What Happens When We Sleep

Most of us enjoy sleep, or at least enjoy the idea of sleep – but many of us have sleeping issues, either getting to sleep or staying asleep.

It’s obvious that sleep is a time for rest and rejuvenation. Our muscles recover from acting to keep you upright against gravity all day, your digestive organs rest after digesting your food all day, your heart slows down – in fact, your body takes the opportunity to reset its functions to prepare for the new day.

But until recently, we didn’t know much about how the brain rested and recovered during sleep. Due to the work of a Danish biologist, an important mystery about the brain is being solved.

Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, a sleep researcher at the University of Rochester Medical School, has been conducting a study of what happens in the brain during sleep.

Dr, Nedergaard and her team of scientists found that when you are sleeping, your brain does its regular cleaning and maintenance. This is one of the most important reasons to get enough sleep – current research shows that it may be more dangerous than we thought to miss sleep.

When you don’t sleep enough, chemicals build up in and around the brain which may lead to serious neurological disease, like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.

This finding is supported by the work of Sigrid Veasey at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology, which focuses on how restless sleep disturbs normal brain metabolism and affects our thinking as these toxic substances accumulate around the brain.

How much do you need to sleep? There is a range, but most adults do best with seven-and-a-half to nine hours of sleep each night. If for whatever reason you fall short of that, you fall into a condition known as “sleep debt.”

Here are five tips for getting and staying out of sleep debt, adapted from Helpguide.org.

1. Develop a habit of sleeping seven-and-a-half to nine hours each night. Break bad sleeping habits and initiate a new routine that leaves enough time for you to sleep.

2. Pay off your short-term sleep debt by sleeping an extra hour or two for several nights in a row until you catch up.

3. Consider a “sleep diary,” to keep track of when you go to bed, when you wake up, and how you feel. You’ll uncover natural patterns that help you plan a better sleep schedule.

4. Plan a “sleep vacation” to resolve longer-term sleep debt. Choose two weeks or so where your schedule allows you to go to bed early and wake up naturally, so that your biological patterns of sleep can begin to emerge. Within a couple of weeks you’ll have a better idea what works best for you, based on your own personal experience.

5. Make sleep important. Only you can decide on your priorities, and if sleep is not high on your list, you are risking poor performance and poor health, not to mention extra stress on your brain. But if you sleep enough, you’ll reap the rewards of better brain and body function, less stress, and a better quality of life.

You schedule time for appointments, work and hobbies – there’s no reason you couldn’t schedule your sleep, if you recognize how essential it is. As it turns out, it is that essential, so do your brain a favor and get enough sleep!

written with thanks to Dennis Perman of TMC
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