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Sleep: The pattern of life.

Sleep, we're told, will make everything better. But why? How? What is actually happening when we sleep? Sleeping and waking are intrinsic functions of being a mammal. There are some slight differences in sleep patterns across the species, especially in the marine mammals, but the neurological pattern of sleep is surprisingly consistent.

For many years, scientists viewed sleep as a state of diminished wakefulness. In other words, the idea was that what happens while you're awake also happens during sleep, but less so. In the 1960s, after the advent of polygraphs allowed us to easily monitor brain waves and muscle activity, scientists concluded sleep is a unique state of being with its own patterns separate from wakefulness. Sleep is not the same as a state induced by anesthesia nor is it the same as a coma. Sleep is special, and there is growing evidence the uniqueness of sleep contributes in meaningful ways to our ability to survive and be healthy.

Human sleep is characterized by a distinct pattern. Scientists in the 1960s found that recording electrical activity in the brain, chin muscle activity, and movement of the eye muscles provided enough information to describe the basic pattern of sleep and defined specific stages of sleep. Imagine a person is in bed with the intention of going to sleep. Initially, the person is awake, as indicated by low-amplitude, fast-frequency brain waves, high and random chin muscle activity, and random eye movements. As the person starts to relax, the brain waves may slow down a little with bursts of slightly higher amplitude brain waves, called alpha waves. As the person relaxes, they will usually enter into Stage 1 sleep. In Stage 1, the brain waves are still low amplitude and relatively fast, and accompany a clear decrease in muscle tone as the person falls asleep. The decrease in muscle tone is seen in a person going to sleep while sitting up by the well-recognized head bob. Stage 1 sleep is also associated with slow, rolling eye movements that gradually disappear as the person falls deeper into sleep. Stage 2 quickly follows Stage 1 and is identified by sleep spindles--when the brain activity shows bursts of higher amplitude, fast-frequency waves--and periodic K-complexes, high-amplitude but slow-frequency brain waves. Stage 2 is also associated with a slight decrease in muscle tone and very little eye movement. At the beginning of the night, Stage 2 lasts for a fairly short time, then the person enters into slow wave sleep. Slow wave sleep is identified by high-amplitude, slow-frequency brain waves. The muscle tone and eye movements do not change much from Stage 2. At the beginning of the night, slow wave sleep can last for forty to sixty minutes, especially in young people, and then the person will enter into rapid eye movement sleep.

In REM sleep, several things happen very quickly. The brain waves transition to fast-frequency waves that are visually very similar to the brain waves seen during wakefulness, suggesting the brain is basically awake. As the name implies, the eyes start to move back and forth rapidly. The muscle tone also changes at the onset of REM sleep, dropping to nothing. Finally, although the over-all muscle tone decreases to zero, there are also small muscle twitches, one of which causes the eyes to dart around. These muscle twitches are easily noticeable in our pets when we see their whiskers twitching or their little paws flicking around while they are sleeping. Pets also give us an easy example of the transition from slow wave sleep to REM sleep. If you see your dog sleeping sitting on his haunches and then he slowly collapses over to one side, look closely and you may see whiskers twitching. The collapsing to the side is an indication of the complete drop in muscle tone at the onset of REM sleep. It is also interesting to note that this combination of an awake brain in a sleeping human body brings about dreaming. An awake human brain means thought, and when this happens during sleep, the thoughts are unconscious and uncontrolled resulting in the bizarre, random world of dreams.

The first sleep cycle of the night goes through non-REM sleep and through REM sleep in about ninety minutes. This cycle then repeats every ninety minutes for as long as we remain asleep. As such, if we time our sleep and wake-up, we can purposely wake up in REM sleep. Some people feel that waking up from REM sleep can help them feel more alert first thing in the morning. This seems to be most helpful when sleeping less than the recommended seven to eight hours a night. If we wake up after about four to four and a half hours of sleep, we will often wake up in REM sleep. It is easy to tell if you wake up in REM sleep; just ask yourself "am I dreaming?" If you immediately think yes, you were most likely in REM sleep when you woke up. If you think you were not really dreaming, then you most likely woke up in one of the non-REM sleep stages.

