THE SLEEPING BRAIN
My curiosity about sleep and the brain was stimulated when I began meditating right before I went to bed. I found that after meditating I went to sleep easier, slept deeper and without interruption. When I awoke I felt good, rested and energized. Observing the change in my sleep after meditating each night I asked myself, “What goes on in the brain and body when I sleep? And why does meditation make a difference?” To knowing now how the brain works when I sleep has validated the importance of sleep for our health as well as not missing a night of meditation. Here is what I discovered.
I thought the brain slept when I slept. Sleep research says that this is not so. The brain is busy most all night long but is in a slower brain wave. (Remember we have four brain waves that impact our brain-mind-body in different ways – beta, alpha, theta and delta.) It is imperative that we prepare our brains just like we prepare ourselves to go to sleep. During the day we are making decisions, plans, socializing and organizing our life situation. Generally we are in the fast beta brainwaves to accomplish this activity. But when we sleep we need to do the opposite and move into the slowest brain wave called delta. This means we need to slow down our activities as well as our minds before bedtime.
Many people read before they go to bed. If you do be aware of what you are reading as it may stimulate a faster brain wave. This is also true of watching a stimulating TV show or movie or even doing a computer search right before you go to bed. When you use a cell phone before sleep beta brain wave activity increases. One fascinating piece of research is about cell phones. It has been observed that there is a concentration of beta waves that build up in the brain caused by the interference of microwaves from the cell phone. With all these stimulations and particularly with cell phones it takes a longer time to fall a sleep as the brain needs time to quiet down after the agitation from the cell phone electrical field. Thus, using cell phones before going to sleep alters brainwaves and may cause insomnia. Given the build up of beta brain waves before we go to bed makes it becomes increasingly important to use meditation as good way to slow down our brainwaves. Meditation slows down the beta waves and lets us move more quickly into a deeper brain wave pattern.
Stages of Sleep
So what is our brain doing while we sleep? There are five different stages of sleep:
- Stage 1 is light sleep where you drift in and out of sleep and can be awakened easily. In this stage, the eyes move slowly and muscle activity slows. During this stage, many people experience sudden muscle contractions preceded by a sensation of falling.
- In stage 2, eye movement stops and brain waves become slower with only an occasional burst of rapid brain waves.
- When a person enters stage 3, extremely slow brain waves called delta waves are interspersed with smaller, faster waves.
- In stage 4, the brain produces delta waves almost exclusively. Stages 3 and 4 are referred to as deep sleep, and it is very difficult to wake someone from them. In deep sleep, there is no eye movement or muscle activity. It is in this deep sleep when bedwetting, sleepwalking, and night terrors can occur. These events happen when the chemical neuro-modulator GABA, is low in our body system. When it is low we are unable to put the brakes on our emotions and control our motor nerves. It has been observed that sleepwalkers can literally drive a car and not know they are doing it. Often this will happen when the body is physically over stressed. Balanced GABA keeps us from making unconscious movements and tossing and turning restlessly because GABA slows down our motor nerve activity so that we have relaxed muscles. When GABA is deficient strong emotions can arise and the motor neurons can take command over the body. It is this emotional arousal and motor neuron control that causes walking in your sleep. However, it is also in this deep sleep stage that one can feel deeply rested and refreshed if you have a higher level of GABA. My experience indicates that doing the theta meditation with the companion CD to my book can naturally help activate the neuro-modulator GABA before you sleep. GABA is one of the important neurotransmitters to evaluate when you are having difficulty sleeping. My book has an assessment in it that can give you an indicator of whether your various neurotransmitters are weak or strong.
- In stage 5 it is hard to be awakened and your brain is busy and is especially active in the forehead area. The brain at this point in your sleep is almost as active as it is during the day. This is the stage where you dream and your muscles are suppressed and your limbs temporarily paralyzed. But your breathing, blood pressure and heart rate accelerates and your eyes jerk rapidly. This stage is called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. You are in this stage 20% of night time sleep and the last time you experience REM is right before you wake up. This last REM experience permits us to remember our dreams. Most people experience three to five intervals of REM sleep each night. Older adults spend progressively less time in REM sleep.
During these 5 stages the spinal cord neurons slow down and in some cases stop firing. Our breathing and heart rate move into a slower rhythm. The forehead area of the brain is the frontal cortex. In this area brain activity slows down like a car that is idling. When this happens basic nerve cell repair of your brain and body takes place and growth hormone is being released into the body. Also, dead cells are discarded through the blood and lymph systems and learning is being consolidated from the day. The brain is working in our behalf to repair and restore our body, but the question is: are we getting enough sleep to have all that done for us?
Experts say most of us are not getting enough sleep. For example, babies need 16 to 18 hours, toddlers need 15 hours, school age kids 11 hours, teens need 9 hours and adults need 8 hours and elders need to sleep a little more.
It is 3 am and you wake up anxious. Insomnia is why many people do not want to go to sleep because it is a time when you struggle to go back to sleep and you toss and turn and wonder if you will be able to stay awake the next day. It appears that 30% of the population have insomnia. I have found that many people find their way back to sleep by turning on my Delta meditation CD and before they know it they are back to sleep. The longer you are awake the less slow wave sleep you will have. This is why I encourage people to use the meditation CDs to put them quickly back to sleep.
People who are sleep deprived sometimes takes weeks to get back into the rhythm of sleep. This is especially true for those who travel a lot. But sleeplessness may also be caused by an overactive mind or emotional storms raging in the brain. For other people sleeplessness may be caused due to physical health issues from medications, interactions from caffeine, chocolate, restless leg syndrome, physical or mental stress and pain. Sleep experts say that insomniacs underestimate the amount of time they actually sleep and how much sleep they actually need. Although eight hours is what is indicated the sleep need for each of us is highly individual.
Sleep deprivation is the difference between the amounts of sleep you should be getting and the amount you actually get. Sleep deprivation grows every time we skim some extra minutes off of our night’s sleep. Studies show that short-term sleep deprivation leads to a foggy brain and increasingly poor vision. The good news is that sleep deprivation can be repaid by sleeping longer than our normal sleep periods, but it may take a couple of months to get back to a natural sleep rhythm.
If you wake up groggy you may have too much melatonin in your system and not enough cortisol to get you going in the morning. By doing a Beta meditation it can bring the cortisol and melatonin back into proper balance. A wee bit of meditation in the morning will make the world go around a little better for you!
Sleep is the gift to the brain-mind-body. Learning how to prepare our selves for sleep, having meditative tools to deal with sleep issues and understanding what we should do and not do to achieve maximum health through sleep is a critical and important challenge for each of us in these difficult times.
“Say good night, Gracie.” “Good night Gracie” . . . and sleep well.
(George Burns at the end of their radio program to Gracie Allen and Gracie’s response.)