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Sleep, the Great Healer
by Don Bennett, DAS

For many years, science did not know why we slept. It was obvious that we did, but we had no idea why. Although today we know why, it is not common knowledge, and it really should be, because sufficient quality sleep is vital for vibrant health. Some refer to sleep as "recharging your batteries". This is very close to the truth. It has been estimated that 85% of the U.S. population is "under-slept", and this, in addition to other violations of the "basics of health" account for the tons of serious degenerative disease plaguing our society.

To understand how important sleep is to your physical and mental health, we need to understand what happens during sleep. You have two types of energy in your body (some say more than two, but we'll focus on the two physiological energies). When you mention the word energy, the energy most people think of is caloric energy, which you get from the fuel you consume (your food). The fuel is "burned" by the body, and the resulting energy powers your cells, muscles, etc. This energy is what accounts for the heat your body gives off, much the same way a car's engine gives off heat when it is running (but the human machine is about 10 times as energy efficient as a car -- we get about 300 MPG... and if we eat right, zero emissions).

The second type of energy doesn't get a lot of press. It's not taught in schools, or even to most healing practitioners, but its role in healing is PARAMOUNT. It's referred to as nervous system energy, or "nerve energy" for short. It's made up of ions, and is electrical in nature. Much harder to quantify than caloric energy, but just as important, nerve energy is used in every function of the body. It's the stuff nerve impulses are made of. It powers the brain. It inhabits every one of your ten trillion cells. It's responsible for growth, thought, and healing. You replenish caloric energy by eating; you replenish nerve energy by sleeping. When you're low on nerve energy, you are "enervated". Things that sap your nerve energy (like anger and over-eating) are termed "enervating" (and the more enervating things you no longer participate in, the better off you'll be both emotionally and physically).

When you're low on nerve energy, you get tired. This fatigue isn't for a lack of food. If it was, all you'd have to do is eat and you'd be re-energized (which is what the Snickers candy bar folks want you to believe). At this point I should mention that being low on nerve energy is not the same as a low blood sugar level, which can also make you feel exhausted. But that's a whole other article. Assuming you eat right, when you get tired, you need nerve energy replenishment. And you get it from sleep.

First we need to know some "sleep basics". Sleep is divided into four phases, characterized by the type of brain wave activity in each. The lightest phase of sleep is Phase 1, the deepest phase is Phase 4. You start out in Phase 1 then progress through 2 and 3 to Phase 4, then back again, 3, 2, 1. Then you dream. Dreaming takes place in Phase 1. Then back to Phase 2 and so on throughout the night. But what takes place in Phase 4 is crucial to your wellbeing. That's when nerve energy is replenished.

It's also when healing takes place. How do we know? A study was done where college students were given paper cuts, and then monitored as they slept. When their sleep approached Phase 4, they were prevented from entering. They weren't woken up completely, just prohibited from getting "deep sleep". And guess what... their paper cuts didn't heal. But the paper cuts of the control group, who were allowed to get Phase 4 sleep, did. Very telling!

During an average night's sleep, you should be getting about three or four cycles of each phase. But there are certain things that can prevent you from getting a "restful night's sleep" (getting enough Phase 4). Eating just before going to sleep (or eating a large last meal of the day), going to sleep dwelling on problems, too much unmanaged stress in your life, ingested irritants, stimulants, and toxins (like pesticides), a bedroom that isn't 100% dark, sleep aids, medications, and external noises can get in the way of a good night's rest. And, of course, going to bed too late can cause a Phase 4 deficit if your alarm clock wakes you up before you've had enough sleep. Shortchanging yourself even just one Phase 4 cycle a night doesn't seem like much, but when it happens night after night for years on end, you're not getting enough "healing time" or enough recharging of your nerve energy. These deficiencies are a MAJOR contributing factor to degenerative disease. If the recharging of your car's battery is shortchanged, the battery can be damaged and its life expectancy will be shortened. Shortchanging the recharging of your body's nerve energy is no different.

You should awake in the morning feeling refreshed. If you don't, you're asking for trouble. You shouldn't need coffee or other stimulants to "get going". If you find yourself saying, "I can't function until I've had my morning coffee", that's not a good sign. That scenario is a breeding ground for cancer. You should be so re-energized from sleep that drinking coffee in the morning would make you feel terrible... way too stimulated.

