The Healthy Sleep Environment
Environment matters and it’s really simple. The bedroom is not your office, not your TV room, not your dining room or your reading room. For good healthy sleep, the bedroom is reserved for just two things and the first is sleep. I can’t remember what the second one is.
So take the TV out of the bedroom, don’t bring homework or office work to bed, keep your favorite novel by your easy chair in the den and have your night time milk and cookies in the kitchen. Besides, who wants cookie crumbs in their bed?
Still keeping with environment, lower the temperature and darken the room. Put shades or thick curtains over the windows to keep light pollution out; streetlights, porch lights, car lights and the like. And healthy sleep likes a cool room, not too hot, not to cold; just right.
Timing for Sleep Well
To the extent possible, schedule sleep. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day. It trains the brain and body to expect sleep and prepare for it. The absolute worst situation for maintaining good, healthy sleep is for those poor souls who work rotating shifts or night shifts.
Because of the way our brains are wired, we have a biological clock that takes environmental cues and makes us most alert during daylight hours and the most drowsy during the early morning hours. It is estimated that about one-quarter of our workforce has to work night shifts.
Statistics show that these workers experience higher sleep disorders, have more accidents, especially auto accidents while driving home from work, have more digestive and cardivascular problems, even fertility and emotional problems.
Nutrition is Important to Sleep Well
The objective regarding sleep and nutrition is to eat foods that calm the brain and this gets us into amino acids. Food that contains the amino acid tryptophan is a good place to start.
This is the basic material that the brain uses to build serotonin and melatonin, two relaxing neurotransmitters, or as our friends, the neurologists would say, “inhibitory neurotransmitters”. Typically protein contains amino acids like tyrosine that perk up the brain while carbohydrates are the tryptophan foods, that tend to relax the brain.
The secret is to eat high protein and medium carbohydrate meals in the morning and afternoon. A complex carbohydrate with a little protein meal would be eaten for dinner. A small bedtime snack would be OK if it
combines the complex carb with protein and calcium. Calcium is like a catalyst that helps the brain convert the tryptophan to melatonin.
At bedtime, “snack” means small; don’t pig out before bedtime. Good food that contains tryptophan and thus melatonin are pasta, eggs, tuna, chili, tofu, oats, sweet corn, rice and similar. Or there’s always the old standby, skim milk and apple pie.
Obviously, avoid stimulants like coffee, tea and chocolate near bedtime.
Exercise and Healthy Sleep
Lastly, exercise is always recommended as a daily activity, just not near bedtime. Exercise is a stimulating activity, not a relaxing one. Thankfully, this doesn’t apply to sex. Sex is great exercise and burns about 300 calories so, yes, it is very stimulating exercise.
The counterbalance is that it also releases a lot of wonderful, relaxing, “feel-good” endorphins. If your heart’s up to it, have at it; you’ll sleep like a baby.
Healthy Sleep Requires Dreaming
We all dream but so far, neuroscience hasn’t uncovered much definitive information as to why.
Most dreaming occurs during REM sleep. This means that we dream multiple times during the night since we have between five and seven complete sleep cycles inclusive of the REM stage.
There are interesting differences between dreaming in the early slow-wave states and the REM stage. Essentially, our recall and dream content is different. Someone awakened from slow-wave dreaming will have little recall and if any of the dream is remembered, it is unstructured with no “story”.
REM sleep, on the other hand, generally has a complex story and can be recalled in great detail. The imagery and intensity of REM dreams is greatest in the early morning hours but the control mechanism is still unknown and is the subject of much research.
“Bad dreams” are more common in REM sleep, having complicated stories with negative connotations. Conversely, slow wave dream content is less visual and emotional. A strange finding is that the true nightmares only occur in slow wave sleep; another unknown concerning dreams.
In the slow-wave, non-REM nightmares, there is a respiratory decline and paralysis. In children night terrors (pavor nocturnus) sometimes occur, lasting 1 -2 minutes. The child may wake up screaming but will have no recall of the nightmare.
In adults slow wave nightmares are referred to as incubus (demons) sleep but, as with children, there is no memory of the dream. If there is any recollection, it is usually short with no story; just a single horrifying event.
Another finding is that REM dreaming only occurs in humans and animals with neocortex, the outer layers of the brain hemispheres. A common theory is that REM sleep is necessary for the consolidation of memory and if we prevent REM sleep, we prevent consolidation of events into long term memory.
All neuroscientists agree that something important must be going on with sleep and dreaming since we spend one-third of our lives engaged in it. In a single stage of sleep, ten separate nuclei and six separate neurotransmitters have been identified, confirming that the structure and function of sleep and dreaming is incredibly complex.
The bottom line is that we still have no definitive, provable reason why we dream or sleep.