Article: Sleep - What Is It?

Sleep- What is Sleep?

By Ann Vlass N.D; B.Sc (Hons) 

Naturopathic Doctor and Medical scientist Ann Vlass explains the research that has shown our conscious expression; ability to adapt, relate and evolve to our environment, is due to physiological events that occur during sleep. Thus sleep is not only a recuperative process, but an evolutional necessity to survival.

Thanks to emerging research over the past decade, the nature of sleep is beginning to shed light on a host of associated health problems. This research is uncovering surprising connections sleep has with body weight, moods, insulin resistance, infertility, learning, immunity, cardiovascular disease, cancer and mental health. 

Sleep can be viewed as an involuntary state of unconsciousness (from which we can be roused) where the brain is more responsive to internal rather than external stimuli. We spend around one third of our total lives sleeping - to rejuvenate and recharge the body, detoxify toxins, repair damaged tissues, initiate growth, process and sort and store everything we have experienced that day. So when we hear the term, ‘you must get your beauty sleep’, we now know that it is not that far from the truth!

Based on findings over the past decade, experts are now associating sleep deprivation in a range of disorders, with a recent Harvard Nurses’ Health study of nearly 80,000 people, confirming a link between sleep deprivation and different cancers. Other studies indicate 4 to 6 hours of sleep per night yields a progressive, cumulative deterioration in neurobehavioral function including alertness, neuro-cognitive performance, and mood, with altered cerebral activation during cognitive tasks and increasing the severity of age-related ailments such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity and memory loss.

Sleep is part of our biological or 24-hour circadian rhythm and is governed by its evolutionary laws based on light responsive instincts. Our body and subconscious mind has conditioned us to these laws:

  • Summer means long days suggesting abundance of light and food. 
  • Winter will follow and there would be less food, so we store food as fat and prepare for hibernation. At this stage we crave carbohydrate to prepare us for winter.
  • Increasing carbohydrate consumption triggers insulin release until the body becomes insulin resistant in muscle tissues to ensure the carbohydrate excess ends up as fat.
  • The liver is activated to produce extra cholesterol by using glycogen (stored sugar) which will prevent our cell membranes from freezing at low temperature.

However, modern lifestyle has now bombarded us with ‘light toxic’ effects of artificial light, late nights, TV, computer screens etc in our society, and this is sending the wrong message to our genes, keeping us in continuous summer time consciousness. This means our bodies are continuously preparing for winter, and the end result of this ‘light toxicity’ is obesity, heart disease, stroke, mental Illness, insomnia, snoring, sleep apnea, hyperactivity and increased risk for cancers. Shorter nights also mean less melatonin (our sleep inducing hormone and protective antioxidant) but more inflammatory effects of excess oestrogen, testosterone, cortisol and insulin hormones. 

Adequate levels and an appropriate balance of the steroid hormones (Estrone, Estradiol, Estriol, Progesterone, Testosterone, DHEA, DHT, Cortisol, Androstenedione, Melatonin) are necessary for maintaining optimal health and well being in both females and males during sleep. This family of steroid hormones supports a large range of essential physiological functions including, blood lipid balance, bone mineral density, fertility, sexuality, mood balance. Insulin, Leptin, immune system messengers (cytokines) and the brain neurotransmitters (Dopamine, melatonin, Serotonin, Acetylcholine, Nor-Adrenaline, Cortisol, Opiates, and Nitrogen Oxide) also work together to maintain homeostasis during sleep.

When the body loses its balance with nature, the immune system starts to compensate. Symptoms such as insomnia, snoring, sleep apnoea and other sleep related disorders are our immune system’s internal alarm sirens warning us the body has difficulty compensating. Many immune modulators and immune protectors that are released during sleep will be compensated. These include tumour necrosis factor (TNF)- , soluble TNF receptors, interleukin (IL)-1 receptor antagonist, IL-6, and cortisol, and white blood cells (macrophages and leukocytes) which are activated to kill off harmful bacteria. So we lose our ability to heal our bodies while we sleep.

Another important immune hormone released is human growth hormone (HGH) which is important for process of building new tissues and muscles. HGH has the greatest output between midnight and 4am). Males in particular will only acquire their HGH surge at night, so it is advisable to sleep at 10pm. Low HGH concentrations can be associated with aging, Cushing’s disease, hypo-gonadism, diabetes, and insulin resistance, slow wound healing, fatigue, loss of self esteem, depression.

At night the body not only has to have an alert immune system but it also has to have an active reproductive ability and this is where the melatonin and prolactin level increase at night. They work together at night as antioxidants to protect the body from foreign invaders as well as internals organism and ensure survival by reproduction. Melatonin is the master symphony coordinator of other hormone-release and immune responses. So if you want healthy hormones and healthy immune system, you better get to sleep!


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