Written By Dr. Claudia Preyer
Humans spend 25-30% of their lifespan sleeping. Science proves that it is healthy to sleep. It is well proven that chronic sleep deficiency causes severe health impairment and a rare hereditary disease, causing progressive sleeplessness, leads to death after 12 to 18 months.
Every human has his individual circa(around)dian(diam=day) rhythm regulated by the “clock” called suprachiasmatic nucleus, influencing his entire metabolism at all times of the day and night. Sleep should cover about 8 hours at night with a timespan before midnight (with prevailing deep sleep or n-REM phases) and a period of time after midnight (with prevailing REM phases). The circadian rhythm is independent of whether you have slept or not, but slightly different for each individual.
There are two main chronotypes, the “owls” and the “larks”, which are genetically determined. “Owls” will never adapt to getting up early and “larks” will never be productive at night. The individual circadian rhythm cannot be changed by the free will or necessities dictated by society.
During the day/light hours the body digests food - during the night/dark hours, when muscles rest, the brain “digests” the activities of the day to create a new BALANCE for the start into the next day.
Sleep enhances our ability to learn, to remember and to make logical decisions; recalibrates our emotional circuits; fortifies our immune system and helps us fight infections, cancer and all kinds of diseases; regulates insulin/ blood sugar metabolism, appetite; allows growth of the intestinal microbiome; influences heart rate, blood pressure and endothelial recovery in a positive way. Sleep is one of the pillars of regeneration, essential in keeping the balance of a healthy metabolism 1.
Sleep is also important for fighting inflammation. Science shows that one night of sleep restricted to four hours led to increased monocyte production of IL-6 and TNF-alpha messenger RNA2. While monocytes are not the only source of IL-6 and TNF-alpha, they are powerful producers, and this research indicates that this is one mechanistic pathway that is activated by sleep loss.
Sleep is catalyzed by several factors, one of which is melatonin. Melatonin is produced in the pineal gland when the optical nerve transports little to no light impulses, usually from sunset to sunrise with a peak around 4:00 AM. Melatonin release tells the body that “it is time to go to sleep”.
The second most important factor in falling asleep is adenosine. The longer you are awake, the higher adenosine levels rise. High adenosine levels make you tired and fall asleep usually after you have been awake for 12 to 16 hours.
Only while you sleep and only when the body has nothing to digest at the same time (for 16 hours), a production of HGF (Human Growth Factor) takes place - absolutely essential for cell renewal and regeneration.
The WHO has declared lack of sleep to be an epidemic in industrialized nations3.
What may be the trigger of sleep disturbance?
- Too much artificial light. Constant light impulses to the supraoptic nucleus inhibit melatonin release.
- Working hours extended into the night with LED/blue light from electronic devices inhibiting melatonin release.
- The (ab)use of drugs (caffeine, synthetic stimulants, sleeping pills, alcohol).
- Travels and jet-lag jeopardizing the preset circadian 24-hour rhythm.
- Eating too much too late causes a feeling of “fullness” because digestive activity is physiologically slowed down at night. Slow digestion results in fermentation and/or putrefaction gasses which intoxicate the liver (waking up between 1:00 and 3:00 AM). A bloated abdomen pushes the diaphragm up thus increasing heart rate and causing shortness of breath (waking up between 3:00 and 5:00AM).
- Emotional stress from personal problems and fears and the inability to cope with high personal and societies’ expectations.
- Sensory overload, overstimulation by the amount of information we get, the speed of multitasking, the high expectations in instant communication all around the clock, lack of privacy, inability to “shut off” when trying to relax in front of TV or while surfing on the internet…
- Artificial regulation of room temperature.
- Interruption of sleep by alarms.
- Lack of exercise = lack of oxygen.
- Exercise/physical activity too close to bedtime.
SLEEP DISORDERS are amongst the most important problems of civilized societies. We detect:
Lack of sleep causes STRESS that impairs the function of mind and body by overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system. Lost hours of sleep (of even only a few nights) cannot be “caught up” and the body takes a long time to recover from the negative effects of an even relatively short lack of sleep. Lack of sleep (30% of population sleeps less than 5-6 hours) causes a number of problems and diseases:
- Fatigue, lack of concentration, lack of motivation, lack of creativity, lack of productivity, problems of communication, emotional disorders, dissatisfaction, being less ethical, dishonesty, egocentricity.
