Sleep and your precious brain (Part II)

Lighter, Brighter You Blog

In Part I, you discovered that sleep challenges support a huge, multi-billion dollar industry, why sleep problems are so wide-spread, why sleep is so important and whether you need less sleep as you get older. Let’s delve deeper into this important topic.

Rats know a thing or two about sleep!

Other researchers have found that when rats are deprived of sleep, their brains experience more neuronal damage due to oxidation. These researchers believe that sleep allows the brain to produce substances that act like antioxidants, to counteract all the damage that occurs during the day due to mitochondrial activity and energy production. They came to this conclusion because the levels of these compounds in the brain drop when the rat is deprived of sleep. Interestingly, one of the areas that is affected the most, is the hippocampus, which is an area important for memory and learning, and old rats were more severely affected than adult rats.  Although the neurons were damaged, they were not dead, and this left the researchers hopeful that some of the damage could be reversed with adequate sleep.  There is no reason to believe that our human brains respond differently when we are sleep deprived, in fact, researchers have found that we suffer in similar ways when sleep deprived.

Important sleep hormones


How you fall asleep is closely linked to how you stay awake. We have many neurochemicals, important for sleep, which act as hormones too:

Adenosine, one of these compounds, binds with phosphorous to form a new substance called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This is the substance that the mitochondria in our cells break down to create energy throughout our body and brain, which occurs when we are active and awake. As the day progresses, the levels of adenosine build up in our brain, triggering the desire to sleep. While we are sleeping, the levels fall again. So adenosine turns off the feeling of wakefulness, while low levels will in turn allow you to wake up again after your sleep. Caffeine blocks the release of adenosine, so that you won’t feel tired, and will carry on feeling awake. You will be acting against an ancient chemical cascade designed to ensure deep, restorative and restful sleep.

Serotonin works to regulate sleep, mood and eating behavior. It can help to keep your mood stable and regulate sleep patterns, and is useful for people who suffer from eating disorders. Serotonin stimulates the release of endogenous opioids, which are compounds that allow us to feel blissful and euphoric. When we exercise endorphins are released, a type of opioid, which is why we feel so good after a strenuous workout. Many antidepressants artificially boost this neurotransmitter. Tryptophan is the precursor, and for this neurotransmitter to be produced, we need vitamin B3, B6, vitamin C, magnesium and zinc. Serotonin is the precursor, the foundation, for the next neurotransmitter, melatonin.

Melatonin is produced by the pineal gland, a tiny bean-sized organ that sits in the center of our brain, and responds to light via our eyes. When we perceive light, a signal is sent to this little gland to tell it to stop producing melatonin, so that we can wake up. Obviously, when we see darkness, the message says "make melatonin" so that we can go to sleep. An imbalance in this important compound, means that our day/night or sleep/awake cycle gets disturbed, resulting in unpleasant changes in our ability to fall asleep, stay asleep and feel awake.

Many people simply need to get outside in the daylight, to stimulate the pineal gland to start functioning correctly, because they spend too much time indoors in unnatural, artificial light.

As we get older our production of melatonin declines, which makes it even more important to get outside at the beginning of the day to keep that pineal gland stimulated.

The pineal gland is also involved in your brain's communication system, along with the hypothalamus, so visual and auditory functions, as well as speech and learning ability can be influenced if it is not working optimally, which can manifest as forgetfulness, foggy thinking and stuttering. A quick release melatonin supplement can help induce sleep, while a slow release melatonin supplement can help you stay asleep for the night. However, only use melatonin for short-term sleep challenges, and deal with the underlying causes of your sleep difficulties, as it may lead to dependence and some people experience side-effects the next day. And, caffeine, alcohol and tobacco all interfere with the production of melatonin, by lowering its rate of production, so avoid these substances, especially late in the day.

Gamma Amino Butyric Acid (GABA) is the neurotransmitter whose action exerts a relaxing and calming feeling after experiencing stress, by counteracting the stimulating neuromessengers. It counters anxiety, and a lack has been implicated in disturbed sleep, as well as drug and alcohol addiction. The amino acid glutamine, which becomes glutamate, is the precursor for its synthesis, and vitamin B6 is required for this conversion. Alcohol and anxiolytic drugs boost GABA’s effects and are therefore very addictive.

You can stay young if you sleep well

Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is a special hormone produced in your pituitary gland at regular intervals of about 90 minutes during sleep. The most powerful wave occurs about an hour after you fall asleep at night. This hormone is imperative for stimulating the reproduction and growth of cells. Your muscles and bones can be kept healthy and strong if this hormone is produced in the quantities that your body needs. When you shortchange yourself on sleep, you can’t produce enough of this hormone to keep yourself healthy (and young). Interestingly, this hormone can also decrease the amount of fat tissue you have, which is why decreased sleep levels lead to weight gain.

Testosterone is a hormone that is generally regarded as being important for men; however, it is also secreted by women’s ovaries, and adequate amounts of this hormone are important for sustaining high levels of energy, a healthy libido, good immunity against illness and strong bones, with a decrease in osteoporosis risk.

Without enough sleep your body will produce less of these important hormones, and you will age faster and experience the side-effects of a body that cannot function optimally.

Real sleep helpers or simply myths?

