You wake up. Having already snoozed one alarm, you're now stirred by another ringing across the room. You roll over and cover your head with a pillow. You contemplate calling in sick or just quitting altogether. Anything for getting to sleep just a little more.
Especially since the industrial revolution, our modern world takes a somewhat dim view of sleep. Thomas Edison said, “Sleep is a criminal waste of time, inherited from our cave days." Or there's the charming line from Margaret Thatcher, “Sleep is for wimps.”
Revenge of the Wimps
Scientists haven't reached a consensus about what our bodies actually do while we're unconscious at night. Of course, most of us don't have a clue either. Who's to say that your sleep walking self isn't the one drinking all your beer and leaving dirty dishes everywhere?
Intuition tells us that sleep is a restorative time, and there's an undeniable link between dreams and memory. Researchers are starting to get a clue about the mechanisms that make sleep so important. And really, it's about time.
Our experience of feeling refreshed after sleeping may have to do with the elimination of toxins from the brain. During sleep, greatly heightened amounts of cerebrospinal fluid flow through the brain. Accumulated waste products are flushed out in the process, which neurosurgery professor Dr. Maiken Nedergaard calls, "like a dishwasher." Unlike a dishwasher, you never have to worry about whether the cycle has been run before you put a fork in your brain.
This would explanation why our brains feel like a well oiled machine after a good night's rest. Or why our heads feel like a dirty, rusty gearbox when we don't sleep. It also explains why not sleeping can kill you.
Skipping showers might only ruin your chances of ever making friends or finding a mate who's not an olfactophiliac. Skipping brain showers, on the other hand, will probably ruin your chances of becoming an evil genius who takes over the world.
Inflammation is a root cause of whole raft of seemingly unrelated conditions: rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, dermatitis, and many others. Basically, a lot of big bummers that you don't want to deal with when you're older. Sleep also modulates inflammation.
Researchers found that even an interruption of a single night of sleep can trigger a tissue damaging inflammation response. They suggest that adequate sleep can provide protection against those illnesses linked to inflammation.
Scientists are working to understand how memories are integrated and consolidated during sleep. This work may someday shed some light on the shadowy world of dreams. But for now, it's just showing us how adequate rest can make us less miserable in waking life.
According to a report published by Harvard, REM sleep is crucial to both declarative and procedural memory. That is, both what you know and what you know how to do. Whether you're learning to ride a bike or stuffing away the first stanzas of The Canterbury Tales, adequate sleep is your ally.
Yes, that's right: better sleep means a better sex life. If you're lucky, you might even get some while you sleep. One can dream, at least.
Ready to make a few simple changes to start reaping the rewards of sleeping well? Good. Let's see how.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Getting into bed can be hard enough. After all, there's always another dungeon to raid, another level to attain, another Pokémon to catch, another scale model of the USS Enterprise to build in Minecraft, another city to build only to have it leveled by aliens, another human to suck blood out of while they sleep, or whatever the hell kids are doing these days.
Getting to sleep can be downright impossible.
The good news is that there are some simple steps that can help align your body with earth's diurnal rhythms. The modern world contains an abundance of artificial light and this makes it easy to sustain a day-like environment well after sunset. Our newfound attachment to light producing gadgets isn't helping either.
Changing habits and beliefs related to sleeping is known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The American College of Physicians recommends CBT as the first line treatment for insomnia before moving to drugs.
Managing light levels should be a first priority for anyone trying to get to sleep. Make the bedroom as dark as possible. Abstain from viewing backlit screens and minimize ambient light levels for at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Yes, that means you should break up with your smartphone as a bedfellow.
Creating darkness will make your body ready for sleep and improve the quality of the sleep you do get. Of course, the most obvious challenge to getting enough sleep is making the time. There's no replacement for discipline, but keeping the lights down at night will put circadian rhythms on your side.
For the hopeless screen addict, software like f.lux can reduce the blue light output later in the day, mirroring natural daylight cycles. This does not make it OK sneak in a little Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead before bed. Really, who can sleep when they're worried about getting double crossed and killed off like their favorite character while being chased by hordes of flesh eating zombies?
But changing even a small habit is hard. Really hard. CBT simply doesn't work in every case. Thankfully, there are options if you just need a little extra help.
Sedatives and depressants are widely used to aid sleep. These range anywhere from gentle plants to potent pharmaceuticals. Most classically, we switch from caffeine to alcohol at the end of the workday. And no, blacking out does not count as a healthy, restorative sleep.
