By Rachel Welch
Sleep is one of the best, most relaxing, and healing processes that the human body experiences. Not only can it be enjoyable, relaxing, and comfortable, but it is also highly beneficial for your health and well-being.
You could even say that sleep is your greatest superpower!
When we sleep, our bodies and brain undergo several beneficial processes that benefit us in amazing ways.
First off, you should know that there are several different stages of sleep, and understanding them is important. Let’s explore why.
Sleep Stages and Why They Matter
Sleep has several different cycles throughout a night of rest.
Stage 1 of Non-REM (rapid eye movement) Sleep
This is the time in which we transition from wakefulness to sleep. Usually lasting several minutes, our heart rate, breathing, eye movements, and brain waves begin to slow down into sleep patterns.
Stage 2 of Non-REM Sleep
This is light sleep – when our body temperatures start to drop, and our eye movements stop. This stage is before we enter deep sleep and is where we spend most of our repeated sleep cycle time.
Stage 3 of Non-REM Sleep
This is deep sleep, which we need a good amount of to feel refreshed the next day. This occurs in longer periods during the first half of the night. This phase is when we may have a difficult time waking up. Our muscles are relaxed, and our brain waves move very slowly in this stage.
Rapid Eye Movement (REM)
REM sleep is where we have our awesome dreams or not-so-awesome nightmares. During dreams, our limbic system gets a boost of activity! This is the part of the brain associated with emotions and memory. This is why, when we dream, our minds may take random parts of our day and warp them into strange and emotionally charged dreams. REM sleep also allows our frontal brain systems (which help with analytical thinking), to rest and recharge. REM sleep is why we may feel more cognitively sharp after a good night's rest, and more mentally scattered if we are sleep-deprived (1).
As you can see, our bodies and brains are surprisingly active while we are asleep! In addition to cycling us through the various phases of sleep, your body and brain also complete other beneficial processes.
Sorting and Processing
While you sleep, your brain takes the opportunity to sort through and process the information from the day. This includes the removal of unnecessary bits and pieces and absorption of important facts and experiences.
Sleep is almost a “spring cleaning” for our brains, except it is one that happens on a nightly rotation. While we are sleeping and our brains travel through the various sleep stages, it takes out the metaphorical broom and gets to work!
Sometimes, this information can show up in the form of dreams. Dreaming is one of the ways that we experience the filtration of daily information. Maybe you noticed that your dreams contain a certain amount of relevant information similar to what you experienced during the day. Consider this one of the many quirky features of your brain’s hard work at night!
Another important function of sleep is hormone production. Hormones regulate a slew of things and a crucial time for their activity is while we are asleep. Some hormones that are created during sleep include:
Ghrelin: This hormone lets us know when we are hungry, and helps to regulate those cues. When we sleep, this hormone has the chance to reset to proper levels. Without proper sleep, ghrelin can get a bit out of whack, causing hunger cues to shift rapidly during the day.
Insulin: Insulin controls glucose levels, and determines how the body uses carbohydrates and fats from food. This is responsible for triggering hunger after waking.
Cortisol: This hormone may be more familiar to you than the others! Known as the “stress hormone,” cortisol is involved in the body’s stress responses, immune responses, and metabolism.
Aldosterone: Produced in the adrenal cortex, aldosterone is a hormone that regulates the level of electrolytes like sodium and potassium within the body. Levels of this hormone stay high while we sleep, which saves us from having to wake up to go to the bathroom during the night.
Another chemical that helps with this, is an antidiuretic hormone, which is released from the brain during sleep and helps to reduce the need to wake up to use the restroom.
Melatonin: Well-known as a sleep aid/supplement, melatonin is a naturally-occurring hormone in the body. While you sleep, melatonin levels increase, which creates a “sleepy” feeling.
Leptin: Leptin is produced in the fat cells, and helps to regulate body weight by limiting hunger. During sleep, this hormone keeps things at bay so that we don’t wake up from hunger throughout the night (2).
One of the most important (and pleasant) benefits of sleep is the relaxation of the sympathetic nervous system. Your sympathetic nervous system is what triggers your “fight or flight” reaction to danger, stress, etc. During sleep, this system has the chance to relax, which allows us to feel the relaxing benefit.
Combined with the benefit of relaxation, is the decrease of cortisol during sleep. That stress hormone we just mentioned is created during sleep but is also a trigger of when we go to sleep and when we wake up. Cortisol lowers slightly during the first few hours of sleep and rises again to prompt us to wake at the end of our sleep cycles.
