The Magic of Sleep

The Magic of SleepIn my articles on boosting immunity and supporting an anti-viral gut, I touched on the importance of sleep. But sleep deserves more than a brief mention, especially considering most people spend about a third of their lives snoozing!

Sleep is a key part of the foundation on which we build our health and wellbeing. In this article I introduce some background information on sleep itself, several of the many incredible things it does for us, and I suggest ways to prioritize sleep in a modern society where there’s always pressure to do more and rest less.

What Is Sleep?
Sleep is a complex biological process that allows the body and brain to rest. It helps us process new information, stay healthy, and re-energize. Periods of sleep and wakefulness are built in to how our bodies function.

Two internal biological mechanisms work together to control when a person is awake and asleep. Those mechanisms are: circadian rhythm and pressure for sleep (also called homeostatic sleep drive). As very young babies, our circadian rhythm is still developing. But after that, nearly every tissue and organ in our body has its own circadian rhythm. Collectively, they are tuned through our body’s biological clock, which roughly follows a 24-hour day. Light and dark influence circadian rhythm the most, but the food we eat, stress we experience, our physical activity, social environment, and temperature all have an effect. Circadian rhythms orchestrate a wide variety of functions from daily fluctuations in wakefulness to body temperature, metabolism, and the release of hormones like melatonin, which helps us to feel sleepy at night. The second mechanism, homeostatic sleep drive, is what reminds the body to sleep after a certain amount of time awake. It also regulates sleep intensity. The drive to sleep increases every hour you are awake and this mechanism causes you to sleep longer and deeper if you’ve been deprived of sleep.

There are, of course, a variety of factors that influence when you are asleep or awake, including medical conditions, medications, stress, your sleep environment, and what you eat and drink.  But the greatest influence is the exposure to light. Specialized cells in the retinas of your eyes process light and tell the brain whether it is day or night and can advance or delay the sleep-wake cycle. Exposure to light can make it difficult to fall asleep and go back to sleep.

What Are the Types of Sleep?
There are two basic types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM (NREM) sleep, which has three different stages.  Each type and stage of sleep is linked to specific brain waves and neuronal activity. You cycle through all stages of non-REM and REM sleep several times during a typical night, with increasingly longer, deeper REM periods toward morning. Most dreaming occurs with REM sleep. During that time, your arm and leg muscles become temporarily paralyzed, which keeps you from acting out your dreams. During NREM sleep, your heart rate and breathing slow, and your body temperature drops.

These different types of sleep are necessary because they do different things for our brains and bodies. Recent research has shown that during REM sleep, emotional experiences are processed, memories are consolidated, and the brain rests and repairs itself. NREM sleep has been primarily studied for its contributions to physical recovery as well as memory consolidation. Researchers have proposed that abnormalities in NREM sleep processes may play a role in schizophrenia, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease and autism spectrum disorders. There is still a lot we don’t know about sleep, but scientists are continuing to learn more and more.

What Does Sleep Do For Us?
We all know from personal experience how hard it is to function when our sleep is cut short. In addition to feeling tired, we may feel more easily frustrated or emotionally dysregulated, find it hard to make decisions, and we may crave more sugary foods. The effects of too little sleep can be even easier to observe in our children–the toddler who misses a nap becomes inconsolable at the smallest mishap, and an older child may be unbelievably grumpy following an overnight at a friend’s house. But what does sleep actually do for us, in addition to helping us feel rested, alert, and resilient?

Some key things that happen while you’re asleep include:

  • Energy conservation and storage. During the day, your body’s cells use stored resources to continue doing their jobs. While you’re asleep, your body uses less energy, which means those cells can resupply for the next day.
  • Self-repair and recovery. When you are sleeping you’re less active and it’s easier for your body to heal injuries and repair issues that happened while you were awake. That’s also why being sick makes you feel more tired and need more rest.
  • Brain maintenance. While you’re asleep, your brain reorganizes and catalogs memories and information you’ve learned. It’s similar to the work a librarian does, sorting and shelving books at the end of the day. This work makes it easier and more efficient to access and use things you learn.
  • Maintenance of the gut and gut-brain communication. The gut produces serotonin, which is a necessary precursor to melatonin, the hormone that helps us go to sleep at night. A healthy gut also maintains good communication with the brain, helping to ensure healthy sleep and a strong immune system.

Why Is Sleep Important for Children and Adolescents?
Sleep plays a crucial role in human development. Not only does it directly affect happiness, but research also shows that sleep affects alertness and attention, cognitive performance, mood, resiliency, vocabulary acquisition, and learning and memory. In toddlers, napping appears to be necessary for memory consolidation, executive attention, and motor skill development. Sleep also affects growth, especially in early infancy.

When children reach adolescence, they often experience a hormonally-influenced shift in their circadian rhythm which can make it hard for them to fall asleep until later at night. Generally, they still need 8-10 hours a night to be rested, but polls show that most teens do not get nearly that much. The pressures of early school start times, school work, sports and extracurricular activities, as well as the light from screens are some reasons why their sleep suffers. Notably, California was the first state in the nation to pass a law requiring later start times for public schools. Now, public high school classes may not start before 8:30 am and middle school classes may not start before 8:00 am. This legislation reflects how critical sleep is for teens and tweens. Sleep improves memory, learning, emotional health, physical health and development. It also helps teens make better decisions, and it even helps them avoid accidents caused by drowsy driving.

In 2016, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommended the following amounts of sleep per 24 hours, by age group, to promote optimum health:

  • Infants 4 months to 12 months should sleep 12 to 16 hours (including naps)
  • Children 1 to 2 years of age should sleep 11 to 14 hours (including naps)
  • Children 3 to 5 years of age should sleep 10 to 13 hours (including naps)
  • Children 6 to 12 years of age should sleep 9 to 12 hours
  • Teenagers 13 to 18 years of age should sleep 8 to 10 hours

It’s generally recommended that adults get between 7-9 hours of sleep. Of course there are individual variations within these ranges–some people may need more sleep, and some a little less–but these are helpful targets.

How Do We Get More Good Sleep?
Keeping in mind all that sleep does for us can encourage us to prioritize sleep for our children (and ourselves, too). You may want consider the following to support good sleep:

  • Get outside in natural light in the morning (even if it’s cloudy or raining!) to support circadian rhythms
  • Budget the necessary hours of sleep into the daily schedule and keep that same schedule on both weekdays and weekends
  • Create a consistent pre-bed routine to help with relaxation and falling asleep fast
  • Avoid sugar, caffeine, and energy drinks, especially in the afternoon and evening
  • Put away electronic devices for at least a half-hour (but preferably longer) before bed and keep them on silent mode to avoid checking them during the night
  • Keep bedrooms cool, dark, and quiet

If you’re interested in an individualized plan to improve your child’s or teen’s sleep, please reach out to us. Different stages of development bring different challenges, and we are eager to support you in all of them.

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