Alcohol also has memory inhibiting effects, which makes it unideal as a regular sleep aid since memories are integrated and solidified while we are sleeping. However, this doesn't mean that we should reach right for the Ambien.
Let's check out a few other options for promoting sound sleep.
This is the good stuff. Grab your Zig-Zags and roll up a fatty. When grandma comes looking for her teabags, just offer her a puff.
Camomile is a daisy-like plant whose dried flowers are commonly available as a tea. It is, in fact, one of the most popular herbs in the western world, used to treat skin conditions, digestive disorders, anxiety, and insomnia.
Studies on camomile are surprisingly scarce given its popularity. In animals, lower doses have been shown to relieve anxiety and larger doses promote sleep. In humans, the anti-anxiety properties are disputed.
Some constituents of the herb have been investigated. Extracts of camomile contain about 120 secondary metabolites with 28 terpenoids and 36 flavonoids among them. The flavonoid apigenin is of particular interest. In rats, camomile treatments were shown to produce a hypnotic effect similar to benzodiazepine (BDZ), which apigenin is thought to be responsible for.
The stress related plasma adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) is regulated with the administration of camomile oil vapor, suggesting a mechanism for stress reduction. It is also thought that components other than apigenin may bind to the brain's BDZ and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors to create a sedative effect. These compounds are still largely unidentified though.
Another popular herbal sleep supplement, valerian has been better studied in humans than camomile. While some studies suggest that it is effective in helping insomnia sufferers get to sleep, the results overall are inconclusive.
No single constituent has been shown to be responsible for any of valerian's effects, although many components have been identified. It is likely these work independently or synergistically. Extracts of valerian have proved to be sedatives in animal trials, although attempts to isolate the constituents in action have failed.
GABA is also thought to be a player in the function of valerian. The theory is that valerian makes more GABA available in the synaptic cleft.
Since GABA inhibits neuron excitation, it can help quiet some of those thoughts about the zombies who really are coming for you. Or what your ex, who may also be a zombie, is planning to do for revenge. Just because they're out to get you doesn't mean it's worth being paranoid.
In the lab, it appears that valerian extracts encourage the release of GABA by brain nerve endings and also prevent the reuptake of GABA. A significant amount of GABA is also delivered through the extracts, although it's unknown if GABA can cross the blood-brain barrier.
Melatonin is a hormone important to the circadian rhythm of animals. It is produced in anticipation of darkness and works to prepare the body for sleep.
One review of studies on melatonin concluded that evidence was insufficient to support it as an effective treatment for insomnia. However, a 2005 study at MIT confirmed that melatonin does work for aiding sleep when taken in the correct dose.
Typical melatonin supplements have delivered many times more than the needed dose in each pill or capsule. When exposed to such high amounts, the receptors that respond to the hormone become desensitized and the benefit is lessened. These researchers performed another review, or meta-analysis, of other studies and concluded that melatonin does have a significant effect when used properly.
Commonly known as a precursor to serotonin with antidepressant potential, 5-HTP is an amino acid that also contributes to melatonin production. Studies are by no means conclusive, but at least one has shown a positive role in falling and staying asleep. Those researchers noted that a consistent regime of 6-12 weeks at a recommended dose of 200 to 400 mg may be necessary for results.
While melatonin is commonly linked with sleep as we explored above, serotonin is actually the first substance hypothesized by modern neuroscience to promote sleep. It is understood to be important in regulating the circadian rhythm, and serotonin imbalance has been linked to poor sleep.
Actually, serotonin's role in sleep cycles may be less controversial than it's more common association with depression. Despite the common use of serotonin promoting drugs in the treatment of depression, scientists are arriving at a more complex picture of the relationship. Perhaps unsurprisingly, depression and sleep disruption are often linked, making 5-HTP especially important for its use in treating both.
Stimulants are a hallmark of an unrested life. In fact, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t indulge in caffeine, nicotine, or another stimulating drug.
Not only do stimulants fail to provide the functionality of a well rested brain, they also rob the body of its ability to fall and stay asleep. This isn't to say that a cup of coffee in the morning is necessarily problematic, but caffeine consumed after lunchtime will still be working when bedtime comes. Cigarettes before bed? We shouldn't need say more.
Sleep is God. Go Worship
Attitudes about sleep are changing. We're shaking our industrialized drive to work more and sleep less. At the same time, getting to sleep can be a big challenge. Putting our bodies in the right place and enlisting a few gentle substances can help greatly.
Yawning yet? Maybe it's time to sneak off for a little worship.