Sleep is essential for the repair and regeneration of the brain and body.
Stage one sleep is called theta, it is a superficial half sleep. Some brain re-charging happens, but no restoration of brain chemicals. Too much time in theta speeds aging.
Stage two of sleep decreases neurotransmitter repair and storage.
Stages three and four involve the repair of neural networks that are typically disturbed in waking hours. The brain waves are in the delta stage and this is where most of the brain repair, regeneration and detoxification happens. As we age, we spend less time in these stages.
REM (rapid eye movement) sleep includes dreaming and serves as a check for repairs done in deeper sleep stages. Children spend lots of time in stages three and four as they are actively building neural networks.
Adults who are in pain or experience discomfort likely get no stage four sleep.
Elderly people experience what is called “degenerative sleep.” There is no stage four, very little stage three, they are mostly in stage two and can have periods of awakening or nearly awakening. This causes the breakdown of neural networks. In dementia, there is no stage three, mostly stage two.
Some people have a condition called sleep apnea in which one stops breathing during sleep, often many times, triggering a brief, shallow awakening to re-start breathing. These people are often prescribed a c-pap machine that provides continuous air to the user. However, using a c-pap prevents going deeper than stage two.
Many people have disturbed sleep, either difficulty falling asleep, maintaining sleep, or getting deep enough sleep.
As a population, we get about two hours less sleep per night than we did 60 years ago. While many people feel they can get by with 5-6 hours of sleep, the consequences of not getting 7-8 hours is an increased risk of weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, brain damage and dementia.
The way our natural, internal cycles work best is to sleep when it is dark, wake when it gets light. Electricity enables us to stay awake when it is dark, disturbing our sleep/wake cycles. Eight hours of sleep between 2 am and 10 am is not as beneficial as 10 pm to 6 am. The best hours for us to be asleep are from 9 pm to 3 am.
When it begins to get dark, the pineal gland begins to secrete the hormone melatonin, which makes us sleepy. If we have lights on at night, melatonin secretion is blunted. This is especially true if we are watching screens—tv, computer, smart phone—as these emit blue light wave length which abolishes melatonin.
Melatonin is a potent anti-oxidant, and it also helps to prevent lipofuscin, which show up as age spots on the skin, but also in the brain and in the eyes as cataracts.
Some people begin to show signs of decreased melatonin by age 35-40. This is associated with the onset of degenerative disease.
Although there is the occasional person for whom melatonin prevents sleep, for most others it is a safe, inexpensive way to not only improve sleep, but preserve brain health as well. There can be a wide range of dosing melatonin, as little as 300 micrograms up to 10 mg. We carry a liquid sublingual melatonin that is handy to cover these doses. Use the minimum amount necessary to sleep. It may take up to three weeks for melatonin to begin working.
A beneficial side effect of melatonin is that it tones up the esophageal sphincter, lessening reflux symptoms.
Sleep medications, such as Ambien prevent sleeping deeper than stage two. These are also hazardous drugs with deaths associated with those with sleep apnea, alcohol users, and elderly people who metabolize these drugs more slowly.
Depression is not only a cause of insomnia, but an effect of poor sleep as well.
Restless leg syndrome can be very disturbing to sleep. The most common causes are deficiencies in folate, magnesium, iron, potassium or calcium. I usually recommend magnesium first.
Habits for Successful Sleep
- Be awake when it is light, sleep when it's dark
- Get bright sunlight exposure during the day. Go without sunglasses when possible. often a hat with a brim provides enough protection from too much sunlight.
- Exercise, but not at night.
- Avoid caffeine. If you have any sleep issues, giving up caffeine is often the first step. Some people metabolize caffeine very slowly, even one cup of coffee in the morning can disturb sleep.
- Avoid alcohol. While alcohol can initially be sedating, it can have a secondary stimulating effect waking you in the night.
- Hypoglycemia – low blood sugar can cause awakening anywhere fro 2 am to 5 am. Try a tablespoon of almond butter before bed. Hypoglycemia is caused by sugar and grains. Decreasing, or better yet, eliminating sugars and grains and increasing good fats, such as pasture butter and coconut oil will heal hypoglycemia.
- Sleep in the dark. Get blackout curtains, wear an eye mask, turn off or remove night lights or digital clocks.
- Use ear plugs if external sounds cause you to awaken.
- Don't read in bed or watch TV or screens in bed. Use the bedroom only for sleep and sex.
- Dim lights in the evening, don't view screens within two hours of sleep. If you must, use blue-blocking lenses such as FL-41 lenses.
Natural Sleep Aids
- Magnesium, an essential mineral commonly deficient. Take 300-500 mg of magnesium at night.
- Melatonin – Works best with reducing light exposure at night.
- Glycine Powder – This amino acid is our favorite sleep aid, along with melatonin. A rounded teaspoon of glycine powder at night helps to achieve deeper stages of sleep, leading to feeling rested and refreshed in the morning.
- GABA – a calming neurotransmitter may help sleep.
- Tryptophan – this amino acid is the precursor to serotonin and melatonin. Take 500-1,000 mg at night.
- CES – Cranial electrical stimulation improves sleep.
- 5HTP – The direct precursor to serotonin,which leads to better melatonin production. Also beneficial for anxiety, depression and food cravings.
- Herbs – Valerian, skullcap, chamomile and passion flower can all be helpful. Bedtime Tea by Yogi Teas and Sleepytime Tea by Celestial Seasonings – use two bags for better sleep.
- Homeopathics – Calming by BHI/Heel is very effective, safe for children. Also Calms-forte by Hylands
- Meditation – Meditation, even 5 or 10 minutes before bed, quiets the mind and enables deeper stages of sleep.
- If you can't sleep – If after 30 minutes of being awake in bed, get up, have a cup of calming tea, sit quietly in as little light as possible.