Americans and Sleep

In the last decade, lack of sleep has become one of the most predominant problems in American culture. Time Magazine reported as long ago as the July 18th 2002 issue that 70 million Americans have a sleep problem. Without doubt, that number has escalated within the last 2 ½ years. About 35 million of us supposedly have a “sleep disorder” caused by physical imbalances. Examples would be insomnia from hormone imbalances and the biochemical imbalances that cause depression, sleep apnea (the windpipe collapses during sleep blocking air flow which causes snoring which wakes you up) and narcolepsy (uncontrollable bouts of sleep during the day). The other 35 million suffer from a lack of sleep from the stress of work, relationships, finances, and even from electric lights, TV, the Internet or jet lag.

The average American sleeps roughly six to seven hours a night…if we´re lucky. A century ago people in this country were sleeping about 1 ½ to 2 ½ hours longer. That´s a significant difference.

The Sleep Switch:

Scientists have discovered that we have a “sleep switch” in our brain…actually in the hypothalamus. Clumps of cells in the front of the hypothalamus become active during the night and keep us asleep. As morning approaches a brain chemical shuts these cells off, while sending a message to a clump of cells in the back of the hypothalamus to wake us up. These cells then remain active throughout the daylight hours until the cycle begins again.

Our eyes are the trigger:

Our eyes are extremely sensitive to changes in light and dark. When dusk falls they send signals to the hypothalamus to switch on sleep. The sleep switch signals the pineal gland to release melatonin, the sleep hormone. We become drowsy and want to sleep. Early the next morning when even a glimmer of light enters our bedroom window, the sleep switch wakes us up.

Dark comes much earlier in the winter because winter is the time for longer periods of rest. When we sleep we regenerate and create energy. This energy will be essential during the months of spring and summer…the time for cleansing out toxins and sweating out old salts. During the long nights of winter our body must repair and rejuvenate. Armed with this info, we see how important it is to keep our endocrine system (adrenals, thyroid, pituitary, pineal) the glands that secrete our hormones that regulate all the functions of our bodies, as healthy as possible! This means well nourished and free of toxins.

Why we find it hard to go to sleep and hard to wake up:

When you were a kid did you fight bedtime? Do you now? Do you have a partner who is a night owl or a child who is up till midnight? Researchers now know that the switch that keeps us awake is most active one hour before our usual bedtime. So it is common to not feel sleepy at ten o´clock when we “ought to get to bed.” Suddenly we get a burst of energy and begin that project we´ve been putting off all day. Conversely, the sleep switch to stay asleep is strongest just before we wake up. So many of us feel really tired and have to fight an urge to remain under the covers. When we finally drag ourselves out of bed, start to move and take a shower, we feel just fine.

This new understanding of “what is normal” is a valuable discovery. Now you won´t think something is wrong with you if you feel lazy in the morning and wired at night. Lie in bed and stretch when you first wake up, drink some water upon rising and start to move. Gentle bouncing on a mini tramp and some simple yoga stretches that limber up the spine are excellent habits to establish. At bedtime, a routine that includes a few more gentle stretches to work out stress trapped in your muscles, a hot bath, some essential oils (like lavender and ylang ylang) diffused into the air or rubbed onto your spine will set you up for a deep profound sleep.

What is the Purpose of Sleep Anyway?

Sleep is one of the most important elements in any healing program. It is essential for success in anything you want to accomplish. Sleep is literally the key in your quest to slowing down aging, to maintaining healthy hormones and good digestion, and even in creating a healthy sex drive. When we sleep important hormones are released. One example is that the pituitary secretes growth hormone stimulating proteins that repair damaged tissue.

Sleep is also critical to emotional well-being. When we sleep, we dream. Dreams help us clear out negative emotions like fears and worries. This clearing allows us to awaken feeling refreshed and ready to start anew.

In the Time article on sleep, Harvard neurologist Dr Clifford Saper, whose team of scientists discovered the “sleep switch,” is asked his opinion on why we sleep. He feels that sleeping clears away the information signals that build up in our brain during the day as our nerve cells fire away and buildup messenger molecules that carry information. While we sleep the information is converted into something long lasting and is then cleared away so we can process more information upon arising to face a fresh new day.

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