Sleep is the most underrated wellness necessity of life. We spend a quarter of our life sleeping and lack of it results in being unwell. True wellness cannot be accomplished without the proper type of sleep and adequate quantity of it.
The Importance of Sleep
A poll released in 2000 by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) showed a general sleep deficiency on a national level. Sleep is an important component of both work and play yet no one seems to get enough of it. For adults to function properly, sleep experts recommend at least eight hours of sleep a night, however, the NSF poll found that most adults sleep just under seven hours a night and 33% sleep only 6.5 hours or less nightly. About half of those surveyed stated that they would willingly sleep less in order to accomplish more during waking hours.
Americans today work the longest hours of any industrialized nation in the world, but individual productivity levels are suffering due to sleepiness. Fifty-one percent report that sleepiness on the job interferes with work and even more admit that it makes stress on the job harder to handle. About one-in-five report making occasional errors at work due to sleepiness. There is a definite relationship between lack of adequate sleep and diminished cognitive function.
Driving while drowsy causes approximately 100,000 car crashes annually. Young drivers are most susceptible to falling asleep at the wheel while driving and many report that they dozed off at the wheel at some point during the past year. And while half the nation’s adults report driving while drowsy during the past year, less than a quarter of all drivers pull off the road to rest when drowsy.
Physiology of Sleep
Getting the right type of sleep is as important as hours spent sleeping and is critical to proper functioning of the body and brain. Sleep is divided into five stages. The first four stages of sleep are considered Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) sleep. The principle function of NREM is to rebuild and restore the body after wakefulness. The body’s temperature, heart rate and blood pressure decrease while muscles relax and metabolism slows down.
Sleep stage I is the transition between wakefulness and sleep. Short dreams may occur during this time and the brain’s activity slows. Stage II is a deeper level of sleep, characterized by slower breathing and heart rates. Fifty percent of all sleep happens in Stage II. During stages III and IV, the deepest levels of sleep, our bodies utilize the time to restore themselves. Growth hormone secretion, a crucial hormone for the body’s repair, is at its highest during these stages.
The fifth stage, Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep is remarkably different from the previous stages. The brain and body become active during REM and there is an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. REM lasts from 10 to 25 minutes, with longer intervals in later sleep cycles. It accounts for approximately 25% of total sleep. As we age, we experience less REM sleep in relation to the other stages. After cycling through REM, another sleep cycle begins again with Stage I.
Research shows that memory consolidation, creativity, and problem solving are mediated during REM sleep. Much of the information learned throughout the day is processed during REM and manifests in the phenomenon of dreaming. Although some superficial dreams occur during NREM sleep, most dreams occur during REM. NREM dreams tend to be anchored in reality and experienced as a semiconscious state of serenity, whereas REM dreams are bizarre and nonsensical. Dreaming during REM is also accompanied by wild fluctuations in body metabolism and brain waves exhibit the same active waves it experiences during waking hours.
Our heart rate, blood pressure and hormonal secretions correspond to being awake, but muscle activity is almost nonexistent. Though the connections between NREM and REM sleep are not well understood, one thing is certain. The complexity of sleep emphasizes its importance to sustaining wellness. Your body’s need for sleep should not be underestimated. Sleeping aids normally prescribed by physicians help initiate sleepiness, but most interrupt the normal cycles of sleep and leave us feeling groggy. They also disturb the normal mechanism for imprinting memories in our brain. Most sleep aids are habit-forming and eventually require larger doses to achieve the same effect. TCM and Western herbs such as Valerian root, Kava (use should be limited due to liver toxicity issues) and Melatonin are alternative options. Melatonin increases the time spent in REM sleep and Theanine, a green tea extract has calming effects. Additionally, GABA and 5-HTP may help some individuals sleep. Yoga and relaxation techniques are effective, non-pharmacological treatments. Disorders such as sleep apnea and certain drugs can interfere with sleep, so is important to have these evaluated by a doctor or a sleep study lab. For optimal health, 7 to 8 hours of restful, restorative sleep is recommended.
JP Saleeby, MD is founder and director of Carolina Holistic Medicine and Chief Medical Officer for Zimetry.com. He can be reached for comment at email@example.com.
Catherine Buell is a freelance medical writer and furthering her studies towards a medical degree.
Ref: Jean-Louis G, Williams NJ, Sarpong D, Pandey A, Youngstedt S, Zizi F, Ogedegbe G. Associations between inadequate sleep
and obesity in the US adult population: analysis of the national health interview survey (1977-2009). BMC Public Health. 2014
Mar 29;14(1):290. doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-14-290. PubMed PMID: 24678583; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3999886.