Sleep is an important part of your daily routine—you spend about one-third of your time doing it. Quality sleep – and getting enough of it at the right times — is as essential to survival as food and water.
Without sleep you can’t form or maintain the pathways in your brain that let you learn and create new memories, and it’s harder to concentrate and respond quickly.
Sleep is important to a number of brain functions, including how nerve cells (neurons) communicate with each other. In fact, your brain and body stay remarkably active while you sleep. Recent findings suggest that sleep plays a housekeeping role that removes toxins in your brain that build up while you are awake.
Everyone needs sleep, but its biological purpose remains a mystery. Sleep affects every type of tissue and system in the body – from the brain, heart, and lungs to metabolism, immune function, mood, and disease resistance. Research shows that a chronic lack of sleep, or getting poor quality sleep, increases the risk of disorders including high blood pressure, cardiovascu- lar disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity.
Sleep is a complex and dynamic process that affects how you function in ways scientists are now beginning to understand. This booklet describes how your need for sleep is regulated and what happens in the brain during sleep.
There are several structures within the brain are involved with sleep.
The hypothalamus, a peanut-sized structure deep inside the brain, con- tains groups of nerve cells that act as control centers affecting sleep and arousal. Within the hypothalamus is the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) – clusters of thousands of cells that receive information about light expo- sure directly from the eyes and control your behavioral rhythm. Some peo- ple with damage to the SCN sleep erratically throughout the day because they are not able to match their circadian rhythms with the light-dark cy- cle. Most blind people maintain some ability to sense light and are able to modify their sleep/wake cycle.
The brain stem, at the base of the brain, communicates with the hy- pothalamus to control the transitions between wake and sleep. (The brain stem includes structures called the pons, medulla, and midbrain.) Sleep-promoting cells within the hypothalamus and the brain stem produce a brain chemical called GABA, which acts to reduce the activity of arousal centers in the hypothalamus and the brain stem. The brain stem (especially the pons and medulla) also plays a special role in REM sleep; it sends sig- nals to relax muscles essential for body posture and limb movements, so that we don’t act out our dreams.
The thalamus acts as a relay for information from the senses to the ce- rebral cortex (the covering of the brain that interprets and processes in- formation from short- to long-term memory). During most stages of sleep, the thalamus becomes quiet, letting you tune out the external world. But during REM sleep, the thalamus is active, sending the cortex images, sounds, and other sensations that fill our dreams.
The pineal gland, located within the brain’s two hemispheres, receives signals from the SCN and increases production of the hormone melatonin, which helps put you to sleep once the lights go down. People who have lost their sight and cannot coordinate their natural wake-sleep cycle using natural light can stabilize their sleep patterns by taking small amounts of melatonin at the same time each day. Scientists believe that peaks and val- leys of melatonin over time are important for matching the body’s circadian rhythm to the external cycle of light and darkness.
The basal forebrain, near the front and bottom of the brain, also pro- motes sleep and wakefulness, while part of the midbrain acts as an arous- al system. Release of adenosine (a chemical by-product of cellular energy consumption) from cells in the basal forebrain and other regions supports your sleep drive. Caffeine counteracts sleepiness by blocking the actions of adenosine.
The amygdala, an almond-shaped structure involved in processing emo- tions, becomes increasingly active during REM sleep.
There are two basic types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep (which has three different stages). Each is linked to specific brain waves and neuronal activity. You cycle through all stages of non- REM and REM sleep several times during a typical night, with increasingly longer, deeper REM periods occurring toward morning.
Stage 1 non-REM sleep is the changeover from wakefulness to sleep. During this short period (lasting several minutes) of light sleep, your heart- beat, breathing, and eye movements slow, and your muscles relax with occasional twitches. Your brain waves begin to slow from their daytime wakefulness patterns.
Stage 2 non-REM sleep is a period of light sleep before you enter deeper sleep. Your heartbeat and breathing slow, and muscles relax even further. Your body temperature drops, and eye movements stop. Brain wave activi- ty slows but is marked by brief bursts of electrical activity. You spend more of your repeated sleep cycles in stage 2 sleep than in other sleep stages.
Stage 3 non-REM sleep is the period of deep sleep that you need to feel refreshed in the morning. It occurs in longer periods during the first half of the night. Your heartbeat and breathing slow to their lowest levels during sleep. Your muscles are relaxed, and it may be difficult to awaken you. Brain waves become even slower.
REM sleep first occurs about 90 minutes after falling asleep. Your eyes move rapidly from side to side behind closed eyelids. Mixed frequen- cy brain wave activity becomes closer to that seen in wakefulness. Your breathing becomes faster and irregular, and your heart rate and blood pres- sure increase to near waking levels. Most of your dreaming occurs during REM sleep, although some can also occur in non-REM sleep. Your arm and leg muscles become temporarily paralyzed, which prevents you from acting out your dreams. As you age, you sleep less of your time in REM sleep. Memory consolidation requires both non-REM and REM sleep.
Factors that influence your sleep-wake needs include medical condi- tions, medications, stress, sleep environment, and what you eat and drink. The greatest influence is the exposure to light. Specialized cells in the ret- inas of your eyes process light and tell the brain whether it is day or night and can advance or delay our sleep-wake cycle. Exposure to light can make it difficult to fall asleep and return to sleep when awakened.
Night shift workers often have trouble falling asleep when they go to bed, and also have trouble staying awake at work because their natural circadian rhythm and sleep-wake cycle is disrupted. In the case of jet lag, circadian rhythms become out of sync with the time of day when people fly to a dif- ferent time zone, creating a mismatch between their internal clock and the actual clock.
In general, people are getting less sleep than they need due to longer work hours and the availability of round-the-clock entertainment and oth- er activities.
Many people feel they can “catch up” on missed sleep during the week- end but, depending on how sleep-deprived they are, sleeping longer on the weekends may not be adequate.
Everyone dreams. You spend about 2 hours each night dreaming but may not remember most of your dreams. Its exact purpose isn’t known, but dreaming may help you process your emotions. Events from the day often invade your thoughts during sleep, and people suffering from stress or anxiety are more likely to have frightening dreams. Dreams can be experi- enced in all stages of sleep but usually are most vivid in REM sleep. Some people dream in color, while others only recall dreams in black and white.