There are two kinds of sleep: orthodox sleep, which is dreamless - sometimes called `synchronized slow-wave sleep' because of the brain wave patterns that accompany it - and paradoxical sleep, during which dreaming occurs along with rapid eye movement (REM), sometimes called desynchronized sleep. Orthodox sleep is vital for physical restoration of the body while paradoxical sleep is essential to your mental and emotional stability. Research into sleep measured by electroencephalograms has shown that all of us spend our sleep time moving in and out of these two stages in predictable rhythmic patterns. If for any reason these patterns are repeatedly disturbed, we suffer.
There are four levels or depths to orthodox sleep. When you fall asleep you move into the first level, characterized by low-amplitude fast-frequency brain wave patterns. Sometimes sleep starts with a sudden twitching movement called a myoclonic jerk.
This is the result of a sudden flare-up of electrical activity in the brain, as in a minor epileptic seizure. Then, as you move to level two and even deeper into levels three and four, there is a general slowing of the frequency, and an increase in the amplitude of your brain waves.
REM sleep, which is diametrically opposite to orthodox sleep in many ways, is just as vital. It more than earns its name `paradoxical' by being a mass of contradictions: although the body is virtually paralyzed during the REM state, the fingers and face often twitch and the genitals become erect. Breathing speeds up to the level of your normal waking state. Heartbeat rate, blood pressure and temperature rise, and adrenaline shoots through the system. Beneath the lids your eyes move rapidly from side to side as though you were looking at a film or tennis match. And this is exactly what is happening - you are viewing images that come rapidly in succession. Your brain waves in the REM state show a marked similarity to the rapid, irregular patterns of being awake.
Although the exact purpose of REM sleep remains a mystery, researchers know that it is essential for maintaining one's mental and emotional equilibrium. The need for paradoxical sleep also varies from one person to another. How much you will need is related both to your personality and your general psychological state. Longer periods of REM sleep and more of them throughout the night take place in times of psychic pain, or when your defense patterns are being challenged by new demands. Women tend to have increased REM sleep during the three or four days before the beginning of a period. For most women this is a time of increased anxiety, irritability, mood changes, and unstable defense patterns. But there is a lot that is not known about the function of paradoxical sleep. Well-known French researcher Michel Jouvet, who has done extensive studies of the REM state in animals and their unborn young - in which it occurs as well - believes it is a kind of practice of the genetic code in which lower animals run through their instinctive behavior patterns. In mammals and man, he thinks, it is a time when we are probably practicing our learned behavior, as each night we go through the process of integrating new information with the knowledge we already have.
Normally you fall asleep and remain for a short time at level one and two, and then plunge into levels three or four to stay there for seventy to one hundred minutes. At that point comes your first period of REM or paradoxical sleep when dreams begin. This dream period of REM lasts only ten to twenty minutes. It is repeated again at about ninety-minute intervals throughout the night with orthodox, undreaming sleep in between, culminating in the longest period of REM - usually about half an hour - just before you wake up.
During orthodox sleep your body is quiet, heartbeat slows, blood pressure falls slightly, and your breathing gets slower and more regular. Even your digestive system winds down. In the deeper levels of orthodox sleep, brain waves gradually become more synchronized, as if everything is at peace. At such times your body's restorative processes come into their own, rapidly repairing damaged tissues and cells, producing antibodies to fight infection, and carrying out a myriad of other duties necessary to keep you healthy. Without orthodox sleep in all its different stages, this important vegetative restoration does not take place properly and you become more prone to stress-damage, illness, early aging, fatigue and muddled thinking. Orthodox sleep is the master restorer.
When scientists disturb sleepers in the orthodox state, they find that deprivation of orthodox sleep doesn't lead to any psychological disturbances. But after being deprived of REM sleep for several days, sleepers become desperate for it. Their normal sleep patterns alter so that they slip into REM immediately on falling asleep and then experience twenty to thirty periods of it each night instead of the usual three. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as `REM rebound'. It is often accompanied by fierce nightmares as psychic imagery, too long repressed, seeks strongly to reassert itself. Sleeping pills repress this REM phase, and repression can result in lasting psychological damage to the pill popper. After taking sleep-inducing drugs regularly, when you come off them you may fear you are going crazy as you start to experience the REM rebound. Vivid and frightening hypnagogic images and nightmares appear, as the body hungrily tries to make up for what it has been denied.
There are other reasons to steer clear of sleep-inducing drugs too. Both barbiturates and non-barbiturates prescribed for sleep are physically and psychologically addictive - barbiturates to an even greater degree than heroin. They can be fatal, even at low dosage, when mixed with alcohol in the bloodstream. Finally - something that few people realize - they are also not very effective over the long-term. Sleeping pills can be successfully used to bring on sleep only for the first week or two. After that, dangerously increased doses are needed to work.
