Why Getting to Sleep and Staying Asleep Helps Your Body to Do EVERYTHING Better

by Dr. Susan Tanner, MD

In a previous article, we discussed the importance of sleep as it impacts wellness, health and fitness.  It is well recognized that sleep, or lack thereof, impacts the brain and body in myriad ways that may range from improvement and recovery in physical fitness, to insulin resistance and metabolic function, to illness prevention and healing, to overall brain function and the ability to consume and process information.

The CEO of Sleep

Most of us have been under the impression that sleep is a process happening at the surface of the brain.  In actuality sleep is an orchestrated process of communication between the very deep layers of the brain that we can refer to as the “CEO” of sleep. It is the CEO of sleep that directs various members of the “company” that exist in organs and hormones to do their essential duties and to report back with status and function updates.  The CEO receives information to make the final decision of whether or not you will sleep. In other words, if hormones are insufficient or if tissues are bombarded with toxins (like mold), the CEO is going to get the memo that operations are not optimal for sleep, and the process of falling asleep and/or staying asleep is likely to be disrupted or halted.

A great example of the CEO/company sleep-signaling process can be seen when the presence of light stimulates eye receptors to tell the CEO that it is “time to get busy and work” not “time to settle down and fall asleep”. The CEO then produces a series of more wakeful and arousing types of chemical reactions to stimulate the nervous system to be alert, ready to think, and take action.  Many other bodily factors act as reporters to the CEO as well—stress hormones, digestive processing after a large meal, blue light, and hot temperatures all have activating messages to the deep brain that switches on the arousal cycle rather than the sleep cycle.

Sleep Cycles Simplified

Not only is falling asleep important but the types of sleep that you experience during the course of the night is also important.  There are several phases of sleep, but I will focus on the ones that we hear the most about: REM sleep and deep sleep.

REM sleep, or rapid eye movement sleep, is considered a lighter phase of sleep and is the time that dreaming occurs.  REM makes up about 10-25% of total sleep and is when the brain restores its ability for problem solving and critical thinking.  Alcohol, sugar, caffeine and stress all play parts in decreasing REM sleep as do various hormone imbalances.

Deep sleep is exactly as described—deep, restful, restorative sleep.  Deep sleep makes up an average of 20-35% of total sleep time and is the period in which the body rebuilds itself from a musculoskeletal standpoint from exercise and workouts, as well as illness recovery.  Deep sleep is also very important in support of the immune system, as it is during this phase that natural killer cells are encouraged to be produced.  Natural killer cells provide immune defense throughout the body as well as immune balance, important for autoimmune issues.

Sleep latency and efficiency are other terms that are used to describe the total amount of time in bed and the total time spent sleeping. Higher efficiency sleep comes from getting proper proportions of REM and deep sleep, and includes the resultant effects on heart and blood pressure.

The Payoffs of Quality Sleep

What are the payoffs, then, for getting good sleep?  (And conversely, the consequences if you do not?)

Inside your body–

  • Enhanced immune function and disease resistance, helping you live longer;
  • Increased energy and strength, so you feel and act more vibrantly;
  • Improved weight loss and blood glucose regulation, helping you lose fat and improve your skin;
  • Upgraded coordination and flexibility, so you miss fewer steps and catch yourself when you do;
  • Boosted hormone levels, so you recover faster and improve your fertility.

Inside your brain–

  • Increased focus and creativity, so you can perform at your highest level;
  • Enhanced memory and ability to learn complex skills, helping you retain what you learn;
  • Improved emotion regulation, so you can keep your cool under stress.

Therefore, getting enough restorative sleep helps keep your autonomic nervous, hormone, and immune systems balanced. When you’re balanced, you sleep better. It’s all in a cycle!

Conversely, when you are not getting enough quality sleep, quite a bit can go haywire throughout the body:

Getting a Good Night’s Sleep

So, what are some things you can do to ensure your sleep is the best it can be? For starters, the following tips are needed to foster quality sleep:

  • Light: Avoid blue light at least an hour prior to bed.
  • Food: Avoid heavy meals, caffeine, and certain medications.
  • Activity: Avoid heavy exercise in the hours leading up to bedtime.
  • Arousal: Avoid stressful stimuli, like email or social media.
  • Body Temperature: Cool your body via a cool room or a hot shower which encourages your body to cool itself afterward. Showering at the end of the day is also great mold and bacterial hygiene to make sure that you are not bringing any exposures or toxins to bed with you at night.

And to return, again, to our mantra of “clean air, clean water, clean food”, make certain that your air quality is good.  Your environment and breathing air must be free of mold and chemicals, truly at all times, but especially in the bedroom! Eating less sugary and packaged foods in favor of quality, whole foods will keep blood sugar regulated and will not elicit reactionary responses in the body. Finally, adequate hydration with filtered, clean water helps everything!

Extra Help for Better Sleep

If you find that you need a little help with re-programming your system for sleep there are several safe and natural products that can be used, much safer and better than prescription medications.  (Commonly prescribed medications for sleep do not give the quality REM and deep sleep proportions that truly allow body regulation).

Natural sleep-promoting products that I recommend can include the following:

  • Phosphatidylserine, which blocks excessive cortisol release from the adrenals when under stress. Usually 100-200 mg works well.
  • Different combinations of GABA, melatonin, and L-Theanine all work well singly or together to help induce and maintain sleep. Everyone is individual and what works for one may not for another. A product I have found personally to be quite helpful is Tranquinox Deep by Nu Medica. (Bottle directions suggest 6 pumps of the liquid, but I find that 2 works great for me. You can order from www.NuMedica.com using practitioner code 40568.)
  • Supporting the pituitary gland in the brain also helps with sleep regulation as part of the deep brain CEO. CellTropin, available from Micro Balance Health Products, is quite helpful with this. It supports and stimulates the pituitary, but is homeopathic, so will promote what each body needs for optimal function.

With sleep, understanding the very important role it plays in health, longevity, recovery, and performance is the first step. Then, working towards ironing out what works for you or the things in your life, diet, body that are standing in your way from getting good sleep will come with time. It is worth the effort and worth the positive impact sleep can have on EVERYTHING—health, mental state, physical appearance, just to name a few—to do the work it takes get your best ZZZs.

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