Sleep basics: 101

Kirk Parsley
May 25, 2016

I will do my best to not make this into a scientific diatribe—there are better ways to help people fall asleep! However, we’ll talk enough science to allow most anyone to understand the important parts of our biology associated with sleep.

Most of you have probably heard of the term; “circadian rhythm”, and know that it has something to do with sleep and sunlight. But, what the heck does that really mean, and why should you care?

Well, literally, it means; Circa = about, and Dia = day. So, “about a day”. So far not too complex (or helpful). The basics are that our eyes sense light—and use that information to put our bodies on schedule with the sun up and sundown. Since the modern human body and brain existed long before the light bulb, our brains don’t know the difference between sunlight and electric light—for purposes of telling our brain what time it is.

Since our brains cannot sense the world directly, we use our eyes, body temperature, activity, and stimulation (physical and cognitive) levels to tell our brain what time it is—approximately (morning, day, or night-time). Our brains then respond by changing thousands of things to align our brains with what task our bodies will likely be called upon to do. So, your brain’s chemistry looks totally different at night (sleeping or not), than during the day (whether you're being active or not).

So, if your circadian rhythm is not aligned with the time of day (and the task at hand) we struggle more than we need to. The big deal about all of this usually comes in one of two flavors: being tired when we need to be productive, and being wired when we need to be asleep.

If we are well aligned with our environment, our brains produce all sorts of chemicals that help us be alert and productive. Then, at night, our brains decrease the production of those chemicals and produce more chemicals to help us be asleep.
A big player in this is a hormone called melatonin.

Melatonin has many functions in many areas of the brain, but one of the main functions is to decrease our adrenal hormone secretions—because our adrenal gland’s (so named because they secrete adrenaline) job, is to keep us awake, alert, and ready for life. If you’re being chased by a tiger you need lots of adrenaline, so it’s a great thing. BUT, if you’re preparing for bed, adrenaline is a big obstacle.

So, one of the cool tricks our brains and bodies do is produce melatonin—to reduce adrenaline—at the right time of day. That is why bright light in your eyes, after sun-down, can cause sleep problems. But, time of day isn’t the whole picture. Here is one example; most American’s are familiar with the Thanksgiving Day “tryptophan coma”. I’m not sure if any other countries have a designated day for excessive turkey ingestion, but they should!

If you haven’t heard of the amino acid Tryptophan, don’t worry. It’s not important to know the name, but it is one of the many amino acids that a turkey has in spades. Tryptophan is essential to produce melatonin. So, when we eat a bunch of tryptophan, our body, and brains, can make a bunch of melatonin, and that can make us feel like taking a nap, right after over-stuffing ourselves. There’s a little more to it than that, but again, it serves our purposes here.

However, remember at the beginning of this blog I discussed other inputs to our brains, that let our brain know what time it is? As the sun goes down, our body temperatures begin to lower, and that is another cue for your brain to sleep. In the dark, we would have been less active ancestrally (due to poor vision), and there would have been less stimulation in general. That is why I recommend a totally dark, cool room, get rid of electronics, don’t exercise or work right before bed, spend some time winding down your brain (reading, relaxing, meditating, breathing, stretching, etc.). But, like many areas of life, “ideal” is rarely realistic.

We all have lots of things to do after the sun goes down—unless we all want to become farmers and forgo having kids, relationships with people in other time zones, watching television, etc.

So, how many of our daily behaviors are profoundly affecting our circadian rhythms. What can we do about these things? You ask . . .

First, obviously, the light streaming into our eyes, long after the sun has gone down is huge. Due to the pathways we discussed above, electric lighting interferes with the production of melatonin, and the necessary reduction of the brain chemicals keeping us alert. This is why people tell you to quit watching TV and using computers right before bed. Some folks try to block this light with special glasses, screen covers, and computer programs. All of these things help, but let’s keep in mind that they are only mitigating the deleterious effects, and therefore are necessary, but only a partial solution.

Secondly, we can stay warm, active, and stimulated way past sundown. Unfortunately, many people in our post-industrialization world have lives requiring them to be awake longer, more alert, and more ready than our ancestors needed to be during the night. This leads to an excess of stress hormones, and as you may have guessed, this results in the body needing significantly more melatonin to decrease our adrenal function before bed.

So now we have two ways that melatonin production is being hindered:
1) No–or a significantly reduced–trigger from decreased light to tell the brain to make the magic happen.
2) We need more than our bodies are designed to produce because we live such hectic lives.

And, I’ll add one–ok more than one–more: because of our environment, work schedules, nutrition, toxins, and messing with our stress hormones, many of us are deficient in multiple compounds needed to make melatonin.

Coming full circle, if our brains think we should be awake, our brains and bodies will help us be awake. Melatonin production is big, but shutting down the production of certain brain chemicals is just as big. This process is associated with the melatonin pathway but only tangentially. If you want to read more about that, google; “functions of GABA” and read until your heart is content.

The sleep supplement that Sarah and I discussed on her podcast is designed purely with the intent of helping people produce enough melatonin, and encouraging the GABA pathways that decrease wakefulness.

This is not a magic potion that will allow you to disregard getting yourself ready for sleep, but it is meant to bridge the gap between “ideal” and realistic preparation for bed.

Now, the question you may be asking yourself is: So what? What is the big deal about a little sleep loss? Well, that is why this blog is broken into 4 parts. In the next three blogs, I’ll be discussing many of the ill effects of even “just a little” sleep deprivation, and giving helpful tips for specific problems.

As a little teaser, let me just say that sleep affects thousands of biological functions, and not getting enough sleep is correlated to many diseases, premature aging, not being able to lose fat, moodiness, irritability, emotionality, accidents, domestic violence, depression, motivation, willpower, memory, and even suicide.

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