One of my readers has asked me to write an article about insomnia. In view of this, I am going to talk about sleep first.
When you observe someone sleeping, what do you think? He or she is just lying there and appears to be in quite a peaceful, passive state. However, the looks can be deceiving as our brains are actually very active during sleep. Who would have thought?
The state of being asleep or awake is controlled by the various neurotransmitters, or special chemicals that act on the different groups of neurons, or nerve cells. Some of them keep the parts of the brain active when we’re awake, while the others, signal when we fall asleep. The latter appear to switch off the signals that keep us awake. Everything in this area seems to be highly organized.
During sleep, we usually pass through five stages: 1, 2, 3, 4, and REM, in this sequence, and then starting with stage 1 all over again. Stage 1 is light sleep; in it, our eyes move slowly and we can be awakened easily. In stages 2, 3, and 4, our brain waves become slower. Stages 3 and 4 are called deep sleep; it’s very difficult to wake someone during these two stages. There’s no eye movement or muscle activity. Those awakened during deep sleep, do not adjust immediately and often feel groggy for a few minutes after they wake up. Night terrors or sleepwalking in children often occur during deep sleep.
Our bodies are more active during REM sleep, a crucial part of the sleep cycle. REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement. In this stage, the breathing is more rapid, the eyes jerk rapidly in various directions, the heart rate increases and blood pressure rises. This stage is when our dreams occur.
Adults spend almost 50% of the total sleep time in stage 2, about 20% in REM sleep, and the balance in the other remaining stages. On the other hand, infants spend about half of their sleep time in REM sleep. Sweet dreams!
Remember the highly organized neurotransmitters described a few paragraphs ago? These can be influenced by some foods & certain medications that change the balance of the signals. This in turn affects how well we sleep, and whether we feel alert or drowsy. This can lead to insomnia or inability to sleep.
The food list includes caffeinated drinks such as coffee, chocolate, MSG (monosodium glutamate), spicy food and more. Alcohol, commonly known as night cap, does help people fall into light sleep, but it robs them of REM and deep, restorative stages of sleep. It keeps them in the lighter stages from which they can be awaken easily.
The medications affecting sleep include those that treat high blood pressure, corticosteroids, statins, antidepressants, and more.
Getting enough sleep is important, as lack of it can affect our daily activities. Feeling drowsy during the day often means that you haven’t had enough sleep. Microsleeps, or very brief episodes of sleep in an otherwise awake person, are another mark of sleep deprivation that can be dangerous. Since drowsiness is the brain’s last step before actually falling asleep, driving while drowsy can cause a disaster. If you feel drowsy at the wheel, it is recommended to stop and take a walk.
Only now do I realize that I might have experienced microsleeps when coming home from working a night shift. Drowsy for sure. Since stopping on a highway can be challenging, the alternative is ice cubes. Grab a bucket of these before heading home, and slip them one at a time in your mouth. This works wonders.
This will conclude my post about Sleep. Will cover Insomnia in my next post. Stay tuned.