Our autumn issue is out now. Editor Alison McEvoy delves into the nature of sleep to find out how we can have more restful nights. Dive on in to find out more…
Plug into your superpower
The power of sleep
by Alison McEvoy
[Sleep is] pure intelligence, healing and goodwill.
Sleep is my personal hot topic at the moment. Having left the world of maidenhood and entered the considerably more weighty world of motherhood, I’m learning, first hand, how the ‘worst self’ can emerge due to sleep deprivation. I hope none of you reading this have to ever experience what Matt Walker (MW) describes so accurately as the “bad things that happen” when you don’t get enough sleep. From personal experience, and not out of a lab, it’s all true!
AWAKE ON THE DARK SIDE…
To understand what is NOT happening while you lie awake during the hours your body-mind is designed to sleep, we must first get to know the sleep cycles. This is known as the ‘architecture of sleep’. Sleep is not a one-dimensional experience:
Awake is the initial step in the cycle – when we are alert through our senses and aware of our environment. Light Sleep comes next. Our eyes close and the senses start to go ‘out of operation’. Our muscles start to relax and get heavy. Our respiration slows down, and the heart rate along with it. Our body temperature drops. It’s easy to wake during this stage if something happens in our environment, as we are not entirely switched off from it. If all goes well throughout the ‘light’ phase, and our systems slow and relax, we may drop into the next phase which is Deep Sleep.
During deep sleep the body’s healing and restorative systems kick into gear. From deep inside, the body gets to work restoring itself. Extra blood flows to the muscles and a growth hormone is released so that muscles, and the body’s various other tissues, can regrow and repair from exercise/injury/daily wear and tear. Deep sleep is also known as Delta Sleep, as the brain waves change into long, slow, delta waves. During this phase the brain is able to flush out toxins. Due to this deep inner work going on, if you get woken during deep sleep you can feel groggy and disoriented.
Moving on deeper into the sleep cycle, we come to the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) phase. In this phase it is our cognitive functions, the functions of the brain, which are restored and re-energised. Respiration slows even more but the heart rate goes up. Our ability to regulate our temperature shuts off and the body becomes immobile. This immobility protects us and prevents us from reacting in our sleep to the vivid dreams which happen during this phase.
Dreaming is a kind of cognitive sorting arrangement for our brain, in order for it to sift through the events in our immediate experience, sorting things into our memory banks, learning from these experiences and generating creative solutions to the problems and issues on our minds.
During the early night, we tend to stay for longer in the Deep Sleep phase. The body-system is prioritising physiological repair and restoration. During the later night, we spend longer in REM. On an ideal night, the body has enough time to go through four to five rounds of this cycle, spending time in repair, recovering, healing and re-energising. Amazingly, the body tends to tailor our sleep so that we spend more time in whatever phase gives us what we really need. An example of this is that the body may choose to spend more time in deep sleep after a day of intense exercise or workouts in order to recover and repair muscle, etc.
Looking at sleep is almost like looking at an argument for the existence of an Intelligent Creator, or Divinity, behind it all. It is entirely involuntary what happens during sleep, it is all pre-programmed by Mother Nature into our bodies. It is pure intelligence, healing and good will.
When we don’t get enough sleep, this repair and restore doesn’t happen. In short, as Matt puts it: “Sleep loss will leak into every nook and cranny of your body.”
THE BRIGHT SIDE
“Sleep is your superpower”(MW) To get enough sleep is to give the entire body, the cardiovascular system, the immune system, the reproductive system, the brain…a complete restore and reboot. To work on your sleep is to “Be reunited with the most powerful elixir of life. It’s your life support system. It is Mother Nature’s best effort yet at immortality.” (MW) Matt is full of free and relatively easy ways to enhance your sleep:
Regular timing – Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, including weekends. Set a ‘to bed’ alarm just as you would set an ‘wake up’ alarm. Factor in time for getting ready, putting on pyjamas, washing your teeth, etc.
Keep cool – Your body requires a drop in temperature to both fall asleep and stay asleep. So make sure your bedroom is not too hot. 18 degrees Celsius is an ideal temperature.
Stay in the dark – Dim your lights as much as possible for an hour before you go to bed. This allows the hormone melatonin to be released by the pineal gland which will initiate your body into sleep. Dave Asprey, the well-known sleep hacker, says: “Turn your lights down after the sun goes down…For all of the cells in your body to do what they’re supposed to do, they need to know what time it is. That’s why every organ in your body has a clock… The master-clock is stored inside your brain and light controls it.”
Bedroom association – If you are having trouble falling or going back to sleep, go to another room until you are sleepy. The brain needs to associate your bed with sleeping.
Rethink your alarm – Do not hit the snooze button or use staggered alarms for waking up. There is considerable strain put on the cardiovascular system (the heart) when you are jolted awake by an alarm. It is a stressful event for the heart. Time your coffee – A coffee drunk at 12pm is still a quarter in your body system by 12pm. Drink your coffee in the early morning and give it time to fully exit your system before your night’s sleep begins.
There is so much to discover on the topic of sleep and so many ways we can support and improve the quality of our sleep. This is the excellent news, given that sleep is such a powerful healer – one that we should not underestimate: “Mother nature…has never had to face the challenge of…sleep deprivation. So she’s never developed a safety net. That’s why when you under-sleep things implode so quickly in the brain and the body….Sleep really is the tide that raises all other health boats.” (MW) So make sleep your hot topic this autumn in preparation for the Season of Hibernation to come…