• Medipure

What the brain does as we sleep

Sleep is an essential part of life. In fact we spend a third part of our life sleeping. If we spend that much time sleeping, there must be a good reason the body needs it. Today we’ll be discussing some of these vital reasons for sleep.

Throughout the day many things make their way into our bodies and minds. Some of these are good, such as food, oxygen, and things we are learning. However, other things are toxic, such as synthetic chemicals and negative thoughts. Sudden temperature, environmental, and emotional changes also positively or negatively affect the body. Regulating these internal changes requires a lot of work and energy from our body.

Included in this work are reparations. Reparation is required both inside and outside our cells. This process takes many hours, and some mechanisms within the body have to shut down in order for cleaning, repairing and regeneration to occur. This takes place while we sleep.

Although we may not realize it, sleep is actually a very complex activity of the brain. The process of being conscious/awake or sleeping/dreaming must be regulated. Specific areas of the brain called reticular formation play a role in this regulation process, though these activities are controlled by the hypothalamus. If this process wasn’t regulated we would go to sleep and never wake up, or we would stay awake without being able sleep.

Additionally, certain groups of neurons and chemicals produced in the brain are involved in this homeostatic activity. Through connections and projections, sleep/wake cycles are controlled. This cycle creates a day/night cycle which is initiated by the pineal gland in the brain. This gland produces the hormone melatonin, a derivative of tryptophan. The production of melatonin by the pineal gland is stimulated by darkness and inhibited light. Photosynthetic cells in the retina detect the absence of light, this in turn directs signals to certain areas of the brain that project messages to the pineal gland so the body can begin preparing for sleep and melatonin is released in the brain. This process takes a few hours from the time sunset occurs. If these mechanisms are working correctly, we fall asleep within minutes of putting our heads on the pillow.

As we sleep the brain continues to work; there are many reparations and cleansing that needs to be done for our roughly 60 trillion cells. This takes place while brain regions that control the state consciousness are off. The following are what happen in the brain and body as we sleep. (Remember that adults need 7-8 hours of sleep while children and youth need 9-10).

Waste material cleared from the brain

A lot of waste is created as a natural result of the brain’s activities. Metabolism, repairs, regeneration, and even stress produce toxins. Several toxins, such as Beta-amyloid, can be removed twice as quickly during the sleep cycle. Beta-amyloid is the main suspect behind Alzheimer’s Disease. A full night of deep sleep doubles the clearance of this dangerous toxin as well as other toxins we produce during the stress of the day. Toxins are removed by specialized cells known as glial cells. If chronic stress however, is present there is a huge increase in workload making toxin removal impossible without enough sleep.

Memory and learning storage

During any given day we experience many events, whether pleasant or not. Additionally we can learn many things as well. All of these memories and knowledge is stored short-term in the  hippocampus. As we sleep, this part of the limbic area combined with other brain cells and chemicals that the brain produces help transfer this new information and learning to create long-term memory files in the neocortex area of the brain. This process is what makes it possible to retain information after it has been acquired. It allows us to retrieve the knowledge in the future when needed to help solve new stressful episodes, develop connections, or even save our lives if we are in danger.

Re-energizes all cells in the body and brain

Cellular energy is processed by the mitochondria, which is an energy plant of sorts for our cells. These energy plants are located in neurons and every single cell in the body. Since our cells are hard at work every second of the day, they require consistent energy, making the mitochondria a vital part of a cell, and our whole body. As we sleep, these “energy plants” are repaired and kept in working condition. Failure to do so is detrimental to our health.

Regulating appetite

Sleeping and eating are deeply connected. Specific neuropeptides that regulate sleep also regulate eating. Leptin (a hormone which makes us feel satisfied and full after eating) and ghrelin (hormone which initiates feelings of hunger) are important for controlling appetite, as well as communication between the brain, adipose cells (produce leptin and store fat), and tissues in the intestines (produce ghrelin). During the hours of sleep hormones are regulated and balanced. This is an essential part of controlling our appetites. An imbalance of hormones can cause eating problem disorders.

Regulating libidos

Libidos (sexual desire) are totally dependent on neurotransmitter balance. During the hours of sleep the brain balances the production of more than 55 neurotransmitters that produce specific hormones. These include Gaba, serotonin, and dopamine, all of which are vital for healthy libidos levels.

