Wellness

Why You Can’t Get A Good Night’s Sleep

The science behind the most basic of human functions, and how some small changes can lead to more shut-eye.

By Michael Sheather

Wellness

The science behind the most basic of human functions, and how some small changes can lead to more shut-eye.

By Michael Sheather

It is perhaps ironic that William Shakespeare, that erudite English wordsmith, knew more about the effects of sleep in 1611 than most of us do in the modern age. When he penned MacBeth, the famous Scottish drama about betrayal and the human soul, Shakespeare put these words into his chief protagonist’s mouth: “…the innocent sleep, sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care, the death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath, balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, chief nourisher in life’s feat.” No truer words have ever been written. Sleep is indeed life’s great nourisher. Without it, human beings die. That is an unavoidable fact. It’s no accident that expert interrogators use sleep deprivation as one of their principle techniques to break their subjects in mind, body and soul.

The hard truth is that modern life is robbing humanity of its ability to sleep. We are slowly forgetting the art of how to close our eyes and rest. And in the process we are giving up our bodies’ ability to recuperate, replenish and reverse the vast range of physical, psychological and emotional consequences that come from being awake in an increasingly complex world.

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There are many other functions completed during sleep. For example, neural toxins, the waste matter left over by neural connections and impulses, are cleaned out during sleep. Some brain cells actually shrink by as much as 60 per cent to allow themselves to be completely bathed in neural chemicals that sweep away left over toxins in the fluid between brain cells, one of which is beta-amyloid, the protein implicated in Alzheimer’s disease. Just last year, researchers at Washington University showed that one night’s lost sleep led to a five per cent increase in the presence of beta-amyloid proteins in the human brain. Sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease show a 43 per cent increase in beta-amyloid proteins, a hallmark of the disease. The proteins clump together and inhibit the transmission of electrical impulses between neurons resulting in destruction of long and short term memory.

By contrast, sleep also targets a brain function that is specifically tasked with retaining new information. Scientists showed in October last year that activity in brain cells known as dendrites increases dramatically during sleep and that this increase is linked to specific brain waves believed to hold the secret to memory creation. Dr Julie Seibt, a lecturer in sleep and brain plasticity at the University of Surrey in the UK and study leader says: “Our brains are amazing and fascinating organs – they have the ability to change and adapt based on our experiences. It is becoming increasingly clear that sleep plays an important role in these adaptive changes. Our study tells us that a large proportion of these changes occur during short and repetitive brain waves called spindles.” “Sleep spindles have been associated with memory in humans for quite some time but nobody actually knew what they were doing in the brain. Now we know that during sleep spindles’ specific pathways are activated to dendrites maybe allowing our memories to be reinforced during sleep.”

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Sleep hygiene is fast becoming a buzz phrase for the sleep business. It comes back to something very simple: adopting good habits to help you sleep. Common sleeping problems are often caused by bad habits. Here are some tips to counteract those.

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