Precious Sleep – Part 3
What happens when someone can’t get to sleep no matter how hard they try? They want to sleep, it’s a priority, they have created a good sleep environment and have turned off all the distracting electronic devises. Yet, sleep still eludes them. It is under these circumstances that people often turn to sleep aids like herbal capsules, melatonin or prescription sleeping pills. Do these work to get healthy sleep? Are they safe?
The first thing to know before considering these questions is that being asleep and not being consciously awake are not the same thing. A person can appear to be sleeping, yet the requisite brain wave changes necessary for healthy, restorative sleep are not taking place. When that happens, it cannot rightly be said the person is sleeping. Let me explain.
As I mentioned in a previous article on sleep, during sleep the brain undergoes changes in a cyclic pattern. During our waking, alert time, the brain generates a frequency of brain waves called beta. Beta waves are associated with the ability to think, solve problems, analyze data, recall memories, actively concentrate and other mental tasks of our waking life. As we fall asleep, our brain waves change to other frequencies. Going from the waking beta waves, in a coordinated cyclic pattern of 90 minutes, the brain goes to alpha, theta, delta, theta, REM and then restarts the cycle. Any disruption of these necessary patterns reduces the effectiveness of the sleeping time.
The problem with sleeping pills is that though they do alter the consciousness and give the appearance of sleep, they do not allow the sleep cycles of brain wave changes to occur in their natural and restorative way. In a similar way, a person can eat a sugar substitute that tastes sweet, but there are no calories to fuel the body.
The result of chronic use of prescription sleeping medications is actually chronic sleep deprivation. Weaning off of these drugs is very difficult. It results in weeks and even months of disrupted sleep as the body tries to restore the brain function to normal.
What about the sleep disturbances that come from jet lag? Sleep problems from crossing time zones is a modern problem. Taking a 5 days cruise liner from London to New York as was routine in previous generations is just the right amount of time to adjust to that 5 hour time change. The body can adjust one hour per day. Taking a 6 hour flight to do the same thing causes some problems, as most of us have experienced.
Sleep and waking is so important there is a special part of the brain dedicated to it, called the reticular activating system (RAS). It modulates and regulates wakefulness and making our sleep-wake transitions after a night’s sleep. About 2-3 hours before we wake up, our adrenal glands discharge about 80% of our daily cortisone, which then acts on the RAS triggering wakefulness. The remaining 20% of our daily allotment of cortisone is discharged about 12 hours later. For someone waking at 7 am, the first cortisone bolus is about 4-5 am. The second one is around 4-5 pm. Cortisone is a stimulant that accounts for its contribution to waking. The afternoon lull that many people experience is frequently thought to be from the effects of lunch. However, that is the same time that the stimulating effects of the first shot of cortisone are wearing low, which is a much more likely explanation. The renewed energy or ‘second wind’ of the later afternoon is because another amount of cortisone is discharged at that time.
Therefore wakefulness is dependent in a large part on the cyclic functioning of both cortisone and the RAS. The body doesn’t really care that you have traveled across time zones. It will continue to operate on its set 24 hour cycle, secreting hormones and initiating sleep or waking according to plan. You might be in London but your RAS and adrenals are still back in L.A. Moving the set point of that cycle to accommodate your new location can be done. However, it will only move one hour per day. Therefore an 8 hour time difference between LA and London will take about 8 days to fully acclimate. That is just about the time your trip will be over and you come home, only to have to shift it all back again – taking another 8 days.
Unfortunately, there is nothing – no pill, no herbal preparation, no sleeping pills and no medications – that can make this happen faster or easier. Despite the claims in their advertising, proprietary “jet lag formulas”, melatonin or other such products cannot reduce jet lag because they cannot alter RAS and adrenal functions. It takes one day for each hour of time change with or without any of these products. What is the best way to handle jet lag? Firstly be grateful it is possible to jet around the world so fast and conveniently. Secondly, let your body come to its own balance in its own time. If that means taking things a little slower the first few days of a trip, so be it. That is a small price to pay for our high speed travel.
After reading all three of these ‘sleep articles’, it should be clear that sleep is a vital part of a healthy life. Getting good sleep should be a priority and we all should be willing to do what it takes to maximize the possibility that we will have restorative, healthy and restful sleep. Sleeping aids should be avoided since they cause more problems than they fix because they disrupt the normal brain functions and sleep cycles.
©2016 Linda Johnston, MD