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The (Hard and Soft) Science of a Great Night’s Sleep (Part 1)

Sleep—gotta have it. But why? And what does it do for us, really? Let’s wonder a bit about the science of sleep.

The Mayo Clinic offers “7 Steps to Better Sleep.” Harvard Medical School provides “Twelve Simple Tips to Improve Your Sleep.” And an article in the Huffington Post touts “37 Science-Backed Tips For Better Sleep Tonight.”

The reason for our interest in sleep is obvious. We all want it. We all need it. Some more than others, sure, but everyone needs to sleep. Going without sleep is uncomfortable at best, and, at worst, unhealthy, perhaps even dangerous.

Your body is programmed to make you rest on a regular schedule. As we discovered when we wondered about coffee and caffeine, while you’re awake, and as your day progresses, your body produces a chemical that slows down nerve cell activity and eventually makes you drowsy. At some point your body is forced to give in and sends you off to sleep.

Our sleep cycles are also governed by circadian rhythms. From the Latin words circa (around) and dies (day), circadian rhythms are integrally tied to our biological clock. For example, the ticking of that clock takes cues from the cycling of day and night. Workers on the night shift and travelers who quickly cross many time zones experience discomfort because their circadian rhythms have been disrupted.

Sleep is also our body’s time to recoup, repair, and recharge.

What’s going on in your body and in your brain when you sleep? The body releases growth hormones during sleep, particularly in children and young adults. Sleep is also our body’s time to recoup, repair, and recharge. Some neurophysiologists suggest that during sleep your brain exercises and repairs neural connections that weren’t active while you were awake. Studies show that a good night’s sleep improves both physical performance and memory. (Be forewarned, students, about pulling all-nighters to cram for an exam!)

Sleep is a time where your brain and body have reduced activity. You’re not moving much, you’re not thinking quite the same way as when you’re awake, and you don’t respond as strongly to external stimuli. Nonetheless, there are stages of sleep during which your brain is quite active. For instance, in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep—the sleep cycle during which most intense dreaming occurs—your brain can be even more active than when you’re awake. You may be zonked out, but your brain is still working hard for you.

So how about those tips for getting a good night’s sleep? In a companion SCU Illuminate article, Professor Thomas Plante, my esteemed friend and colleague, discusses a number of healthy sleep-related behaviors, which show that the science that underlies sleeping can be soft as well as hard.

Tom urges you to get regular exercise, but that isn’t just about making yourself tired. Evidence suggests that modest exercise—perhaps 20 minutes a day—can adjust body temperature to something more conducive to sleep, and may also help reset your internal body clock when necessary. Just don’t exercise too close to bedtime, which could make you more alert and less ready to fall asleep.

Tom suggests spending at least 30 minutes of down time before bed. In the go-go-go world so many of us inhabit, it’s all too tempting to squeeze every drop out of the day, to burn the midnight oil, and then collapse in bed. But both brain activity and bright light are signals to your body to stay alert. Bright light can also throw your circadian rhythms out of whack. Not ideal for falling asleep.

try a combination of hard and soft science to help you get the restful night you crave

So try a combination of hard and soft science to help you get the restful night you crave, for example lavender aromatherapy. A host of studies over the past decade provides strong evidence that chemicals in the oil extracted from lavender flowers has wondrous effects on the part of our nervous system that regulates body activities such as heart and breathing rates. Lavender oil can help you both fall asleep and get better quality sleep.

Finally, for a good night’s sleep, put on some socks! Studies have shown that having warm feet is a good predictor for how fast you will fall asleep.



Question to ponder:

During the week, you’re in bed by 10 p.m. and up at 6:15 a.m. Got to get to work on time. But, ah, the weekend … watch a late-night movie, sleep in. What could be better? (Yes, that’s the question!)

Illuminate, health

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