It is a common fact that poor sleep can have profound, negative effects on the human body.
Turning Genes On and Off
Published studies have shown that the proper functioning of hundreds of genes was altered when people's sleep was cut to less than six hours a day for a week.
Exactly how poor sleep damages health, resulting in heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and insufficient brain function, is not entirely clear. Sleep experts at the University of Surrey sought to find some answers. They analyzed the blood of 26 people after they had had plenty of sleep, up to 10 hours each night for a week. Then they sampled the blood from those same people after sleeping less than six hours a night for a week. When they compared the results, they found that the activity of more than 700 genes was altered by the change in sleep duration. Each gene contains the instructions for building a protein, so those that became more active produced more proteins, and vice versa, changing the chemistry of the body.
It seems clear from this study that the natural body clock was disturbed. Some genes naturally increase and decrease in activity during the day, but this natural cycle was dulled by sleep deprivation. Indeed, there was a dramatic change in activity in many different kinds of genes. Areas such as the immune system and how the body responds to damage and stress were affected. Clearly sleep is critical to rebuilding the body and maintaining a functional state. The human body must replenish and replace new cells every day; if not, a wide variety of degenerative diseases will result.
Stages of sleep
Sleep is essential to maintaining normal levels of cognitive skills such as speech, memory, and lucid thinking. Sleep plays a significant role in brain development. Every hour or two we go through a cycle of four stages of sleep before entering dream sleep:
- Stage 1 is a drowsy, relaxed state between being awake and sleeping;
- Stage 2 is a period of light sleep where heart rate slows and body temperature decreases, getting ready for deep sleep;
- Stage 3 and Stage 4, or deep sleep are hard to wake up from because there is the lowest amount of activity in your brain and body.
After deep sleep, we go back to Stage 2 and then enter dream sleep, also called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.
Causes of Poor Sleep
Noise: As we start to sleep, the thalamus in our brain starts to block the flow of information from our senses to the rest of the brain. But it will still let through noises, which can wake us up. After about half an hour of light sleep, most of us enter a type of deep sleep. But some things will always get through, such as a child’s cry. Missing out on any part of our usual cycle of sleep results in reduced quality and quantity of sleep.
Disrupted Routine: Our body clock helps synchronize thousands of cells in our body to the circadian rhythm. The main synchronizer for our body clock is light. Our eyes react to the light and dark, even when our eyelids are closed. Daylight prompts our brains to reduce the production of the natural sleep hormone melatonin. We become more alert, and wake up. If we sleep less, because of going to bed late or waking up early, we're unlikely to get as much deep sleep as we need, especially all-important REM sleep.
Stimulants (Coffee and Alcohol): Caffeine is a stimulant which can stay in our system for many hours. Drinks high in caffeine make it harder to fall asleep and can result in more time in the lighter stages of sleep, with less deep sleep. Drinking alcohol often makes us snore more, making it harder to breathe, and so making us more restless. Although alcohol initially helps some of us fall asleep, too much of it may disrupt sleep. A lot of alcohol close to bedtime means we can go straight into deep sleep, missing out on the usual first stage of sleep. As the alcohol starts to wear off, our bodies come out of deep sleep and back into REM sleep, which is much easier to wake from. In the course of a night we usually have six to seven cycles of REM sleep, which leaves us feeling refreshed. However, a night of drinking means we'll typically have only one to two, and wake up feeling exhausted.
Hot House: Our core body temperature goes down when we sleep. It's controlled by our body clock, which starts to open up the blood vessels of the hands, face and feet, to lose heat, as we approach the time we should be sleeping. But if our bedrooms or blankets are too warm, our bodies can't lose heat. That can lead to restlessness and discomfort.
Busy Brain: Stress is the enemy of sleep. In bed, our mind is left free to wander, and feeling anxious about getting enough sleep will only make it worse. In these states people lose track of time. You may nod off and wake up again but it may still feel as if you are getting no sleep at all. This can result in fragmented sleep with less time spent in the deep stages of sleep. Sleep experts recommend getting up and doing an activity that distracts our mind from worry, such as a puzzle, before trying to sleep again.
Trouble sleeping? Consider the underlying causes and try to mitigate them. As always, consult health professionals for advice as to any course of therapy for your sleep problems. Seek as much as possible natural and safe alternatives to expensive Rx drugs with harmful side effects. There are some outstanding natural sleep remedies with proven science and an excellent safety profile. Sleep well but keep your eyes open as to what’s out there.
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