Sleep Cycles are More Important than You Think

We live in a sleep sick nation, according to Dr. William C. Dement MD, a prominent sleep researcher.  Dr. Dement calls this phenomena a “hidden epidemic.” According to the National Sleep Foundation’s Sleep in America Poll, 75% the sleep cycles of Americans are out of whack, and they experience difficulty getting to sleep and staying asleep, and, feel groggy in the daytime.


The reported nightly hours of sleep in this survey averaged just under 7 hours for weeknights, and 7 1/2 hours on weekend nights, an amount not too far from what is considered normal.  So these symptoms of inadequate sleep despite the hours of sleep claimed is cause for concern.


Sleep is very important for rejuvenating the immune system and maintaining physical, psychological and emotional health. When sleep is inadequate or not of high quality, these functions are put in jeopardy.


Many think sleep is the time spent in bed, from retiring for the night to getting up for breakfast. Put in the hours and you’ll be fine is the general consensus. There are those who claim you can do well on less than 8 hours of nightly sleep, if the quality of sleep is good. 


The bottom line is that there are two different natural sleep cycles that occur during sleep, and both of them must be completed in order for sleep to produce its therapeutic effects.


Circadian Sleep Cycles

Most are familiar with the circadian cycle of waking and sleeping. These cycles are externally influenced by jet lag, night shift work, and arbitrary time changes, among other obvious reasons. They are also influenced internally by slight changes of body temperature, around 3 degrees F or 2 degrees C.  These temperature changes have an immediate influence on our circadian cycles.


Temperature changes occur throughout the day, especially if we are physically active. In the early morning, body temperature is at its lowest. That’s when someone running a fever thinks he or she is well. Then there is a modest temperature dip in the afternoon that is usually when many of us feel sluggish and should take a nap but instead go for that cup of java. At night the body temperature is at its highest, which is a signal for the body to go to sleep.


People who are sedentary and don’t compensate with some sort of regular exercise have the greatest risk of upsetting the body temperature’s circadian cycle. When there is no exercise, the temperature changes that prompt the body to doze off do not occur or are minimized. This is why people who exercise tend to sleep better. Circadian disruptions need to be dealt with because these rhythms affect the inner stages of sleep itself.


The Inner Sleep Cycles

There are 5 different inner stages of sleep, and we should recycle through all 5 of them every one to two hours. We do not, as is commonly believed, move through the 5 stages only once during the night.  Two of these stages are vital for the immune system directly, and one is a key to emotional health, which indirectly handles the stress that affects the immune system.


Beta waves, the brain waves we experience when we are awake, have been a useful index for the scientific study of human activity and emotion since around 1950.  Beta waves are high in frequency but low in amplitude. Beta waves are irregular and vary according to the type of activities involved.


Stage 1 is the doorway to sleep.

During this stage Beta waves start giving in to Theta waves of slower speed and greater magnitude. There may be a brief period of Alpha waves that are characteristic of relaxation with an occasional spike of Beta waves. But ultimately Theta waves kick in. This is the shortest stage, and it is not repeated again unless one is awakened enough to need to start all over.


Stage 2 is longer than the short first stage.

Theta waves continue with the addition of sleep spindles, which have a higher frequency, and K-complex waves that are greater in amplitude.  These two variations pop in every minute or so, and they are all that distinguishes stage 2 from stage 1. Both these stages are part of the light sleep when someone is easily awakened.


Stage 3 begins the deep sleep period that brings the most refreshment to the immune system.

The brain patterns switch to mostly Delta waves, which are by far the slowest and have the largest amplitude. Delta waves are experienced when one is totally unconscious. The only difference between stage 3 and stage 4 is the percentage of Delta waves present.


Stage 4 is when Delta waves reach over 50%.

Delta brain waves release anti-aging hormones, heal the mind, and repair muscles, while promoting access to the deepest possible states of relaxation. Stage 4 is when the heart and breathing slow and blood vessels dilate to provide more nourishment to cells.


Delta waves raise the amount of melatonin coming from the pituitary gland, which positively influences the endocrine system, lowers body temperature, and even adds an intuitive dimension to the psyche. Delta waves also help diminish cortisol, a hormone released under stress that tends to overwork the adrenal glands as part of the classic fight or flight sequence. Exhausted adrenals exacerbated by inadequate sleep lead to serious health issues.  Cortisol levels that stay elevated from poor sleep contribute to brain cell damage and aging.


Stage 5 is the notorious REM (rapid eye movement) stage.

This stage exhibits a kaleidoscopic mix of unsynchronized alpha and beta waves, almost similar to the awakened state. This stage is where most of us do our heaviest dreaming. Many psychiatrists and psychologists posit that this stage is when the bits of negative emotions attached to waking life are resolved or disassembled. In other words, REM serves as a safety valve for releasing negative emotions.


There is ongoing research designed to resolve sleep disorders for suicidal and chronically depressed patients. Researchers are attempting to restore proper REM stages to the fullest capacity and get positive results, or if not, to determine what chemicals are released during REM that optimize the process of reducing negatively charged emotions.


Sleep Deprivation Remedies

The stages described above cycle through every one to two hours in such a manner that the early cycle phases have the most time spent in stages 4 and 5 (Delta deep sleep). Then as the sleep goes on, the REM cycles are longer. Any disruption that prevents these stages from recycling or occurring, especially stages 4 and 5 and REM, has adverse mental, emotional and physiological effects.


Factors that influence the sleep cycle

Trying to sleep in too much light inhibits the pineal gland’s melatonin production.  A busy mind or too much caffeine can keep you from falling asleep, and create restlessness that causes you to wake up.  Trips to the bathroom can throw off the cycle.  Anxiety or tension that doesn’t get resolved in REM, leads to feeling tired after a “good night’s sleep” based only on quantity of hours in bed.  Staying up late with too much stimulation, getting up too early, any form of sleep apnea, heavy snoring, and manifestations of insomnia are all signs of sleep disorders that are more than merely inconvenient. They are mental and physical health hazards.


Natural supplements that promote quality sleep

The tendency to reach for prescription or over-the-counter drugs and even alcohol as remedies to poor sleep should be avoided, since these actually interfere with the 5 stages of sleep and how they recycle.  Melatonin is the hormone the body makes naturally to bring sleep and extend early 4 and 5 stages.  Adding a little extra melatonin helps you fall asleep, reach deep sleep, and awaken without grogginess. Proponents of melatonin praise its antioxidant properties as well as its ability to restore proper sleep cycles. 


Another excellent time-tested herb to help with sleep disorders is Valerian Root, which you can find in Relax & Calm.  It is often offered in extract or tincture form. It is actually sleep-inducing, and there are no side effects. It is safe, but not equally effective for everyone. Magnesium and B vitamins taken before retiring have soothing and relaxing effects that induce sleep and prolong stages 4 and 5.


Some methods of relaxing, such as yoga, tai chi, and chi gong, restore the proper flow of energy in and around the body known as chi or prana. These require some effort but offer long-term benefits for becoming relaxed and centered. Everyone who practices Hatha Yoga needs to pay more attention to the corpse pose to get ultimate relaxation.






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