The sleep cycle over the course of a night is a little more complex. At the beginning of the night, much of the first ninety-minute cycle is filled with slow wave sleep and the first REM episode is usually quite short, maybe five minutes. Then, as the night progresses, there is less and less slow wave sleep and increasing REM and Stage 2 sleep. By the end of seven to eight hours of sleep, the typical ninety-minute sleep cycle is about forty-five minutes of Stage 2 and forty-five minutes of REM sleep. This means if we remember a long, involved dream when we wake up at the end of the night, it is probably because we woke up from a long REM period that could have lasted for at least forty minutes. This is the typical pattern of sleep in a young adult. Unfortunately, sleep often changes as we get older, and can become more fragmented and have less slow wave sleep and more Stage 1 and Stage 2 sleep.

Sleep, then, is clearly an independent state from wakefulness. These stages are unique to sleep and are not seen in other states of consciousness. So why do we sleep? Why do we wake up? These are questions sleep scientists are actively researching. There is increasing evidence sleep helps maintain many of the bodily functions that keep us healthy and productive. Sleep improves our memory formation and assists with daytime performance, helps reset the biological and emotional system to allow us to start anew the next morning, improves immune functioning, and allows for protein synthesis that helps our muscles recover from physical exercise and our organs repair themselves from normal day-to-day wear and tear.

To experience the benefits of sleep, we need to ensure that we develop good sleep habits. Although many people may want to quickly turn to pharmaceutical aids for sleep, there are behavioral changes we can make that often quickly improve sleep. But many people are unwilling to make the necessary changes on a regular basis. Modern society provides too many distractions--video games, TV, and the Internet. It is, after all, more fun to stay up at night than to go to bed at a designated time, even when we know we have to get up in the morning. There is no easy answer; we must choose to make sleep a priority. *

Catch your zzzz's

1. Keep regular sleep/wake times even on weekends. The more complaints you have about sleep, the more strict you should be about these times. Of the two, it is most important to maintain the same wake time. Most of us will automatically stabilize our going-to-bed time if we force ourselves to get out of bed at the same lime each morning, lor many people, just stabilizing their sleep times tor a week or so is enough. The brain and body quickly form the habit to go to bed and wake up at the designated time.

2. If you have trouble sleeping at night, do not nap. If you are sleeping well, then napping can be useful if you are particularly tired; however, do not nap within about six hours of your normal bedtime.

3. Try developing a pre-sleep ritual or routine that signals your body and brain it is time to sleep. This is something we regularly do for young children but may not do for ourselves.

4. Try not to eat within three or tour hours of bedtime. Hating tells the system to get active and digest food, which will conflict with the signals from the brain telling the system to slow down and go to sleep.

5. Maintain a quiet and dark sleeping environment, using ear plugs and eye shields if needed. Fans, white noise generators, and window blinds can also be useful to maintain a good sleeping environment.

6. Avoid using the snooze button on the alarm. Snooze buttons may feel like a good idea, but what they do is allow us to drift in and out of Stage 1 sleep and not really rest, but also not be really awake. It is better to set the alarm and promptly get out of bed! Once we are out of bed, our brains will arouse us and quickly help us become awake and alert.

7. If you are in bed for thirty minutes or so and not able to sleep, get out of bed. Do something boring. Do not do anything fun or active. Read a textbook or some rather weighty scientific tome of knowledge. That will put almost everyone to sleep. After reading tor about thirty minutes, try going back to bed. If you still cannot sleep, get out of bed again and try reading again.

In this situation, it is really important to get out of bed at the correct time in the morning. It is best to allow a sleep debt (or desire to go to sleep) to build during the day so that the next night the body and brain will be ready to sleep at the designated sleep time.

