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.