Handling sleeplessness and stress with a natural approach can be very helpful, although it is even more helpful to know which ones are useful and which ones are a waste of money, time and effort. Here is a list of the most popular ones – and whether they work or not:

  • Warm milk before bedtime may be comforting, but there is no research to support this myth. There is not enough tryptophan in a glass of milk to cross the blood brain barrier to be effective in helping serotonin production.
  • Herbal teas, such as camomile may be soothing, but are very mild in sleep-inducing action and could increase your nightly visits to the bathroom, which are disruptive in and of themselves.
  • A high carbohydrate bedtime snack, can be useful if you eat dinner very early. Focus on something small like a banana or apple.
  • Sleep supplements/herbs, like passionflower, lemon balm, and hops, have been shown to be effective, but make sure they are in a standardized formula. Valerian acts in a similar way to adenosine and hops is similar to melatonin in its action. Passionflower seems to calm anxiety, which may be a cause of wakefulness and restlessness. Kava-Kava may be beneficial too.
  • Calcium and magnesium are soothing minerals and can help you achieve a good night's sleep. Focus on calcium- and magnesium-rich foods at dinnertime, and supplement with a good natural calcium and magnesium supplement about an hour before bedtime. If you are very anxious, try 500 mg of magnesium.
  • Insomnia can be helped by taking a supplement called 5-HTP, (5–Hydroxy-Tryptophan) about an hour before bedtime. This compound is converted into serotonin, and then into melatonin. If this doesn’t help after a few days, a doctor can prescribe melatonin.
  • B vitamins are involved in so many different cellular activities, that supplementing with a B vitamin is a good idea. They are involved in turning serotonin into melatonin, so a lack of them will reduce sleep capacity. As they are also involved with adrenalin production, when you are stressed you will automatically have less of them to make melatonin.
  • If you believe that general anxiety and stress is causing your sleeplessness, you may try a supplement called GABA, which is a calming neurotransmitter, as discussed above. Supplement 500 mg twice a day, on an empty stomach, to relax you naturally. In some countries you can only buy the precursor to GABA, called taurine, which then gets converted into GABA. This should be taken in 500 mg doses, twice daily before meals, and should calm you down enough to get a good night's sleep in a couple of days.
  • Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) are critical for the structure and functioning of all cell membranes, and the biochemical compounds that ensure our physical and mental well-being. They are therefore also intricately involved in our sleep patterns. EFAs also facilitate the production of neurotransmitters that calm you, and increase your resilience to stress. In addition, the pineal gland secretes melatonin, which is the major hormone involved in sleep. Rodent studies have shown that the pineal gland has a high percentage of DHA, the long chain omega-3 EFA, which means that if you are deficient in DHA, then the pineal gland will not work optimally. Ensuring that you are getting optimum amounts of these special fatty acids will help you to get back into a good sleeping pattern.
  • Caffeine interrupts the flow of melatonin, and can circulate in your body for up to 6 hours after you drink caffeine-containing drinks. Avoiding coffee altogether, or at least from midday, makes sense if you value your sleep. Avoid "energy" or cola drinks for the same reasons.
  • Alcohol may put you to sleep, but your sleep pattern will be affected and you will wake up too early. A small glass of wine, not within 2–3 hours of your bedtime may be fine, but if not, cut it out to improve your sleep.
  • Yoga is a calming form of exercise, and especially helpful for people who are suffering from adrenal fatigue. Any form of exercise is, however, helpful for people with sleep disturbances, as the body needs to move. It may be challenging to force yourself to exercise when you are sleep deprived, but even a half-hour walk will be a good start. However, avoid strenuous exercise at least 3–4 hours before bedtime, as your increased heart rate will make it difficult for you to fall asleep.
  • Talk to someone you trust, or write in a journal if your thoughts are causing you to miss out on good, deep sleep. It helps to share your concerns with someone who can offer sound, wise advice or just listen. We need psychological support in this busy, intense world that we've created for ourselves.

Sleep and illness

Your immune system also relies on adequate sleep, and, in an experiment, when the blood of sleep-deprived subjects was assessed for the presence of immune cells, these natural-killer immune cells had reduced in number when compared to subjects that had adequate sleep. Your body can more easily fight infections when it is well rested. And cutting down on sleep significantly increases your risk of getting diabetes, obesity and suffering from depression.

Your brain likes a sleep routine

What you do before you go to bed can set the scene for either a restful night or one plagued by anxiety. Avoid stressful experiences as much as possible, such as the news, for a few hours before bedtime. Get rid of technology before dinner time and don't be tempted to connect again before the next morning. Your body enjoys a proper sleep routine, so go to sleep and get up at the same time every day to establish this sleep pattern. Ensure that your bedroom is uncluttered and peaceful. It should be a haven, not a stress-den. Eat your main meal early, and only have a small snack before bedtime. Keep a notebook on your bedside table to put the thoughts that run around your head, onto paper. It is easier to keep your mind calm and relaxed when you know your plans for the next day are recorded

Two sides of the same coin

Insomnia, or sleep difficulties, are both a symptom of something not working in your life, as well as a condition that needs to addressed. When you deal with the underlying cause, you are helping to resolve the issue, but it is wise to also deal with the symptom, by trying some of the natural supplements and a specific sleep routine, that can help you sleep. When we are well rested, we handle challenges and stress with greater ease. Dealing with both sides of this issue, will give you a better chance of getting that wonderful sleep your body and brain need.


When you try to squeeze something as important as sleep into the time frame that suits you, and not what your body and brain require, you will pay the price, with both physical, mental and psychological problems. You are fooling yourself if you think you are getting more done by skipping sleep. You may be up and awake, but it is much harder for your brain to focus on what you are doing, and to remember what you need to recall, when it is tired. Energized thinking only occurs in a well-rested brain, so you can get ahead in whatever you are trying to accomplish, by having good solid sleep every night.



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