- Cardiovascular disease: high cortisol levels are responsible for raise of blood pressure, tachycardia; with lack of Human Growth Hormone (HGH) there is no renewal/repair of endothelial cells…
- Type 2 diabetes: insulin resistance- lack of energy in the cells
- Overweight: Leptin/ Ghrelin disbalance. Leptin is the hormone indicating satiety and proves to decrease with lack of sleep, while Ghrelin, the hormone producing hunger, rises. A tired body is hungry and stays hungry even when fed. In addition, there is evidence that lack of sleep raises the level of endocannabinoids in the blood. This is an important trigger of cravings.
It is also well established that increased body-mass-index and associated adiposity (particularly visceral adiposity) is associated with elevated circulating inflammatory mediators 4.
- Depression, Schizophrenia, Psychosis, Anxiety disorder after lack of REM sleep phases
- Learning disorders, ADHS
- Chronic pain is increased
- Infertility in men (lowered Testosterone levels) and women (lowered FSH levels)
- Cancer development and metastatic spread: a flair up of sympathetic nervous impulse induces silent inflammation and reduction of natural Killer cells. Numbers of M1 Macrophages fighting cancer cells decrease and M2 Macrophages promoting cancer increase. WHO has officially declared work with night-shifts as potentially cancerogenic.
- Disorder in gene regulation and expression
Evidence suggests a role for the endocannabinoid system in sleep. Use of cannabinoids have been linked to a decreased sleep latency with greater ease in getting to sleep, but consistently reduced total rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep and REM density 5.
For some time now, however, a trend – admittedly a very old one – has been spilling over to us, with which numerous sleep problems are supposed to be improved. Above all - this trend that should make us physically healthier and more efficient. It is called "slanting sleep".
In this inclined sleeping, the entire body is elevated 3.5 to 5.5 degrees from the head . This means that it is not just about raising the upper body a little and bending it from the middle of the body. Instead, the entire body should be elevated by this angle so that you can still lie stretched out and straight. Of course, the entire bed or at least the mattress must be inclined accordingly.
Archaeological finds from the kingdom of the pharaohs in 3000 BC Chr. gave the first indications of this research approach. It was found that the bed of the pharaohs was already tilted 5 degrees upwards . The well-known physician Hufeland is said to have warned his patients several hundred years ago against sleeping completely horizontally.
The actual theory of modern sleep researchers is this: normal, horizontal sleeping means that gravity only has a very small effect on our body.
Lying horizontally flat is said to increase blood pressure in the brain . Due to this increased intracranial pressure, regeneration processes in the body seem to no longer proceed properly and this can lead to various problems. Blood and lymph circulation is also impaired in the horizontal position.
The symptoms that are improved or reduced by sleeping at an angle are said to be:
- high blood pressure
- sleep apnea and snoring
- cardiovascular issues
- back pain and spinal problems
- cold feet
- headaches and migraines
- prostate problems
- clogged sinuses
- overactivity of the nervous system
A convincing example is to be found in the research of the space agency NASA. Astronauts floating in space showed all of the symptoms mentioned above6. NASA scientist Joan Vernikos is said to have done over 200 studies showing that the lack of gravity - whether in space or when lying horizontally - leads to various problems.
Recent studies on the same topic , already show some evidence that an inclined sleeping position could improve many symptoms. A study from 2014 showed that sleeping at an angle can regulate blood sugar levels and therefore also suggests a possible improvement in diabetes 7. There is another study showing that apnea and snoring can be improved by raising the bed 8.
By the way: a sloping position also helps when you have a cold, so that your nose stays clear throughout the night.
The easiest way to do this is to simply raise your bed at the head with two wedges or a stack of old books of the same size under the feet at the head end. You can assume that you have to raise your bed by about 14 cm at the head end for a total incline of about 4 degrees . Of course, you can also approach it a little more professionally. With the search term "sleep at an angle" you will immediately find some suppliers of special mattresses or entire bed systems.
In any case, the theory sounds plausible: the reduced gravity in a horizontal sleeping position causes various problems. If we tilt the body, the blood and lymph flow can circulate better and the detoxification processes also seem to work better. In an everyday life in which we usually don't move much anyway, such hacks can be really valuable.
- Walker M(2017), Why We Sleep. Scribner/ Simon& Schuster, New York
- Irwin MR, Wang M, Campomayor CO, Collado-Hildago A, Cole S. Sleep deprivation and activation of morning levels of cellular and genomic markers of inflammation. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2006;166:1756–1762. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16983055/
- Sleepless in America, NationalGeographic,http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/sleepless-in-america/episode/sleepless-in-america
- Obesity is associated with macrophage accumulation in adipose tissue. Weisberg SP, McCann D, Desai M, Rosenbaum M, Leibel RL, Ferrante AW JrJ Clin Invest. 2003 Dec; 112(12):1796-808. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14679176/