All About You. Make 2021 Your Best Year.

The secret nighttime life of the brain

Written by Karen Long

What really happens when we sleep? Under the surface calm of closed eyelids and deep breathing a cascade of hormones, neurotransmitters and cycling brain waves clears cortisol and waste proteins from our brains, a surge of growth hormones repairs cells, the immune system gets a boost, cellular waste is siphoned away and memories are consolidated, just for starters.

“Sleep is the cheapest anti-aging tool: It is free!” says Dr. Eva Henry, neurologist and owner of Agewell Brain Center. She explains, “In adults, human growth hormone helps regulate body fat and lean mass (muscle and bone) composition, cellular repair, sugar and fat metabolism and more.” This critical hormone is primarily secreted during the first two to four hours of sleep, during the deepest sleep cycle.

Our brains rotate through several phases of sleep, each one performing a different function, such as tuning our ability to learn new information or to recall material we’ve already stored away. REM sleep for example, when dreaming occurs, “soothes out negative emotions, stress and challenges we encounter during the day,” explains Dr. Henry.

Only during this nightly dance do special channels open up inside the brain to draw out toxic cellular wastes, the beta-amyloid plaques and other proteins that have been linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

If all of this isn’t enough, there’s another surprising benefit of deep, restful sleep: weight control. Getting less than the recommended hours of sleep per night — 7 to 9 hours for adults and 9 to 11 hours for school-aged children — can leave us not only tired and sluggish, but prone to overeating as our cortisol-overloaded brains misinterpret the stress hormone as food deprivation, ramping up hunger hormones.

“People who get more sleep naturally eat less; when they do eat, they consume less fat,” says Dr. Henry. Our brains sweep up cortisol as we sleep, along with the cravings it can cause.

Relaxing rituals

Just when we most need the healing and restorative benefits of slumber are the very times that it proves most elusive. Not surprisingly, an epidemic of restless sleep during the past year has been dubbed “Covid-somnia.” But science is opening up innovative avenues to your most restful night.

We’ve all heard of good sleep hygiene: turn off screens well before bedtime, create a consistent bedtime routine in a dark and peaceful environment, go to bed at the same time every evening. These are simple prescriptions, but not always easy during a bout of “revenge bedtime procrastination,” a term that originated in China to describe overstressed workers stealing a few minutes — or hours — while scrolling on their phones and chatting with similarly afflicted friends late into the wee hours. All just to unwind with some much-needed personal free time.

What are some engaging and effective strategies to help us step away from the cell phone and build a healthy pre-bedtime routine? While exercise can enhance a sound night’s sleep, scientists discourage vigorous exertions too close to bedtime. But light yoga can serve as a “calming transition” to a restful state of mind, reports the “New York Times.”

The article “Rest Better With Light Exercises” states, “ … stretching and meditative movement like yoga has been found to improve sleep quality. These types of exercises elicit the relaxation response, in which the body experiences a flood of calming hormones and physiological reactions that quiets the nervous system.”

Exercises start off with the familiar such as the cat/cow pose and child’s pose, and end with the “box breath” used by Navy Seals. Visualize tracing up one side of a box while inhaling deeply to the count of four, then hold for four more counts while mentally tracing horizontally to the other side of the box. Trace the opposite side of the box on the exhale, hold four counts while returning to the original corner, and repeat.

Weighted blankets have become a popular therapeutic accessory to help ease anxiety, ADHD and autism spectrum disorder, thanks to the comforting swaddling effect. The theory is that the embracing weight soothes the nervous system and may even stimulate the release of natural feel-good chemicals such as serotonin and oxytocin.

In a Swedish study published last year in the “Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine,” researchers used activity sensors to monitor the sleep patterns of people with major depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or ADHD for four weeks. They found that the group assigned weighted blankets experienced a significant improvement in their ratings on the Insomnia Severity Index. Subjects enjoyed better quality sleep, a reduction in their symptoms and higher levels of activity during the day.

Better recharging through technology

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that we stow away electronic devices 30 minutes before bedtime to prevent blue-spectrum light from blocking the hormone melatonin. Melatonin is produced in the evening as a response to impending twilight, and calms our brains and bodies as we prepare for sleep. Best practice for sleep quality is to power down our phones as well — but what if those very devices could shine a light on the complex dance happening every night?

Like the Swedish scientists, we can tune into our own personal sleep rhythms through technology. Has the era of the Star Trek medical tricorder finally arrived? The glowing indicators on a complete gamut of watches, wearable devices and sleep pads are blinking “yes.”

Gyroscopes, accelerometers, optical heart rate sensors and other components record sleep statistics during the night, and when you wake up in the morning the data is neatly compiled into charts and graphs revealing patterns in heart rate, breathing, time awake and even detailed sleep cycles. A few, such as the Oura Ring, which is Dr. Henry’s favored device, even record resting heart rate variability or HRV. Athletes use this metric — the time between individual heartbeats — to assess how well their body has recovered from the strain of a previous workout.

When winding down from a busy day, your pre-sleep routine might include a low-tech weighted blanket, breathing exercises and ancient yoga poses, or a sophisticated sleep tracker. Whatever practices work best for you, it’s well worth investing in the nightly rejuvenation of body and mind.

Join us in May for the next installment in this series, where we’ll explore the topic of circadian rhythms and how they affect jet lag, mood and more in 2021!

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