Sleep is something that many of us struggle with, and this struggle can affect our whole day, or sleep can be part of our daily medicine.
We may think we are not getting enough sleep, or we may knowingly sacrifice it for other things that we hold as more important, like finishing that project at work or partying with friends, or even just staying up late to keep up with social media. And when we do finally decide to put ourselves to bed, we may find that we cannot sleep when and for as long as we would like to… we may have trouble getting to sleep, or may wake in the night and be unable to go back to sleep… or just wake feeling exhausted and wishing we could sleep for the rest of the day…
But which comes first, the struggle, or the way we treat our sleep?
Sleep is good medicine
On a physical level, sleep is vital for the human body. We can go without food for longer than we can go without sleep. Studies have shown that we just don’t function without it… being awake for 18 hours straight affects us as much as if we were too drunk to drive, and being awake for 20 hours is the equivalent of having a blood alcohol level of 0.10%. (1,2) And if you don’t get enough sleep over long periods of time, as happens with many shift workers, you have an increased risk of heart disease and some cancers. (3)
Why do we get sleepy?
While we are awake, nerve cells in the brain produce adenosine, a by-product of the cells’ activities. The build-up of adenosine in the brain is thought to be one factor that leads to our feeling of tiredness. For as long as we are awake, adenosine continues to build up, and may promote the impulse to sleep. During sleep, the body has a chance to clear adenosine from the system, and, as a result, we usually feel more alert when we wake than when we went to sleep. (3)
Sleep provides an opportunity for our bodies to rest, restore and rejuvenate what has been worked and used up while we are awake. Many of the major restorative functions in the body like muscle growth, tissue repair, protein synthesis and growth hormone release occur mostly, and sometimes only, during sleep. (4)
The brain does not rest while the body does
When we are sleeping, the brain is not resting. In fact, while we sleep, the brain uses almost as much energy as when we are awake. During sleep, the brain orchestrates the making of many different types of molecules — proteins, steroids, cholesterol, lipids, human growth hormone, and more.
Scientists are not really sure why we sleep. Some claim the purpose of sleep is to undo brain connections you have made while awake, so that you won’t be overloaded with irrelevant memories. Other research suggests that sleep replays and consolidates significant memories. And some say that sleep gives the brain the opportunity to flush out the various metabolic waste products created during the day.
Sleep is correlated with changes in the structure and organisation of the brain, a phenomenon known as ‘brain plasticity’. Sleep plays a critical role in brain development in infants and young children. Infants spend about 13 to 14 hours per day sleeping, and about half of that time is spent in REM sleep, the stage in which most dreams occur. A link between sleep and ‘brain plasticity’ is becoming clear in adults as well. This is seen in the effect that sleep and sleep deprivation have on people’s ability to learn and perform a variety of tasks.
The role of the CSF
The brain is soft and squishy, and is suspended in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), that keeps it afloat and protects it from damage, both from the weight of itself and from contact with the hard, bony skull. The brain weighs about one-and-a half-kilograms, and if it were in air, it would crush itself. But suspended as it is in the CSF, it floats and is cushioned.
The CSF fills the space in between the structures of the brain, and this space makes up about 20 per cent of the volume inside your skull. At any given moment, there are about 140 millilitres of CSF in and around the brain, and the spinal cord. We make about 500 millilitres of CSF each day, and it is always being made – and always being absorbed. The CSF flows through the space between the cells – the interstitial space.
During sleep, the brain cells shrink, and so the interstitial space increases by about 60 per cent in volume. This means that in the case of the brain, when you sleep, the flow rate of the CSF increases by an astonishing 20 times. This increased flow allows the waste products of brain metabolism that have built up during the day to be cleared by the flow of cerebrospinal fluid when we are asleep. (3)
Scientists have explored the question of sleep from many different angles. Yet, despite decades of research and many discoveries about certain aspects of sleep, the question of why we sleep has been difficult to answer.
The quality of our sleep
Most of us spend a third of our lives sleeping, or at least trying to. For something that takes up such a great part of our day, we seem to pay it very little heed or respect.
