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Sleep is vital to our well-being, allowing our bodies and minds to rejuvenate and recharge. While we slumber, numerous physiological processes take place, and one of the key systems affected is our nervous system. In this blog post, we'll explore what happens to your nervous system while you sleep and why quality sleep is essential for overall well-being.
The Different Stages of Sleep:
During sleep, our bodies cycle through different stages, each with its unique characteristics. These stages include rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, and the balanced interplay between them is essential for overall sleep quality and for your mind-body health.
REM sleep is characterized by rapid and random eye movements, hence the name “Rapid Eye Movement.” During REM sleep, which typically occurs around 90 minutes after falling asleep, the brain becomes highly active, resembling wakefulness. It is during this stage that most dreaming occurs. The eyes move rapidly beneath closed eyelids, and the body experiences temporary paralysis to prevent acting out dreams.
The Benefits of REM Sleep:
- Memory Consolidation: During REM sleep, the brain consolidates memories and information gathered throughout the day. It processes and stores essential details, discarding irrelevant information and strengthening neural connections related to learning and memory.
- Neuroplasticity: Your brain has the ability to reorganize itself and form new neural connections. This plasticity is crucial for learning, adaptability, and overall cognitive function. It is also during REM that your brain is forging connections between neurons, increasing your neuroplasticity.
Your brain isn’t active the whole time you’re asleep. NREM sleep, also known as non-rapid eye movement sleep, is characterized by slower brainwave activity and can be further divided into three phases: N1, N2, and N3.
- N1: This is the transition stage between wakefulness and sleep. During this phase, the brain produces theta waves, and muscle activity begins to decrease.
- N2: In this stage, eye movement stops, and brain waves become slower, with occasional bursts of rapid brain activity known as sleep spindles. Body temperature drops, and heart rate and breathing become regular.
- N3: Also referred to as deep sleep or slow-wave sleep (SWS), this stage is characterized by slow delta brain waves. Deep sleep is essential for physical restoration, hormone regulation, and immune system functioning.
The Benefits of NREM Sleep:
At a high-level overview, your brain prioritizes physical restoration during NREM sleep.
- Repair and Restoration: Deep sleep, particularly during the N3 stage, allows for physical repair and restoration of the nervous system. It promotes cellular regeneration, helps repair damaged neural connections, and supports the elimination of waste products from brain cells.
- Hormone Regulation: Adequate sleep supports the regulation of hormones, such as cortisol and insulin, which play significant roles in metabolism, stress response, and overall well-being. Disrupted sleep patterns can lead to imbalances in these hormones, affecting various bodily functions.
The Role of the Nervous System for Sleep:
The nervous system plays a crucial role in transmitting signals between different parts of the body and coordinating various bodily functions. A major part of this system, the autonomic nervous system (ANS), oversees functions that happen autonomically, without conscious thinking, even while you sleep. ANS has two modes: the sympathetic mode (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic mode (rest and digest).
When you sleep, your sympathetic mode rests, and your parasympathetic mode takes over to harmonize and orchestrate the release of growth hormones, promoting cell repair and tissue regenerative, in addition to flushing out neural waste products that create a chemical imbalance in our Central Nervous System (CNS), our brain and spinal cord.
Those suffering from disordered sleep and insomnia are suffering from a nervous system in a sustained sympathetic mode. Every time they experience a chronic sleep disturbance, it disrupts their delicate sleep cycle and impacts their health:
- Cardiovascular Health: Chronic insomnia has been associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular problems, such as hypertension, heart disease, and stroke.
- Increased Mental Health Disorders: Sleep deprivation impacts your ability to regulate your cortisol level, leading to increased levels of stress and anxiety, and can lead to imbalances in neurotransmitters because of inadequate neural waste elimination during NREM sleep.
- Increased Sensitivity to Non-Structural Pain: Sleep is when you’re creating new neural pathways and repairing damaged ones. When your brain is unable to do both, you’re sensitive to pain, making existing pain conditions feel more intense and challenging but also increasing your likelihood of deepening physical pain symptoms to a non-structural trigger.
Sleep is not merely a period of physical rest; it is a complex physiological process that profoundly impacts our nervous system. By prioritizing and ensuring quality sleep, we provide our bodies and minds with the opportunity to maintain optimal functioning, promote cognitive abilities, and support overall well-being. So, remember to prioritize your sleep and give your nervous system the rejuvenation it needs to thrive.
TLDR: Quality sleep is crucial for our nervous system's well-being. Different sleep stages, including NREM and REM sleep, contribute to memory consolidation, neuroplasticity, hormone regulation, and nervous system repair. By prioritizing sleep, we promote brain health, cognitive function, and overall well-being.