While You Were Sleeping


Written by Michel Dial, M.Ed, LPC


Sleep – the ever-elusive miracle worker. From better moods and sharper minds to managing weight and preventing cancer, sleep can do it all. But do you know how? It turns out that while we’re resting, our biological systems are hard at work throughout the night. While neuroscience and biological functioning run far deeper than my well of knowledge, I am fascinated by the immense and intricate work the brain and body do while we’re sleeping.


The Body

You may have heard that your skin restores and repairs itself overnight, hence the term beauty rest. The same is true for all our organs, tissues, and systems. According to Michael, Twery, a sleep expert at the National Institute of Health, “Sleep affects almost every tissue in our bodies. It affects growth and stress hormones, our immune system, appetite, breathing, blood pressure, and cardiovascular health.” Overnight, our blood pressure, heartrate, and breathing pace rise and fall as we pass through several rounds of sleep cycles. All these processes work to repair any damage we may have incurred over the course of a day and restore overall health. The human body is truly an amazing machine.


The Brain

Ever wonder why people say “Sleep on it” when we’re upset about something or facing a tough decision? Chances are they don’t actually know either – it’s a longstanding colloquialism that we pass down through generations. Personally, I always thought it was just about taking some extra time to mull it over or giving myself a break from thinking about it. Whatever the explanation, the general expectation is that we’ll magically wake up with a new perspective. But the magic is actually scientific. It turns out that our brains are actually very busy while we snooze.


The brain uses our sleep time to process all the information and experiences that we’ve encountered throughout the day. Its very intricate filing system sorts through all of the data and determines what to keep and what to throw away. The keepers become knowledge and memories that are stored in appropriate areas of the brain, while the rest if forgotten. This sorting and processing takes place predominantly during the REM (rapid eye movement) sleep cycle, and is what aids us in waking up with a new perspective.


Sleep Hygiene

Sleep disruptions can throw a kink in the all the heavy-duty jobs our brains do overnight. If you find yourself struggling to get deep, restful sleep, adding sleep hygiene to your lifestyle can help. To help your mind and body get the rest they need to do their oh-so-important work, consider choosing a few of these practices to increase the quality and quantity of your sleep.


1.    Exercise regularly, and at least two before you plan to go to sleep.

2.    Avoid stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine close to bedtime.

3.    Turn off video screens such as TVs, computers, and phones an hour before bed. Despite bringing about feelings of drowsiness, the light emitted stimulates your brain and inhibits deep rest.

4.    Read paper books to help you unwind without electronic stimulation.

5.    If your thoughts tend to spin out of control, especially the minute your slow down, consider making a list of your tasks and worries to clear your mind before bed.

6.    Practice meditation before bed to help you relax and calm your mind. If you’re a little unsure about meditation, there are several free apps and YouTube videos to help get you started.

7.    Steer clear of rich or spicy foods that can kick your digestive system in to overdrive.

8.    Go to bed at about the same time every night and wake up at about the same time every morning.

9.    If you drink alcohol, do it in moderation. While alcohol can help you fall asleep faster, it actually creates disruptions in heart rate dip, which means you likely won’t sleep as deeply as you would with little or no alcohol.

10. A hot shower or bath can sooth the mind and body. Use a lavender-scented body wash or scented candle for added relaxation.

11. Create a sleep paradise in your bedroom, keeping it dark, quiet and cool, but not too cold. Consider a sleep mask and ear plugs if you can’t control the light and sound of your surroundings.