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Sleep: Why is it so Important!?

By Jack Bornyan @thetherapistsjournal__

Sleep provides one of the recreating and nourishing aspects of human existence. It allows our bodies to rest and recuperate from the demands of life, saves our body’s energy, restores daytime mental function, and is required for physical growth and development. Our blood pressure, heart rate, breathing and body temperature decrease in a sleeping state compared with wakefulness, and this is what rests our bodies (Pfizer Australia, 2007). Causes of sleep disruptions and sleep disorders include biological issues, such as brain wiring and chemistry. These are affected by psychological and social factors. Research shows that psychosocial stressors affect the sleep cycle and its different phases as well as increasing the wakening experienced by an individual.

So, let’s begin this journey of sleep together…

You might have heard of something called REM (rapid eye movement)? REM sleep is when your eyes move quickly in different directions (eye movement doesn’t happen during non-REM), individuals also dream and their body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate and breathing increase to levels experienced when they are awake. Non-REM sleep occurs in the final 3 stages of our sleep cycle and in the last and deepest sleep, this is called slow wave sleep (SWS), whereas REM sleep happens during the first stage. Without getting too scientific on you, when we enter stages 2-4 our neurons begin to slow down and fire at a slower frequency, therefore allowing them to become in sync with one another, this is what the scientists call delta waves.

So, what else is happening while we sleep? I mean if our neurons aren’t firing, what are they taking a break? Well, yes. When we are asleep amazing things are happening in the background, such as our brains being cleaned, washed or attending a midnight spa treatment, however you want to view it. This discovery was made when a study on mouse brains was conducted in 2013 which found that neurotoxins were being cleaned out of the brains while the mice slept. Toxins such as beta amyloid were amongst those to be washed away. This specific toxin turns into plaque inside the brain over time, disrupts brain function and is highly associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

A Boston University team took the 2013 mouse study further and allowed human participants to fall asleep inside an FMRI machine, which then let the research team to measure blood oxygen levels and the flux of CSF. They also measured the electro currents using an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap.

Which brings me back to this midnight spa treatment, who or what is responsible for this process? Meet cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which is a clear fluid that surrounds our spinal cord and brain and provides it with nutrients as well as acting like a protective cushion. This fluid comes in and cleans our brain waste, and because the neurons are firing at a slower rate all together the brain doesn’t require as much oxygen or blood flow. So, with that said, the neurons light up, then go dark, CSF comes in and fills in the space, CSF goes out, neurons light up and so on. You can picture it becoming like a gentle cycle for in a washer.

What the research team gathered from this study was, the waves of sleep that we experience throughout the night, our brain, during REM and non-REM sleep is processing information and forming memories. It is then consolidating information and committing it to our long-term memory. Both REM and non-REM cycles alternate throughout the night while we sleep. Up until this point, you might be thinking, “WOW! my brain doesn’t get a break”. It seems that way doesn’t it? But it’s how we treat our bodies that our brain will thank us.

When providing psychoeducation to clients, therapists will use the term sleep hygiene, and from what we have explored together, you can see where that word hygiene comes into play.

Ways that we can practice good sleep hygiene habits:

Sleep Hygiene for Young Children:

  • Keep consistent bedtimes throughout the week

  • Avoid letting the child spend lots of non-sleep time in bed, which keeps the developing brain associating bed with sleep time

  • If the child is not drowsy, delay the arranged sleep time by 15-30 mins

  • Avoid technology in the child’s room such as TV, tablets, phones etc

  • Maintain a regular bedtime and waking schedule, including weekends

  • Avoid stimulating activities before bedtime, such as watching TV, exercise or rowdy play with parents/siblings

  • Introduce a comforting object such as a teddy bear, book, blanket or pillow in order to feel safe when caregiver is not around

  • If checks are required during the night, caregivers should make them short and boring. The only purpose of a “check” is to reassure the child that you are present, and they are ok

Sleep Hygiene for Adolescents:

  • Bedtime should follow a predictable and non-stressful sequence of events, such as picking out tomorrow’s outfit, brushing teeth, and then reading relaxing non-screen material or listening to music.

  • Keep consistent bedtimes throughout the week and avoid if possible, sleep in’s or late nights

  • Avoid high stimulation activities such as exercise, TV, game consoles, tablets, phones or computers etc

  • Engage in physical activity during the day

  • Avoid going to bed hungry or overly full

  • Avoid stimulant food and drinks, such as coffee, black tea, chocolate, juices or soft drinks

  • Relaxation techniques such as performing deep, slow abdominal breaths or imagining positive scenes like being on a beach can help encourage relaxation

  • Worry time should not be at bedtime. A “worry time” might be scheduled when he or she is encouraged to journal about worries or discuss them with a caregiver or support person

  • If the adolescent is restless in bed, they should lay on the floor and relax or lay and engage in non-screen activities such as reading. This will allow the adolescents developing brain to not associate bed with sleeplessness

Sleep Hygiene for Adults:

  • Consistent bedtime routine eg. brushing teeth 1 hour before bed, non-stimulating activities such as reading or a warm bath with essential oils *

  • Comfortable sleeping environment: a quiet, cool and dark room with comfortable bedding *

  • Exercise regularly throughout the week, avoid if possible, to exercise before your bedtime

  • Avoid caffeinated drinks such as coffee or black tea, alcohol

  • Avoid smoking before your bedtime

  • Avoid naps just before your bedtime, if you are sleepy during the day, go to bed and set a timer for 45 mins (45mins gives you the right amount of time to regenerate still within the REM sleep cycle, being stage 1)

  • Leave blinds open for natural sunlight to enter your room, and wake with the sun *

  • Go to bed when you are drowsy *

  • Mix and match as you will, you’ll find what works for you over time. Personally, the 45-minute naps, cool room, waking with the sun work for me. You can’t ever catch up on sleep, however, your body will alert you when you are running on empty. Remember, it’s essential that we get sleep in order to conserve energy, maintain mental function, process information and for our overall physical growth and development.

One last thing, hydrate! hydrate! hydrate!

Happy sleeping! ZzzZzzZzz

Key: * = Also for young children and adolescents

Click on this link for a free sleep diary template:

Click on this link for a free handout on sleep hygiene:

For additional handouts and worksheets on sleep, check out this link:

About The Author:

Jack runs an instagram page called @thetherapistsjournal__ where he shares great information & quotes on mental health. Jack is coming to the end of his third year of his Bachelor of Counselling and will be commencing a Graduate Certificate of Psychology in 2021. His interests include working with children & adolescents, ACT Therapy, Identify Crises, and the LGBTQIA+ community.

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