Never sleep at the wheel

One more important issue about the nature of falling asleep. It is invisible to us. We all know this. We may be in bed thinking about going to sleep, maybe starting to feel a little sleepy, and the next thing we know the alarm is going off. That is great when we are in bed with the intention of going to sleep. However, if you are driving a car and your head bobs, please remember that is Stage 1 sleep. You are asleep and not responding to environmental stimuli. Your car is driving itself and you cannot see the tree ahead of you or the child on a bicycle. We all know when we feel sleepy at the wheel of a car. What we don't know is when we will actually fall asleep. Don't risk it. When you are sleepy, please choose not to drive.

By June J. Pilcher

June J. Pilcher is an alumni distinguished professor of psychology and president of Phi Kappa Phi at Clemson University. She was the 2011-2012 Fulbright-Freud Scholar at University of Vienna and the Sigmund Freud Museum, and is a Fulbright Specialist for Global Health from 2015 to 2020. She has taught courses on the human brain, sleep, and psychology for more than 25 years. Pilcher publishes regularly on sleep, sleep deprivation, stress, shiftwork, and health in industry standards such as Chronobiology International, Psychological Science, Journal of Psychosomatic Research, Psychophpiology Sleep, and Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. She has been principal investigator on research grants cumulatively worth more than $2 million. Earlier in her career, Pilcher was on the faculty at Bradley University and was a research psychologist and captain at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. She earned degrees from University of Southern Mississippi (B.A. in psychology and B.S. in computer science) and University of Chicago (Ph.D. in biopsychology). Email heratjpilche@clemson.edu.

Catch your zzzz's

1. Keep regular sleep/wake times even on weekends. TIle more complaints you have about sleep, the more strict you should be about these times. Of the two, it is most important to maintain the same wake time. Most of us will automatica lly stabilize our going-to-bed time if we force ourselves to get out of bed at the same time each morning. For

many people, just stabilizing their sleep times for a week or so is enough. The brain and body quickly form the habit to go to bed and wake up at the designated time.

2. If you have trouble sleeping at night, do not nap. If you are sleeping well, then napping can be useful if you are parti cularly tired; however, do not nap withi n about six hours of your normal bedtime.

3. Try developing a pre-sleep ritual or routin e that signals your body and brain it is time to sleep. This is something we regularly do for young children but may not do for ourselves.

4. Try not to eat within thr ee or four hours of bedtime. Eating tells the system to get active and digest food, which will conflict with the signals from the brain telling the system to slow down and go to sleep.

5. Maintain a quiet and dark sleeping environment, using ear plugs and eye shields if needed. Fans, white noise generators, and window blind s can also be useful to maint ain a good sleeping enviro nment.

6. Avoid using the snoo ze butt on on the alarm. Snooze button s may feel like a good idea, but what they do is allow us to drift in and out of Stage I sleep and not really rest, but also not be really awake. It is better to set the alarm and promptly get out of bed! Once we are out of bed, our brains will arouse us and quickly help us become awake and alert.

7. If you are in bed for thirty minutes or so and not able to sleep, get out of bed. Do something bor ing. Do not do anything fun or active. Read a textbook or some rather weighty scientific tome of knowledge. That will put almost everyone to sleep. After readin g for about thirty minutes, try going back to bed. If you still cannot sleep, get out of bed again and try reading again. In th is situation, it is really import ant to get out of bed at the correct time in the morn ing. It is best to allow a sleep debt (or desire to go to sleep) to build during the day so that the next night the body and brain will be ready to sleep at the designated sleep time.

Never sleep atthe wheel

One more import ant issue about the natur e of falling asleep. It is invisible to us. Weall know th is. We may be in bed thinking about going to sleep, maybe starting to feel a little sleepy, and the next th ing we know the alarm is going off. That is great when we are in bed with the intention of going to sleep. However, if you are dri ving a car and your head bobs, please remember that is Stage I sleep. You are asleep and not responding to environmental stimuli. Your car is dri ving itself and you cannot see the tree ahead of you or the child on a bicycle. We all know when we feel sleepy at the wheel of a car. What we don't know is when we will actually fall asleep. Don't risk it. When you are sleepy, please choose not to drive.
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Author:Pilcher, June J.
Publication:Phi Kappa Phi Forum
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2015
Words:2636
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