Some of us take it for granted, and just grudgingly go through the motions of it, wishing it were not necessary.
Some cherish it, but find it elusive.
And some have so much trouble with it that we become obsessed with it, which in turn creates an anxiousness that makes it even harder to sleep.
Many of us turn to sedatives – alcohol and other drugs – to try and sleep, or ‘uppers’ like caffeine and other drugs to stay awake, that can compound our problems.
Yet others of us only need to sleep for a few hours every night, and are vital and full of energy and life.
What is the difference? It is not just about the quantity of sleep we have, but the timing and the quality of it.
The hours of sleep between 9 pm and 1 am are those which restore and refresh us the most, and if we miss this sleep boat, no amount of sleep will ever feel enough. And the tools we use to stay up later than our natural bedtime, like sugar, caffeine, alcohol and other stimulants like TV and social media, make us feel racy, so that our body won’t settle to sleep when we do finally take it to bed.
Why do we do this more than once?
Our struggle with sleep reflects our struggle with our day
Many of us who struggle with sleep at night also struggle with our day. If we don’t like our work, or our home life, or various people in our lives, or aspects of our lives, or life itself, we don’t feel that our day is enough, that we are enough; and we tend to turn to substances and behaviours to try and cope with how we are feeling, even when we know that we will pay a price for them, including the quality of our sleep.
- We may use caffeine, sugar and other foods to get us through the day, if we don’t feel we have enough energy to do what we think we have to do without them.
- We may be so wound up from a day lived in tension that we think we need a drink to wind down at the end of it.
- We may feel so soured or embittered by the day as it was lived, that we need something sweet as a reward or a treat to compensate for what we have endured.
- We may just feel like escaping from a life we know is not as great as we would like it to be, and turn to alcohol, other drugs, food, entertainment; anything to give us a break from how we are feeling and how we are living.
But all these ways of ‘coping’ affect our bodies in many ways, including making it harder for us to truly settle when it comes time for us to sleep, and to truly rest at night.
And then there are some of us who actively avoid sleep… who do anything we can to try and put it off as long as possible…
It is interesting to ponder on why we do this… whether we had nightmares as a child and were visited by beings, or by people… whether we are so anxious about not being able to sleep that we would rather not even try until we are totally exhausted… or whether we are just stubborn and delay it because we like to make life harder deliberately!
The purpose of sleep
If we have not been able to do away with sleep, despite all our technological advances, it must be there for a reason!
On a physical level, whilst we are sleeping, our body is very active, repairing and restoring us as we rest.
But there is much more going on than is purely physical.
We dream while we are asleep, resolving situations that we have experienced during the day.
And sleep offers an opportunity for us to connect with the greater dimensions of who we are – our soul and the universe we are a part of – and to bring the understandings from these realms into our daily life as we expand and evolve.
We are energy first, and physical second, and the quality of energy in which we live the day, is the quality we will bring to sleep.
The way we move through the day affects the way we move to sleep… it is all part of the one day, the one life, and if we move in a way that is not deeply honouring of our bodies during the day, we will take that movement into our evenings, and into our sleep. If we do not treat our sleep as a sacred part of our day, and prepare for it accordingly, we do not rest well and we do not start the new day refreshed, restored and ready for more. We carry over unresolved issues from the past, which continue to colour the present, and hold us back from the future.
If we love life, people, our work and ourselves, we live in a way that is joyous and vital and when we come to the end of the day, we feel complete. We have no need to stimulate ourselves, to dull our awareness or simply take ourselves out. And as we continue to move in the way we have moved through the day, that movement takes us to sleep, naturally.
As it is for one day, so it is for every day. The way we live a day will affect the way we sleep, which will affect the way we live the next day, and so it goes.
The quality in which we live the day and then take ourselves to sleep, builds a quality for the next day. And the period of sleep is a sacred part of our every day, which is vital in building this quality of our living way.
When we live in this sacred way, every night is a preparation for the next day, and our life is filled with these sacred days.