Another thing that can disturb Phase 4 sleep is the dreaded alarm clock. It has no way of knowing you are in Phase 4 when it does its thing at 6 AM. Being woken out of Phase 4 sleep is a disturbing thing; not just to you, but to your body too. Humans are designed to wake up from Phase 1. When the sun first begins to rise, the light shines through your eyelids signaling your brain that morning approaches. As the sun continues to rise over the next 30 minutes, the brain brings you out of the deeper phases of sleep, into the lightest phase. That's how it's supposed to work. But if you must get up before the sun does, you run the risk of being woken from Phase 4 (especially problematic during the winter months when sunlight is scarcer). You'll know if you're awoken from deep sleep because you lie there not knowing who or where you are for a few moments. And if you can fall right back to sleep after hitting the snooze button, you didn't get enough sleep.

Here are some tips to help you get a good night's sleep:

1. Your bedroom should be 100% dark. Any light interferes with your sleep mechanism.

2. Don't eat within four hours of going to sleep (this will take some practice). Your digestive system needs rest too, and is a big consumer of nerve energy (that's why the easier your digestion, the more nerve energy is available for healing and general vitality). If you must eat something near bedtime, make it a high water content fruit, and eat only a tiny bit. The goal is to go to sleep with no food in the stomach.

3. Don't take problems to bed with you. Pretend your bedroom is your own private amusement park. Any problems will not be solved in the short period of time between hitting the sack and falling asleep. Don't worry, the problems will still be there tomorrow; you can ignore them for a few minutes. If something pops into your head as you're falling asleep, don't dwell on it, just jot it down on a small pad that you keep by the bedside, and deal with it in the morning. To help you remember that the bedroom is no place for problems, choose a name for your park, make a sign, and hang it above the door to your bedroom.

4. Do only fun things in your bedroom. No problem solving. No fretting. No planning. Watch funny movies, read funny books. Try to go to sleep with a smile on your face. How? As you're falling asleep, think of something that makes you smile. Trust me, it'll make a big difference!

5. If you get up to an alarm clock, get one that makes sure you wake up in Phase 1. There is just such a "smart clock". It incorporates a lamp that mimics sunrise. If you want up at 6 AM, you set it for 6 AM, and at 5:30 the light comes on, very dim at first, then over the next 30 minutes, it gets brighter and brighter, just like the sun. Assuming you went to bed early enough, when the alarm beeps at 6 AM (even the beep starts out softly), you'll wake up gently and easily. People who use this clock love the way it allows them to start the day. You can find this clock at www.health101.org on the products page.

6. Prepare your brain for sleep. Normally, as the day ends, the setting sun's diminished light causes the brain to release melatonin, which prepares you for sleep. But we keep our environment lit long after the sun has set thanks to Thomas Edison's electric light bulb. When it's time to doze off, we switch off the lights and expect to fall asleep. The sun would never set so suddenly, so our brain doesn't prepare us for sleep in this manner. The smart alarm clock mentioned above also mimics a sunset, slowly lowering the "sunlight" triggering your brain to prepare your body for sleep… a must-have feature for anyone who has trouble falling asleep.


Here is something else that you'll find "illuminating" from Mr. Edison:

"The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will interest his patients in the care of the human frame, in diet, and in the cause and prevention of disease."


A quick note on being "overtired". There is no such thing as getting "too much sleep"! If you feel bad after sleeping for 12 hours, it is not because you slept too much, it is because you weren't getting enough deep sleep during that time.

Sleep is a vital necessity, just as air is. Can you hold your breath for as long as you want? No. Can you go without sleep for as long as you want? Also no. Even when you know, and remind yourself, that if you fall asleep while driving on the highway you'll crash and very likely die, you will eventually fall asleep at the wheel if your body doesn't have enough nerve energy to keep you awake. What do some people do when they find themselves nodding off during the day? Instead of going to sleep earlier, they take stimulants to stave off sleep... the WORST thing you can do to your body's healing system. And taking sleep aids should be a last resort (and if you follow the above tips, they shouldn't be necessary).

These days we focus on eating better, getting enough physical activity, managing stress, and even drinking enough water; all important factors if avoiding disease is your goal. But little attention is paid to getting enough restorative sleep. Equal attention must be given to all aspects of a healthy lifestyle if living a long and healthy life is on your "To Do" list.

Sweet dreams!

Recomended Reading:

Lack of Sleep can lead to Weight Gain

Book: Why We Sleep <-- Fantastically illuminating book!

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