The Mysteries of Sleep

Over the past few weeks of stretching myself too thin, I haven’t been getting enough sleep (and feeling every bit of it, I might add).  As I am tirelessly typing away at my computer at 12:30 am, I inevitably fast forward in my mind’s timetable and think about how little sleep I will be getting for the night.   And then there’s the piercing alarm ring when I say to myself, “It’s that time already.”

Welcome to my world, I’m sure most of you are saying.  Sleeplessness is an unfortunate way of life for most Americans (and others around the world for that matter!)–either we can’t fall asleep, we are busy doing things other than sleep, or can’t stay asleep.

I’m trying to focus on my 9-5’s tasks at hand, my head is pounding, I can barely think straight, and there are brief moments of me dazing off into space.  These are just a few of the personal reminders of how important adequate sleep is to our health.   Disruption of your circadian rhythm can cause a host of problems including: fatigue, light-headedness, depression, weight loss or gain, confusion, lapses in memory, headaches, and even aching muscles.  “Circadian what?” some may be thinking (SCIENCE GEEK ALERT – you may want to skip the next two paragraphs if your eyes start becoming crossed).  This is our 24-hr cycle characterized by changing patterns of brain wave activity, body temperature, hormone production, cell regeneration, and perhaps a host of unknown (yet significant) biological activities.

So, what is currently known about sleep?  Although this is subject to change (as with most things in science), sleep researchers have discovered that there are various phases of sleep, which are characterized by different wave pattern (Read more about sleep on the American Sleep Association’s website).  The most notable component of sleep is what is known as REM sleep or rapid-eye-movement sleep.

Rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep aka active sleep:

  • Characterized by low-amplitude (small), high-frequency (fast) waves and alpha rhythms.  For a quick de-briefing about all this talk about waves…our brains are made up of billions of cells called neurons, which communicate with each other via electrical activity.  The culmination of our brains’ electrical activity creates signature brain patterns: beta, alpha, theta, and delta.  
  • As the name implies, this phase of sleep is also characterized by rapid eye movements.  Many sleep experts believe that these eye movements are in some way related to dreams.  Ever wonder why you remember some dreams and forget others?  If we awake during the REM phase of sleep, we are more likely to remember our dreams more vividly.
  • Interestingly, during REM sleep, muscles in the arms and legs are temporarily paralyzed.  If anyone has ever fallen asleep on you, you can sense when they enter REM sleep because they suddenly become heavier as their muscles relax and are no longer contracted.  

Although it is unknown as to what exactly is going on in our little brains as we slumber, more and more studies validate why we need to get to bed (to sleep, not to watch TV!).  A recent long-term study suggested a relationship between lack of sleep and heart disease (read more). Researchers found that people who had trouble falling asleep most nights over the previous months of the study, were 45% more likely to suffer from a heart attack.  Obviously stress and its role in insomnia may play a role in this relationship. Other associations have been found between insomnia and risk of stroke and hypertension.  Meanwhile, there is also a great body of research indicating a link between sleep and body weight (read more).  Although night eating may contribute to this association, hormones and the growing rates of sleep apnea also play a role.

Sleep is certainly a beautiful mystery that the scientific community is still trying to learn more about.  Regardless of what is and what isn’t known, the bottom line is to get your sleep.  With that said, if you are reading this late at night, take your hind parts to bed!

For more on this topic, go to the short clip on sleep on the videos page.

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