In the past, I’ve written about the importance of sleep, supplements for sleep, and how bad sleep impacts your hormones.

Today, I’m going to go much deeper than I’ve ever gone in the past on the topic of sleep. So don’t go to bed yet. Wait until you finish this article (see what I did there?).

In this article, you’re going to learn:

  • What happens in your brain when you sleep
  • How to determine whether you are sleep deprived
  • How sleep deprivation interacts with alcohol
  • What to do if you have a hard time sleeping.

Original source: here.

What Happens in Your Brain When You Sleep 

First, we need to define what “sleep” is. The world’s foremost sleep researcher, William Dement (in his book, The Promise of Sleep) defines sleep as the moment the brain starts producing theta waves. But let’s backtrack a little bit. Theta waves? What are those?

Original source: here.

Your brain is producing electromagnetic waves all the time, which are measured with an EEG (electroencephalogram. I spelled that without using a spellchecker. Thank you for your applause). Here is a picture of what theta waves, as well as others look like:

Original source: here.

When you are awake, and concentrating, you are producing beta waves. They are low-amplitude, high-frequency waves.

When you are either daydreaming, or in those moments lying in bed, when you’re not quite awake, but not quite asleep, you’re producing alpha waves. They are low-amplitude, high-frequency waves (but lower frequency than beta). You feel very relaxed at this point.

Then, the moment you transition from alpha straight into theta is the official beginning of sleep. What makes that the official boundary of sleep? It’s that switch from alpha to theta when the brain shuts inputs from the outside world. Theta waves are medium-amplitude, low frequency waves. This is the first part of what’s considered “deep sleep.”

After the theta waves, you transition into delta waves, which are high-amplitude, low frequency. This is part two of what’s considered “deep sleep.”

It’s during this phase of sleep (the deep sleep, characterized by delta waves) that your body releases growth hormone. Growth hormone helps your body repair. Any exercise that you did, growth hormone helps you repair from it. Any injuries that you have, growth hormone helps you repair from that as well.

After the theta waves, something interesting happens: you get into REM sleep. What’s REM? It stands for “rapid eye movement.” During REM sleep, you are asleep. Fully asleep. But your eyes are moving under closed eyelids. You’re dreaming. You may not remember your dreams, but you are dreaming.

During REM sleep, everything except for your eyes is paralyzed. Not figuratively. But literally. Otherwise, you would try to act out your dreams.

The other interesting thing about REM sleep is the brain wave patterns that you see. You see a combination of alpha, beta, and theta waves.

Your brain goes through this cycle (alpha, theta, delta, REM sleep) four times per night. Each time it goes through the cycle, the REM period gets longer.

How to Determine Whether You Are Sleep Deprived 

You might think that this is just about how you feel. But that’s not a good measurement, because how you feel is influenced by external circumstances. If you’re exercising, if you’re doing something mentally stimulating, or if you had a cup of coffee, it’ll mask the feelings of fatigue.

The gold standard to determine sleep deprivation is what’s called the “Multiple Sleep Latency Test” (MSLT). How does it work? You go to a sleep laboratory, and they hook you up to an EEG, and you go to bed. The amount of time it takes you to go from your head hitting the pillow, until you start producing theta waves determines your level of alertness and sleep deprivation.

  • If it takes you less than 5 minutes to go from awake to asleep (again, sleep is defined as the moment that you start producing theta waves), you’re severely sleep deprived.
  • If it takes you 5-10 minutes to go from awake to asleep, you’re moderately sleep deprived.
  • If it takes you 10-15 minutes to go from awake to asleep, your sleep debt is manageable.
  • If it takes you 15-20 minutes to go from awake to asleep, you’re at optimal alertness.

In one study, researchers studied people who said that they weren’t sleepy during the day. The researchers measured their MSLT. What did they find? One in five people who said they weren’t sleepy during the day fell asleep in under 5 minutes (in other words, they were severely sleep deprived, even though they didn’t feel sleepy). More than 70% of people fell asleep in 5-15 minutes, and only 10% took 15-20 minutes to fall asleep.

So what do we learn from this study? That most people who say they aren’t sleepy during the day are still sleep deprived. Or basically, they are liars. They are either lying to the researchers, or lying to themselves.

But here’s a cool, low-tech way to test your own degree of sleep deprivation: go to bed with a metal spoon in your hand. Make sure your hand is in such a position that the spoon is over the floor, not over the bed. Note the time that you go to sleep. As soon as you fall asleep, the muscles of the hand will relax, and the sound of the spoon on the ground will wake you up. Note the time. That’s your own sleep latency. Pretty cool, eh? I came up with it all on my own. OK, no I didn’t. I learned it from William Dement’s book, The Promise of Sleep.

How Sleep Deprivation Interacts with Alcohol 

You know how “they” say “don’t drink and drive?” Well, that’s good advice. Not only because alcohol slows your reactions, but it’s also a mild sedative. But how does alcohol interact with sleep deprivation?

In one study, researchers took two groups of people:

Group 1 was not sleep deprived, and given alcohol.

Group 2 was sleep deprived, and given alcohol.

The results: in group 1, alcohol acted as a mild sedative. In group 2, alcohol acted as a very strong sedative. So when you combine sleep deprivation with alcohol, it takes fewer drinks, and a lower blood alcohol content to make you a bad driver. So be careful.

What to Do If You Have a Hard Time Sleeping 

Since I covered supplements for sleep in this article, I won’t rehash that, but I’ll give you a couple of other strategies.

Sleep State Restriction 

In this method, you purposely restrict your sleep. Why? To build an even bigger sleep debt than you’re already carrying, which will make your sleep drive that much stronger.

How do you do it?

If you think you sleep 5 hours per night, then that’s all you give yourself. Go to bed at 2AM, and set your alarm clock for 7AM. You’re not allowed to go to bed earlier than 2AM, or wake up later than 7AM.

As you can imagine, the following day, you’ll be tired. Extremely tired. And that’s good. It’ll drive you to sleep that much longer, and that much deeper.

So the next day, you add half an hour. You go to bed at 1:30AM, and wake up at 7AM. And keep on increasing your sleep window by half an hour per day, until the sleep debt is paid off.

The key is that during this time of sleep window expansion, you’re not allowed to use stimulants to keep yourself up. No coffee. The entire point here is to not mask your fatigue and drowsiness. The goal is to let the fatigue and drowsiness build up.

This strategy works well, because the more sleep-deprived you are, the sooner you go into deep sleep (theta and delta waves).

For example, when you’re well-rested, and you go to bed, it may take you 15-20 minutes to get into deep sleep. If you’re sleep-deprived, it may take you less than 5 minutes to get into deep sleep.

Cognitive Techniques 

You can of course use the old, tried, tested, and true “counting sheep” method of counting arithmetic. For example, count backwards from 1000 by 7s. If you find that you have a racing mind, this works very well. After all, if you focus on simple arithmetic, you can’t focus on anything else, and eventually, by the time you get to 993, you’re so bored, you fall asleep.

You can also watch other boring things. These include movies like Star Wars, golf, and curling. In my case, hockey, and basketball also do a fine job as well of putting me to sleep.

Ah, I can feel the hate mail coming 🙂

Bowen Technique

I’ve briefly talked about the Bowen Technique in the past, but what it is is a gentle, hands-on technique that improves your sleep dramatically. Sometimes, the poor sleep is caused by tight shoulder and neck muscles (which is very common in office workers), which decreases blood supply to the brain. The key is to release those muscles on a long-term basis. So while massage can help, it’s not a long-term solution. Bowen actually changes the messages that the nervous systems is sending to the muscles, so after about 1-3 sessions, you sleep a lot better.