By Steve LaBate
Ever since Edison’s electric lightbulb flashed into existence during the second Industrial Revolution, our relationship with sleep has become increasingly complicated. Once upon a time, we woke with the sun, drifted off into dreams soon after dark, and in between lived far less stressful and less sedentary lives, making the sleep we got much more rejuvenating. And it was like this for eons—right up until the most recent segment of human evolution.
As soon as our retinas were bathed in artificial light, our brains were duped into believing it was daytime when the skies above were still black, thus disturbing the natural melatonin production of our endocrine system and wreaking havoc on millennia-old sleep patterns. “The longterm impacts of artificial lighting and our progressive reduction in sleep have had far-reaching health effects,” writes clinical herbalist Jon Carlson for VitalistHerbology.com. He goes on to cite impaired glucose-insulin balance, aching muscles, dizziness and nausea, hallucinations, irritability, memory lapses and tremors, as well as increased risk of headaches, high blood pressure and fibromyalgia, as possible consequences.
But there’s more to our uphill battle for sleep than the inherent problems of our increasingly nocturnal modern lifestyle. The world in which we live—while filled with grand technological advances and comforts our ancestors never imagined—is more complex, fast-paced and anxiety-ridden than ever. We are bombarded from every direction by torrents of information exploding from glowing rectangles, our minds stressed by hectic schedules, our bodies restless from lack of physical activity.
Other underlying causes of sleep trouble, explains chiropractor and sleep expert Sabrina Chen-See, D.C., include the side effects of medication and alcohol, bodily aches and pains, noise, light and worn-out beds or pillows. “Overstimulation arises in many forms,” she says. “Too much computer or TV late at night; too much caffeine and sugar in the diet; electromagnetic radiation from electronics in the bedroom. Also, many people lack routine in their lives, making it more difficult for the body to wind down and prepare for sleep. And subluxations in the spine would [exacerbate] the effects of any of these issues.”
Nowadays, says Life University psychology instructor Cory Viehl, “we are not allowed enough recuperative sleep, which affects our energy, metabolism and immune functioning. And with much of the population overweight or obese, there is a higher prevalence of disturbed sleep and sleep disorders.”
Indeed, many studies show that such complications are becoming more common. “Back in 1994,” says Chen-See, “about 70 million Americans suffered from sleep problems, and of those, 60 percent had a chronic disorder. By 2002, sleep disorders affected between 35–40 percent of the American population, 122 million, which is almost double the number in 1994.”
It’s an alarming trend, especially considering how essential sleep is to both our physical and mental health. “Sleep is a necessary consequence of human existence,” says LIFE Distinguished Professor Frederick Carrick, D.C., Ph.D., president of the ACA Council on Neurology. “We need it to repair ourselves.”
The Tick-Tock of the Biological Clock
In discussing sleep and its possible complications, it’s important to understand the body’s natural 24-hour cycles, or circadian rhythms. These rhythms are determined by the biological clock in our brain, the hypothalamus’ suprachiasmatic nucleus. The term “circadian rhythm” refers mainly to the physical, mental and behavioral response we have to our environment, specifically the peaks and dips in our alertness as cued by light and darkness.
“When light strikes the retina,” says Viehl, “it signals the suprachiasmatic nucleus to suppress the production of melatonin. At night, the suprachiasmatic nucleus begins releasing melatonin into the bloodstream, which is what causes us to feel sleepy.”
Sleep can be broken down into five distinct stages (see chart on opposite page): REM or rapid eye movement (the stage during which dreams occur); and the four stages of non-REM sleep, from N1 to N4. The transition to sleep happens during N1, N2 is light sleep, N3 deeper sleep and N4 the deepest. During a good sleep, we pass through these stages four to six times per night in 90-minute cycles.
When you get in bed at night, you often toss and turn. At this point, Carrick says, “You’re going to have some strong, fast [beta] wave activity.” Generally, this lasts five to 10 minutes. But as you relax, the brain decreases its firing frequency, producing slower alpha waves. During N1, when you become drowsy and actually begin to sleep, the beta waves transition into theta waves. Stage N2, which lasts about 20 minutes, is characterized by tiny corkscrew-shaped “sleep spindles” and dramatically spiking “K complexes,” the former a signal that the brain is halting its waking processes, and the latter helping you ignore outside stimuli. During this stage, your body temperature and heart rate begin to drop. Stage N3 is the transition between light sleep and deep sleep; the point at which the brain begins producing slow-moving delta waves. These delta waves continue through N4, which lasts approximately 30 minutes. During N3 and N4, or “slow-wave sleep,” blood flow is directed away from the brain and toward the muscles, allowing the body to heal itself.