When sleeplessness becomes chronic it can leave you feeling exhausted, hopeless and washed out, in which case something needs to be done about it. Sleeping pills are not the answer. Their side-effects include digestive problems, poor concentration, disorders of the blood and respiration, high blood pressure, liver and kidney troubles, problems with vision, depression, dizziness, confusion and damage to the central nervous system. Using them can even lead to worse insomnia. There are better ways.
For many people who rely on sleeping pills, the power of suggestion brought about by putting one in the mouth and swallowing it is far more useful than the drug in introducing sleep. The drug itself can only do harm in the long run, sleeping pills themselves put your body under continual stress. There are safer and more effective ways of getting to sleep using nature's sleep aids.
how much sleep?
The amount of sleep you need varies tremendously from one person to another. It also varies from one day to the next. There is no truth in the idea that you need eight hours of sleep to stay well and feel energetic. You might need ten hours, while another person gets on very well with four and a half. One study showed that short sleepers tend to be active, outgoing people who are sociable, flexible in their personalities and more conformist socially. Those wanting longer periods of sleep are more introverted and creative and are particularly good at sustained work. Often the more stress-filled your day, the more sleep you will need to balance it.
As we get older we tend to sleep less. Many sixty and seventy-year-olds get by on a mere three or four hours a night. Occasionally you meet someone who sleeps as little as half an hour to an hour each night, yet appears to be perfectly normal. The amount of sleep you need depends so much on your biological and psychological individuality that you can't make hard and fast rules about it. Many high achievers and great minds throughout history - Napoleon, Freud, and Thomas Edison, for instance - have been poor sleepers, while others like Einstein could sleep the day away.
Many people who consider themselves insomniacs are really victims of general propaganda about sleep rather than true non-sleepers. And many people seek treatment because they can only sleep four or five hours a night, although that may be all they need. Forget insomnia.
But the idea that you need a certain amount of sleep each night to stay well is a powerful one. For many people it is so embedded in their unconscious that if they only get seven hours one night instead of eight, they are convinced they will be tired next day and soon develop all the signs of it. If you are one of these people, try re-examining your premises, and experiment - sleep less and see what happens. You may find that how you feel after a certain amount of sleep depends more on your own choice than on the time spent in bed. Try sleeping less for a few days. Many people find when they do, they actually have more energy.
Although it is best not to go to bed on a full stomach, some people find it helpful to have a little something before retiring. Some foods help promote sleep because they contain high quantities of the amino acid tryptophan - a precursor to the calming brain chemical serotonin - or because they encourage the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin. Others taken at bedtime can disrupt sleep, because they stimulate or because they contain high quantities of the chemical tyramine, which increases the release of noradrenaline - a brain chemical which excites the nervous system. Find out what bedtime snacks work for you.
Water, applied to your body, can `stress' your system in very positive ways - ways which make you stronger and more resistant to illness and which can increase overall vitality. It can improve biological functioning and provide a healthy mental stimulation which takes you away from the habitualized ways of thinking which can result in boredom, stress, and sleeplessness.
Sebastian Kneipp, after whom European hydrotherapy is named, was born in Bavaria in 1821, the poor son of a humble weaver with an ambition to become a priest. While studying for the priesthood he contracted tuberculosis: his physicians pronounced him incurable. But Kneipp was unwilling to accept their judgment. He came across an old book written by a German physician on the curative powers of water and began to experiment on himself by applying water in various ways. This, coupled with a growing awareness of the body's own ability to heal itself in accordance with certain laws of nature, brought him back to full health. He went on to develop hydrotherapy into the remarkable therapeutic and preventative system which bears his name.
In a world where the benefits of an invigorating, quick shower are more and more appreciated, it is easy to forget the bliss and the relaxation of a long lazy bath. Water - especially when it has been fortified with plant essences - has the power to soothe, heal and relax a tense body, to lift a fatigued spirit, and to put you in just the right frame of mind for sleep. See A benevolent bath.
Several herbs act as safe and natural tranquilizers which can help relax your mind and body for sleep. One of the most popular is passionflower, or passiflora; others include hops, valerian root and skullcap. You can swallow them in pill or capsule form or make a herbal tea night cap. The classic bedtime herbal tea is chamomile, or you could try a tablespoon of orange flower water stirred into a cup of hot water with a little honey. See Herbal help.
You've counted a hundred sheep, told yourself to relax, tried the left side, the right side, the back, the front, turned the light back on, read your book, done the crossword, turned the light off again and still you're wide awake. Your mind is racing. So why lie there and let it? Rather than try to block all your thoughts out of your head, face them. See Write It Out.