A white dreamcatcher icon, signifying sleep, enclosed in a blue circle. The blue circle has a white ring around it, and then there is also a black ring around the white ring.

Sleep: The Main Course in Life’s Feast and a Key to Health

Calo Huang Circadian blog, Circadian Rhythm

“Innocent sleep...that soothes away all our worries...that puts each day to rest...that relieves the weary laborer and heals hurt minds. Sleep, the main course in life’s feast, and the most nourishing.” 

― William Shakespeare, Macbeth

When I was a kid, I was crazily passionate about basketball. Four hours a day, seven days a week, I ended up dribbling and shooting on the court. At the time, I thought there was nothing more important in my life than the game. 

But a close friend of mine disagreed. Shaking his head gently, he said to me, “After all, you spend double that time on sleep.” 

He made a good point. We spend approximately one-third of our life in bed, but many of us tend to overlook, if not downplay, the importance of getting enough Zzzzs. 

Thomas Edison, for example, famously stated that sleep is “a criminal waste of time,” as if once he had a chance, he would toss away his slumber without hesitation.

But science has shown otherwise: sleep has profound influences on our health, wellbeing, and our performance during the day. It’s a critical process for waste product removal, memory consolidation, mental fatigue reduction, and metabolism regulation. 

That’s why falling asleep is almost irresistible once the urge to acquire some shut-eye gets strong.

Tug of War Between Sleep and Wakefulness

What controls the potent switch between being awake and falling asleep, then?  

Research has suggested that a series of highly complex systems is involved, and each of these systems plays their part. In its most basic form, the sleep-wake cycle results from the interaction of two fundamental processes.              

The first one is called sleep pressure, which represents the need for you to go to sleep. 

Pretty straightforwardly, the longer you have been awake, the higher the sleep pressure is, and the greater your body’s need for rest.

But that alone doesn’t dictate our sleepiness. For example, if you wake up at 7 am, then by 7 pm, you will have been awake for 12 hours, building up high sleep pressure. 

However, in general, we would still feel quite alert at that time under the influence of our circadian rhythm.

The second system, our circadian rhythm, provides us with a rise and fall of alertness. In humans, our alertness level generally reaches its peak at around 7 pm, and its trough at about 5 am. But as we mentioned in the previous article, people vary in their chronotypes. Those known as night owls tend to approach the alertness peaks and troughs later, whereas larks earlier.

By interacting with each other, these two processes generate a sleep-wake rhythm. If everything goes smoothly, this rhythm prepares us well for tasks during the day — and that’s what everybody wants.

Impactful Disruption

Nevertheless, many elements in our modern lifestyles can easily disrupt the normal functioning of such delicate systems underlying sleep.

Our circadian rhythm, for example, can be altered or ‘entrained’ by changes in the environment, individual behaviors, and societal structures. Alarm clocks, coffee, shift work, abnormal light exposure, alcohol, all-nighters for finals — all kinds of things can immensely disrupt your sleep-wake cycle. 

And the consequences of sleep disruption are well established. In the short term, it causes loss of attention, impaired memory, and reduced cognition. If the disturbance persists for years, the risk of infection, metabolic diseases, and cancers will increase, and so will one’s tendency to use stimulants and sedatives. 

Moreover, the neural networks that make us mentally healthy overlap with those underlying sleep. In certain types of mental illness, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, sleep disruption can exacerbate one’s mental illness state. 

Therefore, seeing sleep as a waste of time and messing up with it at-will is a slippery slope towards dire consequences for both physical and mental health.

Time for Sleep Tips

What can one do to improve this main course in our life’s feast then? Here are a few tips:

1. Light, or more specifically, blue light, is a potent environmental factor that resets our circadian clock. Exposure to bright light in the evening and at night can delay the body clock and alter one’s sleep pattern. People who dwell in places with stronger outdoor night lights, for instance, have a higher risk of experiencing disruptions in their sleep. Thus, to make your bedroom a cozy place, make sure it’s dark enough before you go to bed. Blackout drapes and eye masks are helpful, and so is turning off your bright smartphone screen.

2. During the day, not getting enough daylight can be problematic. Exposure to bright morning light helps stabilize the sleep-wake timing. Some research shows that it can even alleviate some of the effects of depression. We will talk more about how this works in our future articles.

3. Associate your bedroom only with sleep and relaxation. Not work. Even if you work from home a lot, which is becoming more common during the pandemic, do not turn your bedroom into your home office.

4. Try to avoid smoking or drinking coffee, tea, or alcohol too close to bedtime. It’s easy to turn to stimulants to stay awake or sedatives to bring on slumber, but having them within a few hours before bed can mess with the normal sleep process.

5. Keep a consistent sleep schedule. Research shows that doing so helps reduce the latency between going to bed and falling asleep and improves the quality of your slumber. More importantly, keeping a regular bedtime plays a critical role in maintaining one’s mental health. But this is not an easy task, as it requires you to stick to a certain standard for waking up and falling asleep. You need to constantly resist the temptation to change your bedtime because of social pressures. 

Owaves can offer you some help with all of the above. The app not only makes it easy to set up a nightly routine but also allows you to get inspired by others’ routines in our upcoming #MyMoai feature. By planning important activities for unwinding at the end of the day into your routine, such as dimming the light half an hour before bedtime, you can gradually form good sleep hygiene.

Soon, the Owaves Community Team will also start providing you with more recommendations and guides for better slumber that involve different approaches. So stay tuned, and go catch some Zzzzs!

References

Altevogt, B. M., & Colten, H. R. (2006). Sleep disorders and sleep deprivation: an unmet public health problem.

Barber, L. K., & Munz, D. C. (2011). Consistent‐sufficient sleep predicts improvements in self‐regulatory performance and psychological strain. Stress and Health, 27(4), 314-324.

Czeisler, C. A., & Gooley, J. J. (2007). Sleep and circadian rhythms in humans. Cold Spring Harbor symposia on quantitative biology,

Dijk, D.-J., & Archer, S. N. (2009). Light, sleep, and circadian rhythms: together again. PLoS Biol, 7(6), e1000145.

Fang, Y., Forger, D. B., Frank, E., Sen, S., & Goldstein, C. (2021, 2021/02/18). Day-to-day variability in sleep parameters and depression risk: a prospective cohort study of training physicians. npj Digital Medicine, 4(1), 28. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41746-021-00400-z

Ohayon, M. M., & Milesi, C. (2016). Artificial outdoor nighttime lights associate with altered sleep behavior in the American general population. Sleep, 39(6), 1311-1320.

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