A good night's sleep?!
Before reading any further, I'd like to invite you to spend a couple of minutes thinking about your bedtime routine... You might find it easier to picture yourself in bed and work backwards, asking yourself several times "and what do I do just before that?" Use all your senses. When you're in bed, what can you see? What can you hear? And go for all the little details: the red light of the alarm clock, the whirring of the expel air in the bathroom etc. Are you warm or a bit chilly? Are your sheets smooth on your skin? What can you smell? Washing powder, musty sheets or something else? What can you taste? And work your way backwards until you've got a 10 point recipe of the steps you take to get from being awake to being in bed .. and write it down. You'll need it later!
This has all come out of a session we recently held on The Importance of Sleep. Participants shared their experiences, I talked about the latest research in sleep science and together, we built a top 10 of tips for getting a good night's sleep. Once you've done the activity above and you're interested in learning more, then read on!
There are two body cycles which regulate our sleep. The first, our body clock, is activated by the hormone melatonin which is processed deep in the brain, not far from our 'danger' centre and from our vision centre. Our exposure to daylight is super important in regulating this hormone: we synchronise our internal and external activites with those of our environment. Experts recommend getting a good dose of natual light as early as possible in the morning and sleeping in a dark bedroom. Jet lag messes around with the production of this hormone, as does the 'blue light' emitted by most screens, TV and mobile phones ... The second cycle involved in sleep is the four or five wave-like pattern of the different stages of sleep. We all know the feeling of dozing off in front of the TV when you think you're awake but later, you realise you missed several scenes of the programme ... or when you're woken abruptly in the middle of the night and you are SO groggy and it takes several minutes for your limbs to re-activate. These are examples of the different stages of sleep. Recent research is able to show exactly what is happening in the body and brain during these different stages of sleep and why they are so important. There's a slow drifting off, when breathing becomes regular and slower. The heart rate slows, blood pressure drops, muscles relax and brain activity lessens. This all continues to slow down until we reach the stage of deep sleep. We then move back through the 'lighter' stages of sleep until that crazy REM sleep (rapid eye movement) which is when we dream (more on that later!). In these deeper stages of sleep, it's like a big office block at night. As staff leave, the building becomes calmer and quieter, lights dim, and then the cleaning and maintenance team move in. The same happens in the body and brain. While the body is calm, the immune system is strengthened. Tissue and bone marrow repaired. Hormones controlling appetite and digestion are regulated (being tired is a dieter's worst enemy: when you're tired, two hormones ghrelin and leptin are unbalanced and your body thinks you are hungry, encourages you to eat more and then stocks the unused calories as fat, just in case) as is cortisol, a hormone linked to good skin (bad sleep = more wrinkles!). Not only that, while the brain is at rest, it is rinsed in a gentle solution of cerebral fluids which helps to eliminate toxic waste (seriously! Remember that cleaning and maintenance team? They also take out the rubbish and do some filing!). And, though scientists are still not sure exactly how*, it is believed that dreams help us to process emotions and put them in context, and process memories and learning. All that while we're snoozing!
* are dreams a random firing of neurons which we seek to make sense of or a re-enactment of events to organise and solidify neural pathways or the opportunity to work through problems and find solutions through metaphore and creativity? Or, most likely, all three!