During REM sleep, our muscles actually enter a state of temporary paralysis. This helps to ensure we don’t physically act out everything in our dreams.
Yet another helpful benefit of sleep is the decrease of inflammation. While you sleep, your body releases helpful anti-inflammatory buddies known as cytokines. These are crucial in fighting off illness when we get sick and may be in short supply if you don’t get enough sleep (3).
Now that you know some of the numerous benefits that sleep has to offer, you can see why sleep is truly a superpower. Hopefully, you are able to sleep well with no issues and feel like you get the right amount of quality sleep on a regular basis.
If, however, you are one of the many who suffer from insomnia, sleep paralysis, or other issues, you might be wondering what you can do to access your beloved superpowers.
Insomnia is an experience which makes it very difficult to fall asleep. Individuals who suffer from insomnia often find themselves restless, either mentally or physically when it is time to sleep. This can be very frustrating, and can make the ideal quality and quantity of sleep difficult to come by.
In the case of insomnia, chemically, a person might be stuck in a state of hyperarousal (4). There are a few potential factors that can cause this, and some are easier to address than others. For instance, consuming caffeine late in the day can severely hinder your brain’s ability to calm down.
A study conducted in 2013 compared the effects of caffeine consumption (400 mg) at 0, 3, and 6 hours before bed and measured related sleep disturbances through the use of a portable sleep monitor.
They found that sleep was disrupted from caffeine consumed even 6 hours before sleep. This means that if you consume caffeine within 6 hours of your bedtime, you may also experience sleep disturbances or a hindered ability to fall asleep, and sleep well. The effects of the groups at the earlier time frame of 3 hours and 0 hours, reported even more severe sleep disturbance (5).
Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon that has not quite been solved. Often terrifying to the person experiencing it, sleep paralysis is often explained as seeing monsters or supernatural entities during sleep.
Of those who have reported their sleep paralysis experiences, many report the feeling of being paralyzed, or unable to move as they see a presence that shouldn’t be there. Shadows, figures, ghosts, etc. have all been reported sightings during sleep paralysis, and are obviously distressing to the person experiencing them.
Communities hundreds of years ago even regarded this experience as not just a sleep disturbance, but as the nocturnal visit of an evil being (creepy!) (6).
The science suggests that sleep paralysis is associated with REM sleep. As we discussed earlier, during REM sleep, the muscles in the body temporarily paralyze.
Scientists have noted a correlation between sleep paralysis and mental health issues such as PTSD, previous abuse, anxiety, depression.
This led them to the conclusion that perhaps, sleep paralysis is a combination of the delayed processing of traumatic memories, with the paralysis that accompanies REM sleep (6).
This seems to be a plausible cause, but what do we do about it? How can we boost our chances of sleeping more, and better?
The answer lies in something called sleep hygiene.
There are certain controllable factors that we can address to increase our chances of sleeping well. Avoiding caffeine, and scheduling time in our day to sleep enough, are good places to start.
So, in addition to avoiding caffeine (6 hours) before bed, what else can you do to help activate your sleep superpower?
Screens and Light
Avoid screen time and bright lights before bed.
Even the light of a table lamp can be enough to make sleep more challenging. Lights in our environment, particularly the blue light that comes from our phones, laptops, and TV’s all tell our brain to “wake up.”
Interestingly, this form of light is registered in our brain in the same way that we process sunlight. Evolutionarily speaking, we have been wired to wake up in response to sunlight, so it’s no surprise that even fake light can have a similar effect.
With regard to sleep hygiene, studies have found that even the small light of a candle across the room is enough to impair ideal sleep quality. This is because light impairs the body’s ability to create melatonin (remember that handy little, “sleepy” hormone?)
Some quick fixes include wearing a sleep mask, or investing in a sturdy set of blackout curtains to block out any light coming in(7).
Avoid Eating Right Before Bed
As we discussed in another article, eating shortly before bed, and eating certain foods may impact your ability to fall and stay asleep.
This is due to many foods being difficult to digest. If your body is working to break down proteins, it may not be in an ideal position to shut off and rest. Therefore, it is probably best to avoid snacking late at night!
Finally, you should focus on making your sleep space a serene, peaceful, and dimly lit space.
When at all possible, refrain from working, eating, or watching TV in bed, as these can all create associations within the brain that make “bed” seem like a multipurpose location.
By keeping your bed and bedroom sacred to sleep and all things comfy, you may be able to strengthen the benefits of your greatest superpower!