numerous research studies—including recent research at Harvard University—show that REM sleep is good for memory consolidation.
A study on people who are known as geniuses in our history shows that geniuses sleep at least 8 1/2 hours per night versus the 7 and a 1/2 hours per night of the average population.
Other studies on humans and animals show that sleep is good for wound healing, the immune system, and fighting infections.
Although research on the effects of sleep deprivation does not show significant alterations in the body, we know that the effect of the lack of sleep on the brain is pretty much the same of what happens when we are drunk.
If it is true that we sleep because the brain demands it, the opposite is not always true: we don’t always sleep or get sleepy when we actually need to sleep.
We know that insomnia is an epidemic in the developing world. In the US up to 75 million Americans complain about sleep problems and the industry of sleeping pills and sleep centers is a multi-million-dollar industry.
However, even if the social and economic cost of sleep deprivation is high, our society keeps underestimating and undertreating the lack of sleep. The fight against insomnia and sleep problems is left to drug companies rather than being faced like a true health problem.
And the effects are not only detrimental to our health. Data show that work productivity is also impacted as well as our relationships and our overall life satisfaction.
This happens because of the lack of sleep which activates our stress response and shifts us into survival mode.
If left unaddressed and if it becomes chronic, the lack of sleep can have toxic effects on the brain as much as high doses of alcohol.
Restoring Sleep As A Ritual
How can we address the issue of sleep deprivation of our society and the stress that is derived from it?
How can we learn to bring sleep back to its original function of restoring balance in the body and the brain?
Research shows that some treatments are more effective than others, and if consistently implemented as part of a habit formation strategy, they can actually be much more successful than medications.
Natural ways of restoring good sleep hygiene include acupuncture and cognitive behavioral therapy.
You can also use one of the rituals that I share in my free audio training, the “Relax to Restore” relaxation technique that helps you activate your Vagus Nerve and the Relaxation Response. The Relaxation Response switches your body and nervous system from a sympathetic response, such as the one when we are under stress, to a parasympathetic response, also called the “rest and digest” response.
I also encourage you to make sleep one of your most important rituals of well-being and pay attention to your sleep hygiene.
Small lifestyle changes can make miracles: sleep in a cool, dark room, don’t exercise before bedtime, go to bed when you are sleepy, and try to be consistent with your sleep hours. If you feel tired during the day, take a nap! Your brain will thank you and I guarantee you, you will experience a feeling of renewed energy and mental clarity.
Once again, take control of your wellbeing and remember that you have the power to harness your stress into growth, health, and happiness!
Now, tell me. What are your favorite habits and bedtime rituals?
Write your comment in the comment box at the bottom of this page and let me know.