Regulating hormonal balance

The 2 major pathways by which sleep affects the release of hormones are the hypothalamic-pituitary axes and the autonomous nervous system.

The release of hormones by the pituitary gland ( we could call it the “master” endocrine organ that controls the secretion of other hormones from the peripheral endocrine glands) is significantly influenced by sleep. The regulation of pituitary-dependent hormonal release is partly mediated by regulating the activities of the hypothalamus which may inhibit or induce pituitary function. During sleep, these hypothalamic factors may be activated — as in the case of growth hormone (GH)-releasing hormone — or inhibited, as is the case for corticotropin-releasing hormone. The important part to remember, however, is the hypothalamus and pituitary gland are repaired and regenerated during the hours of sleep. However, this process takes 7 hours to be completed.

Body detox

Hundreds of millions of cells in our body die every day. As they die new ones are born and replace the dead cells through the process of mitosis. This regeneration mechanism is constantly occurring. These dead cells however, need to be removed, otherwise they create serious health issues which become chronic.

While we sleep the detox mechanism begins, however, it only does so if the digestive system is not busy absorbing nutrients. For this reason it’s not good for us to eat any main meal after 7 pm because it takes about 6 hours to absorb nutrients from a full meal. It takes about 7 hours to detox. Eating a main meal late or before bed doesn’t allow the body sufficient time to detox.

During this process toxins, waste, and bacteria end up in our urine and feces the next day.

Adjusted body metabolism

Metabolism is a complex set of activities that occur in every single cell in our body. It is the sum of all chemical processes in which the cell takes nutrients and new material in order to produce, maintain, and destroy chemical substances. It is also the process by which energy is made available. Chromosomes in the nucleus are actively participating in this process, so as we sleep adjustments are made to the nucleus genes of cells in order to repair any damage incurred throughout the day.

As we sleep the brain regulates frequencies by creating two distinct types of sleep: Slow wave sleep (SWS), known as deep sleep, and Rapid eye movement (REM), the deepest form of sleep, also known as dreaming sleep. SWS occurs during the first hour of sleep, stages 1 to 4. Stage 4 is a high frequency stage. During this point of sleep there is a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure, and our muscles relax. The majority of our time sleeping is on SWS unless we have insomnia.

During REM sleep there is an increase of oxygen intake, heart rate, blood pressure and respiration. More oxygen is used during REM sleep than intense physical exercise. Since the brain is very active in this stage this additional oxygen is important due to the additional work that the brain does. Stages of sleep begin when certain groups of cells in the brain start a projection that ignite sleep waves. One of this group of cells are the ventro lateral preoptic nucleus located in the hypothalamus and in the brainstem of the Parafacial zone. This projection triggers the loss of consciousness. When the process begins, a group of cells in the stem called the subcoeruleus help maintain and control this REM sleep phase.  

These Sleep waves are important. The right amount determines the quality and physical benefits we obtain from this orchestrated process. During a typical night there are between 5 to 7 cycles of SWS to REM sleep so as the night advance SWS episode decrease and REM time increase. These cycles can be affected by chronic stress. If REM doesn’t occur in the right amount, our body, brain, and even metabolism are affected. Additionally, less energy is used, reinforcing any overweight problems we may have. As we age the amount of SWS and REM sleep we need changes.

It’s important to note that the way we handle new events and stressful episodes is closely intertwined with our sleep patterns. Managing stress determines how long and how deep we sleep. Additionally, getting enough deep sleep helps us manage stress well.

Here are some guidelines for aiding this vital mechanism.

  1. Eat 3 nutritious main meals a day and 2 nutritious snacks. Our first meal needs to be within an hour and a half of waking up and dinner should be no later than 7pm.

  2. Drink 8-10 eight oz. cups of water every day.

  3. Exercise for at least 30 minutes, 5 times a week. Never exercise late at night.

  4. Don’t work late.

  5. Don’t watch TV or movies late. This includes following the news.

  6. Turn lights and other devices off, including cells phones and computers.

  7. Don’t discuss problems before going to bed. End those conversations at least 2 hours beforehand.

  8. Don’t try solving problems in your mind as you lay in bed.

  9. Keep a balanced personal life. Laugh, work, play, love, connect with family and others; learn something new every day; provide service at home and in the community.

  10. Don’t do too much in any one area of your life; this brings stress.

  11. Use Phytotherapi Sleep and Stress protocols.


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