Our Internal Clock: The Brain on Sleep
This week I had a couple of people approach me to thank me for the inspiration that my writing and blog has had on their life. I have to say, this humbled me, and made me so excited that my passion and love for neuroscience as a lifestyle is helping even one person. I am so beyond thrilled that this information is transforming lives and impacting the way people look at the world around them.
As this euphoria sat with me, a topic came to mind that I cannot believe that I have not shared with you all yet: sleep. The one thing that truly gave me the ability to transform my brain and utilize neuroplasticity to its full potential was sleep - so let's discuss all of the myths, rituals, and reasoning behind sleep and how to improve your cognition and life with it!
MYTHS AND RITUALS
"I can catch up on sleep."
"I only need xxx hours of sleep."
"My brain rests during all all hours of sleep."
We have all heard or said any number of things related to how much sleep we need, but what is the real answer? This question has been studied by neuroscientists and psychologists for decades, and is now understood based off of one concept: our internal master regulation system. Let's begin by breaking down what our regulation system is:
THE MASTER REGULATOR: OUR INTERNAL CLOCKS
It is first important to discuss the idea of biological rhythms within our brains and bodies. As human beings, our bodies function on internal clocks and cycles of changing chemical levels. These were clocks were set when our ancestors relied on sunlight to determine when they should wake and sleep. For the purpose of today’s blog, I want to bring your attention to the circadian rhythms and why the regulation of it is so important. Circadian Rhythms is our normal, daily rhythm pattern that is responsible for sleep/wake cycles, feeding patterns, emotional behaviors, hormone production and blood pressure.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SUNLIGHT AND SLEEP
I fell in love with the concept of circadian rhythm at my internships with The Brain Treatment Center where I learned how to fully utilize the growth of new neurons and how to change the brain in a positive way, (read more here). The cellular and molecular answer between how we train our bodies to sleep can be challenging, but I broke it down into a few key components in order for you to fully understand. Trust me, you do not need to be a neurosurgeon to understand why sleep is so important:
Circadian Rhythm and Sunlight
Almost all electronics now have an option to set your device to night mode. Have you ever wondered what the purpose of the color shift is? You may know that it affects your sleep, but have you ever wondered how? Cell phones, computer screens, and televisions mimic the same wavelength of light that the morning sun does - we will refer to this morning light as blue light. Blue light radiates from the sun and occurs between 7 A.M. and 11 A.M. Any time that we receive that wavelength of light into our pupils, our brains think, "Oh! It's morning, time to wake up!" when in reality, it could be midnight and we are laying in bed staring at our phones.
The picture above is overwhelming at first, but notice that blue light enters the eyes and sends a signal through the brain to the pineal gland. The pineal gland responds to the signal by suppressing melatonin (the hormone that makes us tired and drowsy), and in turn wakes the brain up for a full day. 12-hours after the brain receives it's blue wavelength of sunlight, melatonin begins to secrete back into the blood stream and we become drowsy and prepare to fall asleep.
This takes your body a few days to regulate and the most important factor is duration of sunlight. The clinicians that I have worked with recommended a minimal time of 30 minutes to an hour of sunlight to ensure the full effect of resetting your circadian rhythm. It is important to note that even if it is cloudy outside, the wavelength of light still pierces through and has an impact on you. However, the light is blocked by contact lenses, prescription glasses, and sunglasses.
Restful Sleep and Cooling Down the Brain
Okay, so you know how to prepare yourself to fall asleep at night, but when is the best time for sleep and what even is the point of doing this? The sleep-wake cycle is vital to a healthy daily-life routine. Circadian rhythm influences hormones in the body responsible for eating habits, digestion, and emotional well-being - so sleep is one of the most important aspects to live a healthy life. During sleep, the brain is able to cool down and restart. I like to compare it to the engine of a car; our brains are functioning all day long and traps in energy and heat into the skull. At night the brain cools down, and is able to optimally regrow neuronal pathways or strengthen existing ones.
The hours between 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. are when the brain is able to fully cool down and are the utmost important hours of sleep. Our deepest sleep, or REM sleep (rapid eye movement sleep), occurs at 2:00 a.m. During this time, the brains is almost as active as when we are awake and is responsible for the consolidation of memories; so you can see why we need our brain to cool down so much before this. The question isn't how many overall hours of sleep you get, but rather how many hours of optimal cool down and deep sleep you get. I personally aim to be asleep by 10 p.m. and usually wake up on my own around 5 a.m.
So why do we need to focus on sunlight and sleeping at such a specific time? As you all know by know, I am obsessed with our ability to change our brains - the concept of neuroplasticity. Let's go back to the engine example: when your car is driving consistently throughout the day, it uses a ton of energy. The gas light will flash on and let you know that it needs more fuel to continue on as it has been. Well it is the same for the brain except the driving is the brain's cognition and the gas light is sleep, rest, and eating. In order to change the structure of the brain and create new neuronal pathways, the brain needs to be prepped to it's full potential for all of the energy that it will be using throughout the day. Without the best cool down time, the brain will not function at full capacity and it limits the amount of energy that can be used to change the brain.
LADY YOU ARE CRAZY!
I get it - how in the world does anyone have time for this? How are you expected to sit outside in the sunlight in the morning before work, with kids, on your commute, and especially if you live in a cold climate?! Here are a few things you can do to optimize your time in the sun and get more sleep:
1) Utilize the night shift mode on your devices! Most devices have the feature built into them now, but if yours does not there are a few blue light covered apps available!
2) I have a desk job, so I sit inside for most of the hours between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m., so how do you get morning light? You can actually buy artificial blue light strips on amazon for a desk or room to be mimic sunlight in the mornings. Obviously real sunlight is better, but these strips work extremely well!
3) Drive with the windows down on your way to work if you commute, the sunlight will still get into your pupils!
4) On the weekends or even week days, wake up a little earlier to allow yourself time to sit on the porch and get sunlight.
*Reminder to take off glasses, sunglasses, or contact lenses when aiming to get sunlight in the morning*
MY CHALLENGE FOR YOU
You now have all the tools to regulate your biological rhythms and I have full faith in you! I challenge you to get morning sunlight in. Start with 10 minutes and increase from there, whatever you can do to implement this into your life! Keep in mind, any sunlight is better than no sunlight. Get your sleep - be mindful of what time you are going to bed and allow your brain the most cool down hours as you can. Rather than staying up watching television, or staying up studying, go to bed early and wake up earlier to finish your work. This will be difficult at first but once you set your internal clock, I promise it will become natural! As always, be loving and tender with yourself in this transition period and know that you are bettering yourself one step at a time. ☺☺☺
Thank you for reading!
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