The Restorative Role of Sleep
By Micah Sadigh, PHD
Sleep is a complex phenomenon with various functions, many of which help us adapt to a variety of stressors throughout the day. In this brief article, I will address one of the most fascinating aspects of sleep, an aspect that has to do with physical and psychological restoration. While a number of theories address the question of why we need to sleep, perhaps the most agreed-upon formulation has to do with that of repair and replenishment. This should be of particular interest to all of us as recent studies have suggested that we are a nation of insomniacs. As a result, it is quite likely that we are interfering with our health and recuperation from daily stress by receiving fewer hours of sleep than necessary.
A point that I wish to highlight in this article is that a good night’s rest can positively affect mind-body health and an overall sense of well-being. The most recent investigations suggest that the majority of us need approximately 8 hours of sleep. Too little or too much sleep (less than or more than 8 hours) may contribute to the manifestation of a variety of symptoms that can, in time, impair a person’s functioning and may even cause serious illness. Indeed, lack of quality sleep may significantly impede the body’s natural capabilities to help us with physical repair. That is to say, sleep is more than a few hours of rest—it is a process that is critical to our healing and, in a true sense, our mortality.
SYMPTOMS OF SLEEP DEPRIVATION
The following is a list of some of the symptoms of sleep deprivation: (As you may note, these symptoms can potentially influence every aspect of a person’s daily living.)
- Changes in perception, which may often result in distortions in information processing and decision making
- The experience of hallucinations during extended periods of sleep deprivation
- Faulty reaction time (Studies have shown that our reaction time becomes increasingly more erratic as result of sleep deprivation, surely a possible source of danger to us and others.)
- Significant deterioration of performance of even the most commonly executed tasks
- A decrease in energy levels, often resulting in people wanting to eat more as a way of increasing energy and vitality, which is likely to result in weight gain
- Loss of motivation
- Sensitivity to pain, which may often result in an increase in the consumption of painkillers
- Noticeable changes in memory, particularly in terms of recall
- Inability to concentrate
- Inability to stay focused
- Tendency to become easily angered
- The experience of anxiety and, in time, depression
Generally speaking, sleep can be divided into two distinct phases: the non–rapid eye movement (NREM), phase, and the rapid eye movement (REM) phase, during which we tend to dream. In recent years we have learned that much physical recuperation takes place during the NREM sleep, while there is much psychological and emotional processing that occurs during REM sleep. A closer examination of the sleep architecture reveals that there are four overlapping stages that constitute a sleep cycle, which lasts for approximately 90 minutes. The most profound physical and physiological repair occurs during stage 4 sleep, which falls within the NREM phase of sleep.
IMPROVING YOUR SLEEP
An overactive mind seems to be the number 1 contributor to insomnia. Hence, learning to quiet your mind before going to bed can make a significant difference when it comes to getting as much quality out of sleep as possible. There are many methods of quieting a rambling mind. Let us consider four:
- Talk it out or write it down. If you have difficulty quieting your mind, one of the best approaches to reduce the mental traffic is to talk about what you are thinking. A “listening ear” who just listens and does not offer all kinds of solutions can make a big difference when it comes to calming the mind. But this may not be readily available to you. The next best approach is to simply write down your thoughts for a few (no more than 20) minutes. This simple, yet highly effective exercise has been shown to make a noticeable difference in the amount of time that it takes for people to fall asleep.
- Try meditative relaxation. This approach quiets the mind by focusing on calming thoughts and images or by just simply paying attention to your breathing. Prayer, for example, can act as a powerful form of meditative relaxation. That is why “counting sheep” or “counting the stars” have been known to help people fall asleep. These exercises gently distract the mind and keep it focused on something simple and benign so that it can slowly drift into a state of pleasant relaxation and fall asleep.
- Develop a sleep schedule. By following a regular sleep schedule, you can quickly improve the quality of your sleep. For example, disciplining yourself to go to bed at 11 pm and wake up at 7 am is likely to result in your waking up feeling refreshed and rested. Most people, unfortunately, have a very erratic sleep schedule, which results in the lack of sleep quality even if they are receiving 8 or more hours of sleep. Follow a regular schedule of sleep, even on weekends, and you are bound to see improvements in your health and an increase in your energy levels.
- Make your bedroom a place for sleep. The more associations with rest you have upon entering your bedroom, the better. That is to say, reading, writing, or watching television should take place outside of the bedroom, perhaps in the living room. In addition, if you are used to reading before falling asleep, make your reading material fun and not technical.
SOME FACTS ABOUT NORMAL SLEEP
- It should take between 15 and 20 minutes to fall asleep.
- It’s normal to experience two to three very light interruptions during the total sleep time.
- Everybody dreams. Too much dreaming suggests too much cognitive or emotional activity; too little dreaming may suggest trauma.
- Most of us need 8 to 8-1/2 hours of sleep.
- You should feel at least somewhat refreshed by the time you wake up in the morning.
Improving the quality of your sleep is one of the best things you can do to promote healing and recovery from trauma and day-to-day stress. There is much you can do to make the gift of sleep an important part of your health and well-being. By following the simple steps outlined here, you can move closer and closer to enjoying restorative rest, which awaits you every night.