The Neuroscience of Sleep: How Sleep Works and How to Get More of It

The Neuroscience of Sleep: How Sleep Works and How to Get More of It

Sleep is, for many, the ultimate neurohack. Neurohackers track it and hack it. But even with all the sleep optimization tools available, quality Zzzs remain a challenge for many. Almost half of all Americans say they feel sleepy during the day and 35.2% of all adults in the U.S. report sleeping on average for less than seven hours per night. 

Getting a good night’s sleep requires timing and precision of what to release, where in the brain to release it, and when to release it. In a nutshell: sleep isn’t simple. It’s a complex ensemble of multiple interacting molecules and pathways that are dependent on circadian rhythms and is strongly influenced by our behaviors, thoughts, and environment. 

The good news is that the brain can effectively regulate all of these different factors with the right support. But in order to support the sleep process, we must first understand the neuroscience of sleep. 

Sleep 101: The Neuroscience of Sleep

Sleep is a regulated process. The things that are most essential for survival and reproduction—activity, appetite, circadian rhythms, sex, temperature, thirst—are all controlled in a small part of the brain called the hypothalamus. 

Sleep is a time of work. While we are asleep, consciously unaware of our surroundings, the brain and body have lots of important jobs to do. Clean-up, detoxification, recovery, regeneration, and repair tasks are night jobs. This work, just like work during the day, takes cellular energy. The mitochondrial networks within cells that make this energy play an important, and overlooked role in sleep.

Sleep is a time of work. While we are asleep, consciously unaware of our surroundings, the brain and body have lots of important jobs to do.

One of the main priorities of the brain is to keep us safe. This is a good thing, because, as the character, Melisandre from the Game of Thrones says, “The night is dark and full of terrors.” Hearing remains active during sleep. It’s for this reason our brain will be more active in an unfamiliar environment (this is called the first-night effect and occurs commonly in a new hotel room) and less so when we are in an environment it has learned is safe, like our own bedroom. 

And lastly, sleep is not a uniform state. There’s non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM or dreaming sleep). Within NREM there are different stages, with deep sleep being the most restorative (and the hardest to get enough of). The neurotransmitters needed to optimize one, can interfere with the other. 

The Role of Melatonin in Sleep Regulation

Melatonin is the key darkness time-keeping molecule for the circadian wake drive. While melatonin is often thought of, and typically described, as a sleep hormone, it is a darkness hormone—it’s produced at night whether we sleep or not. Instead of being a sleep-inducer, melatonin plays a vital time-keeping role, synchronizing sleep-wake cycles with other parts of physiology.

While melatonin is often thought of, and typically described, as a sleep hormone, it is a darkness hormone—it’s produced at night whether we sleep or not.

The most obvious circadian rhythm is the one that induces sleep when darkness sets in and keeps you alert during the day. Nighttime light exposure can confuse this process, suppressing melatonin production and keeping you up longer. Listen in as Dr. Molly Maloof describes the power of an evening routine, where we avoid nighttime light exposure, in a recent podcast entitled: The Science of Sleep.

When there’s a large enough build up of “sleep drive,”it only takes a little easing off of the “wake drive” for sleep to occur naturally. This easing-off is signaled by the nighttime increase in melatonin production. We achieve the best sleep results when our sleep and wake drives are synchronized.

Achieving restorative sleep is far more than just taking sleep-inducing herbs before bed or a dose of melatonin many times higher than what our brain naturally makes.

But achieving restorative sleep is far more than just taking sleep-inducing herbs before bed—hitting the GABA brake hard a bit before bedtime—or a dose of melatonin many times higher than what our brain naturally makes. Sleep that restores is the result of comprehensive support of the molecules and pathways that are dependent on circadian rhythms. Yes, restorative sleep must be science-backed to feel refreshed and recharged. And Qualia Night does just that. Learn more here

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