We all know good sleep is important, but what is sleep? There are some who believe sleep is nothing more than a random waste of otherwise productive time. “Sleep … Oh! How I loathe those little slices of death,” is a quote attributed to Edgar Allan Poe.
Increasingly, sleep is being recognized not as “little slices of death” but as essential fuel-up time for all brain and body functions. One study of rats demonstrated that sleep-deprived rats lived only three to five weeks, while their normal life span is two to three years. Whether for rats or humans, sleep is a core process. Poor sleep is not just a side-symptom of other primary disease processes. Lack of sleep may actually be the cause of a number of human pathologies (see Figure 1).
Because sleep is fundamental to our overall well-being, increasing our understanding of how sleep happens — or doesn’t happen — may lead us to a place where more of us can benefit from its life-giving, healing and energy-building powers.
In our society, when a person can’t sleep, there is a tendency to reach for a pill. Behind this habit is the idea that sleep is an issue of chemistry. Yet, a purely chemical model of sleep is highly limiting.
There is a model of sleep aligned with an appreciation for the brain’s innate potential for healthy functioning and how healthy functioning corresponds to a state of the brainwaves, which we call balance and harmony. This model can help recover high-quality sleep.
Today, we have many new tools to help us understand the brain in the state of sleep. Modern research shows sleep has a dual nature: either as a function of electrical activation patterns, i.e., brainwaves, or as a function of changes in brain chemistry.
On the particle side of the debate, there is ample experiential evidence and scientific studies that demonstrate that chemical activity in the brain can profoundly alter sleep tendencies. Many foods, medicines and other substances are well known to have promotional or inhibitory influences on sleep. Furthermore, studies have demonstrated the existence of sleep-regulatory substances, which, after accumulating in the cerebrospinal fluid of an organism and then being injected into another one, can induce the state of sleepiness.
Wave approaches to sleep focus on its cyclical aspects. A focus on wave aspects has intrinsic appeal, since sleep itself comes and goes regularly in healthy individuals. On this side of the debate, researchers have shown, for example, that there is an extra dose of sleepiness that comes in the middle of the afternoon. Within and between sleep periods, there are predictable cycles of brainwave activity. The timing of the beginning and end of a sleep period is also intimately connected with the timing of our secretion of hormones, the level of arousal of our cardiovascular system, immune system and metabolic functioning and integration of our cognitive capacities. Without good quality sleep, these systems become poorly modulated and dysfunctional over time.
The reason sleep must be better understood as either waves or particles — but not both — is more than academic. Considering the 50 to 70 million Americans with sleep disorders or the $150 billion spent by U.S. companies to address sleep-related issues, it’s easy to see that having a truer handle on sleep is a serious issue with many consequences.
BETTER SLEEPING THROUGH CHEMISTRY?
Questions around the role of melatonin provide a perfect example of the wave-versus-particle sleep conundrum. There can be little doubt that brain activation regulates melatonin production and, reciprocally, melatonin influences the character of brain activation. But which side of this two-way street reflects a higher degree of self-regulation? Which direction allows finer tuning of brain functionality as a whole?
Melatonin is secreted by the pineal gland at night in response to increasing darkness. Melatonin has multiple effects on human physiology, including induction of sleep and regulation of mood, body temperature, cardiovascular functioning and inflammation.
A focus on the wave (or function) model might lead an individual to purposefully synchronize their sleep habits with the natural earthly cycles of dark and light, and so maximize the responsiveness of their body systems to the melatonin being released at nightfall. Those who adhere to the particle model might ingest a melatonin supplement as a means to enhance sleep.
THE BRAIN’S FUNDAMENTALS FOR SLEEP
We believe that the brain drives chemistry — and virtually everything else. By observing how human experience and behavior can shift when their brainwave patterns shift to a state of balance and harmony, we have come to appreciate the power of the brain as the most precious resource on our planet.
Good sleep correlates to brain activation patterns (as measured by EEG) that are reasonably balanced (left-to-right and front-to-back) and harmonized (low and high frequencies in a good proportion to one another throughout the brain). Balance and harmony are required especially in those brain areas that generally function for the purpose of internal processing and reception of external stimuli: the temporal, occipital, parietal and midline (or corpus callosum) areas.
As an example, shown here are brain activation patterns in the same regions of the left and right hemispheres, at the same time. We see that there is an optimal balance between the hemispheres, as well as between the low and high frequencies of each lobe.
Figure 2: A spectrograph of brainwaves via a type of high-resolution EEG technology called Brainwave Optimization. In this graph, we are able to see the balanced brainwaves of a person at rest, with eyes closed. The Y-axis represents frequencies from 0 to 60 hertz, and the X-axis represents amplitude of each frequency from 0 to 17 micro-volts. Based on this pattern, there is a strong likelihood that this person feels balanced and has the ability to attain restful sleep.