After about 90 minutes, if we make it through the other stages without a hitch, we enter REM sleep. Our eyes dart back and forth under our closed eye lids. Breathing goes shallow as blood pressure and heart rate increase. Voluntary muscle movement is paralyzed. Brain activity decreases and dreams begin unspooling in the subconscious, strange little watercolor sagas playing out in the dark, mysterious corners of our slumber. Each time you cycle through the stages of sleep, the duration of REM increases, starting at around 10 minutes the first pass, and ultimately lasting an hour or more. The general perception is that REM sleep recharges the mind, allowing you to think better the next day.
Chen-See, however, has a different opinion. “I believe REM sleep is highly overrated,” she says. “My biggest personal issue with sleep was [that] I had so many dreams that I felt exhausted when I woke up. The key to feeling well-rested is the ability to experience deep N3 and especially N4 sleep for good chunks of the night.”
Also important to feeling well-rested is waking up at the right time: during the lighter N1 or N2 stage of sleep. But how does one pull off such a tricky task? There are now smartphone apps—the most popular called Sleep Cycle—that create a 30-minute wake-up phase ending at your desired alarm time. Simply put the phone under your pillow, and its onboard accelerometer senses your movements, waking you when you’re in the lightest possible sleep stage. There is, however, a downside, Chen-See says: “The electromagnetic radiation of the smartphone on your body for so many hours at a time may not be the greatest idea.”
Overcoming the Obstacles to Sleep
As if the stresses of modern life and the subversive effects of artificial light on our circadian rhythms weren’t enough to overcome, there are more than 70 different known sleep disorders, some caused by environmental factors and others by what’s happening inside our own bodies, whether physical, psychological or both. Common disorders include insomnia, sleep apnea (abnormal pauses in breathing during sleep), rapid-eye-movement behavior disorder (the loss of muscle paralysis during REM sleep), bruxism (the grinding of teeth), night terrors (waking suddenly to an irrational feeling of panic), narcolepsy (sudden, intense bouts of daytime drowsiness), hypersomnolence (too much sleep) and sleepwalking.
These disorders can be dangerous—because of the increased risk of accidents and physical injury, because of the tolls that poor quality sleep, excessive sleep and sleep deprivation can take on our health, and also because they can be indicative of more serious problems. “There are many underlying neurological conditions that manifest themselves as sleep disorders,” Carrick warns. He is also careful to stress that there is no magic bullet when it comes to treatment. “Not everyone’s sleep disorder is the same,” he says. “People might be putting themselves in danger if they embrace any therapy without looking at the etiology of the individual disorder. Sleep is a very complex part of our human existence, and we have people [at the Carrick Institute] who are well trained to understand what parts of the nervous system are involved, and we’re very successful at managing sleep disorders. I think our success rates are so high because we treat each person as an individual.”
Part of the reason Carrick’s methods are so appealing to those interested in a holistic lifestyle is that they do not involve surgery or drugs. Many others opt for the quick fix of sleep aids, but these foster dependency and can inhibit the body’s natural ability to regulate sleep. Rather than slapping a pharmaceutical band-aid on the symptoms, Chen-See recommends first solving the underlying issues. “As chiropractors,” she says, “we’re always looking to [find and address] the cause of the problem, and this may include identifying physical, mental, chemical and electromagnetic traumas or irritants to the body, spine and nervous system.
“Proper alignment of the spine,” she adds, “is essential to ensure optimum nerve flow and ideal body and organ function, including sleep cycles. Subluxations can be a big impediment to achieving deep sleep. Special attention must be given to the upper cervical area to affect the brainstem and hypothalamus.”
While it’s essential to see a sleep expert if one is having a problem (since treatment must be tailored to each patient’s unique situation), there are steps we can all take on our own to stay well-rested and help our minds and bodies better achieve their natural sleep cycles.
“If you’re going to surf the Internet or watch TV,” says LIFE biopsychology instructor Mitch Ferguson, Ed. D., stressing the importance of good sleep hygiene, “you should not do that in your bed.”
Ferguson also extols the virtues of a midday break. “A number of studies have concluded that a short period of sleep during the day—a siesta or a power nap if you want to call it that—does not have any measurable effect on normal circadian rhythm, but can decrease stress and increase productivity,” he says.
Chen-See is a proponent of meditation and mindful exercises, such as tai chi or yoga, and to help better prepare for sleep, Viehl recommends avoiding caffeine after 3 p.m., giving yourself time to relax and unwind before bed, using dim lights at night, keeping a regular schedule and getting plenty of exercise.
“The reality of the situation is lifestyle,” Carrick says. “If somebody spends a day at the beach playing volleyball, they [usually] sleep like a baby. If you’re active throughout the day—and that can mean using your brain or your body—you usually sleep better. ... We’re finding that many people who have insomnia, who cannot sleep, these people are not very active.”