Many people refuse to listen to their body’s internal cues that, in turn, has adverse consequences on the health of their mind and body. Take sleeping, for example, a relatively easy thing to do that takes our bodies from an active state to a passive state for a purpose – it’s absolutely necessary in the repair, rehabilitation and rejuvenation of the brain and body. Without sufficient sleep, especially over prolonged periods, the body experiences a wide range of side effects from increased lethargy to increased risk of chronic degenerative diseases.
The Structures of the Circadian Rhythms
What is your body’s internal cue for sleeping? Scientists call it the circadian rhythms, or the internal clock, which are regulated by specific structures in the brain. These structures combined with chemicals determine the cycle of sleeping and waking throughout a 24-hour period; the term “circadian” means “about a day”. The brain has a pacemaker-like mechanism regulating the circadian rhythms, a relatively precise mechanism that makes a person go to sleep and wake up at about the same time, day in and day out.
The circadian rhythms aren’t something that a person can control no matter how hard he may try to do so. The internal clock in every person becomes gradually established soon after birth, thus, it explains the changing sleeping pattern of babies.
This mechanism isn’t just about sleeping, however, as it has a significant influence on the daily ups and downs of the body’s biological functions. The internal clock affects blood pressure, body temperature, and hormone release, among others, so when it’s thrown out of whack, the body eventually suffers the effects. For example, your body releases melatonin, a hormone that stimulates drowsiness, at night as a prelude to sleeping.
The Sleep Stages
The brain’s structures are also responsible for the series of distinct physiological sleep stages, namely, the non-REM sleep (i.e., quiet sleep) and the REM sleep (i.e., dreaming sleep). These are also influenced, if not controlled, by the circadian rhythms.
REM sleep is as different as non-REM sleep, in the same way that these two stages of sleep are as different from wakefulness. Each stage, nonetheless, serves a necessary purpose in the health of the brain and body.
Quiet sleep aids in the restoration of the body while dreaming sleep restores the mind as well as enhances the brain’s memory and learning functions. Quiet sleep is also characterized by an “idling brain in a movable body”, a phrase coined by scientists to describe the brain and body functions at this stage. Basically, most of the brain’s cognitive (i.e., thinking) and bodily functions slows down although body movement can still happen – shifting positions during sleep happens at this stage.
Of course, you aren’t consciously aware of these things happening in your brain and body. But if you follow the cues, you should be able to transition from a state of wakefulness to a state of sleep smoothly. You will also drop into quiet sleep faster and, unless something disturbs the pattern, you will enjoy a night of restful sleep and wake up refreshed after spending eight hours on your Serta mattress.
Your brain’s wave patterns also change when transitioning from wakefulness to sleep. When you’re fully awake, your brain receives and analyzes information, sends signals to the different parts of the body, and coordinates movement, among other things. Your brain’s wave patterns on an EEG are irregular, even messy.
But when your eyes close, your brain doesn’t receive visual input and your brain waves slowly settles into a steady and rhythmic pattern. If you follow your body’s cues, you will likely find that the transition from wakefulness to quiet sleep is akin to flipping a switch – either you’re awake or you’re asleep.
The Ways of Listening to Your Cues
Your body’s circadian rhythms are such that your desire for sleep will likely be at its strongest between midnight and dawn, as well as during mid-afternoon albeit to a lesser extent. You may try to stay awake for most of the day but your body will slip into naps, perhaps between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. (i.e., mid-afternoon nap) and between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m.
Our suggestion: Don’t try to fight your circadian rhythms! Unless you’re working the night shift or graveyard shift, it’s always best to sleep when your body needs it and your brain sends the cues.
You can also work with your circadian rhythms by being mindful of your bedtime habits. For one thing, you should turn off the lights in your bedroom before hitting your bed; a small night light should suffice if you don’t like sleeping in total darkness. For another thing, you can take a warm bath to induce relaxation a half-hour before your bedtime.
You may adopt the motto about sleeping when you’re dead but it’s something that shouldn’t be taken literally. You have to sleep and it starts with listening to your body’s cues.