The Science


Brain Abilities offers hope to those struggling, in the form of sensible solutions and nurturing support. Our goal is to have all the bodily systems functioning optimally, in harmony, so that true wellness can be achieved.

Our unique approach combines individualized physical and cognitive exercises with supportive lifestyle initiatives which enhance nutritional status, sleep and emotional well-being.  This method of combining multiple therapeutic modalities is essential to the functional development and restoration of the brain as well as the rest of the body.

 

Function Precedes Skill Development and Maintenance

Essentially, we all need to gain a certain level of brain and body function before developing proper physical, emotional, academic and cognitive skills.  For example, a child needs to gain a specific level of function in balance, coordination, physical strength, and body awareness before developing the skill to walk.

For our brains to perform optimally we need all its specialized areas functioning at full capacity, with each at the appropriate rate and rhythm.  Once this occurs we are then able to bind information from various regions of the brain, obtain a complete picture of the task at hand and achieve our full potential.

Deficits in underling brain function are responsible for much of humankind’s difficulties with attention, emotions, academics, and socialization.  Many will live a life full of struggle do to these deficits, however this doesn’t need to be the case because the brain is changeable.  The brain changes itself through a concept known as Neuroplasticity.  You may read more about Neuroplasticity in its tab below.


Target Specificity and Integration

Years of research has shown the scientific community that certain stimuli affect specific areas of the brain.  For instance low frequency sound is processed by and affects a different area than high frequency sound.   Throughout our assessment, this understanding helps us not only determine what areas of the brain are functioning deficiently, but it also gives us the ability to design a program that targets those areas for remediation.  You may read more about our evaluation and report process below.

Our total body approach addresses the entire individual and his environment. This methodology is essential because the brain operates by integrating all of its functions at once.  Therefore, it stands to reason the best way to increase brain function and produce positive change is through the cumulative effect of an integrative program.

Our services utilize the five senses, movement, nutrition, cognition and lifestyle education, it is this integrative approach that helps increase brain function and creates lasting change.


Education and Support

It has been our experience that many of our clients and their families are confused about the struggles that beset them.  There is good reason for this as many have received incomplete or erroneous information regarding their difficulties. Some have received an opinion of what the problem is with no comprehensive long-term solution offered. 

We offer a comprehensive approach, one that is steeped in compassion and we see it as our responsibility to:

  • Impart the best understanding possible of what’s actually happening and what can be done to help
  • Offer you the tools you need to create the long-term change you desire
  • Deliver the means and support necessary to achieve that change

To gain a greater understanding of the principles of our approach, please explore the tabs below.

The scientific community has studied the brain for hundreds of years.  While the structure and organization of the brain obviously changes during childhood, it has long been believed that it remains unchanged after adulthood is reached.  Continued learning, then, was thought to occur when the strength of neural connections increased.

Over the last few decades, however, researchers have discovered that the brain has the ability to fundamentally reorganize itself when confronted with new challenges, and that this can occur regardless of age.  Through targeted, repetitious and progressively challenging activities, the brain can actually reshape itself to become more efficient.  This reshaping, known as “neuroplasticity”, gives new hope to anyone suffering from physical, emotional, attentional, and cognitive challenges.

The brain is a highly complex, interacting, and integrated system.  Engaging in tasks of daily living – going to school, working, caring for family, etc. – requires proper functioning of all aspects of the brain in unison. Therefore, addressing limited aspects of brain function, such as visual attention, auditory processing, or balance and equilibrium, in isolation is unlikely to create enough neuroplastic changes to yield optimal results for real world function.

 

Video Gallery

 

Dr Norman Doidge speaking about Neuroplasticity A fun video describing Neuropasticity

 

Morphogenesis of the brain: how it grows and develops and what can interfere

We are not born with fully developed brains; brain morphogenesis continues well after birth.  The brain grows from back to front and from midline, out.  More primitive areas of the brain develop first and the newest areas of the brain, which are responsible for higher-level thinking, develop at a later stage.

What makes our brains different from other life forms is not structure alone, but also how our brains function.  Functional development of behavioral and cognitive skills too have a specific sequence; as each stage is built upon the last. It stands to reason that if a stage develops aberrantly or is skipped completely, the stages that follow will be affected negatively.

In regard to functional deficits which contribute to emotional, behavioral, social, and cognitive problems, there are distinct areas of the brain that play a critical role; the cerebellum, the basal ganglia, the occipital, parietal, temporal and frontal lobes to name a few.

Cerebellum

Located in the back of the brain, the cerebellum was once thought to be responsible only for coordinating and refining movement.  We now know that the cerebellum also assists in refining our thought processes.  Besides refinement and coordination, the cerebellum’s helps to synchronize activity between the two hemispheres of the brain.  The cerebellum in conjunction with the “inferior olivary nuclei” help set the baseline frequency of brain function.  If they are out of sync, the rest of the brain’s processing will be out of sync as well.

The Basal Ganglia

As their name suggests, the basal ganglia consist of a set of neural structures buried deep inside the brain.  They are closely tied to the reward centers of the brain and play a role in allowing and inhibiting certain actions from occurring.

The basal ganglia influence a number of functions.  It has been linked to voluntary motor control, procedural learning relating to routine behaviors or “habits”, OCDs, eye movements, tics, as well as cognitive and emotional functions.

Occipital Lobes

A significant functional aspect of the occipital lobe is that it contains the primary visual cortex.  The work of the occipital lobe includes  visual perception, motion detection and color discrimination.

Parietal Lobes

Within the parietal lobe is the sensory cortex, where the brain reacts to information from touch, pressure, temperature and pain.  The parietal lobe plays important roles in integrating sensory information from various parts of the body.  It is also integral in the movement of specific body parts.  It receives sensory input from the body and eyes which gives feedback to the motor system located in the frontal lobes, this feedback plays a role in coordinating our movements.  Portions of the parietal lobe are also involved with visuo-spatial processing.

Temporal Lobes  

The temporal lobes lie at the sides of the brain separated by the lateral or Sylvian fissure, the deepest and most prominent of the cortical fissures.  The temporal lobe processes auditory input and is primarily involved in deciphering the meaning of auditory and visual information.  The temporal lobe is involved in forming hearing and auditory memories and many agree it is primarily responsible for the formation of new memories associated with experiences.  Its medial portion called the hippocampus plays important roles in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory and spatial navigation

The hippocampus also belongs to the limbic system. The limbic system operates by influencing the endocrine system and the autonomic nervous system. It is highly interconnected with the brain’s pleasure center, which plays a role in sexual arousal and the “high” derived from certain recreational drugs.

The limbic system is also tightly connected to the prefrontal cortex. Some scientists contend that this connection is related to the pleasure obtained from solving problems.  To cure severe emotional disorders, this connection was sometimes surgically severed, a procedure of psychosurgery, called a prefrontal lobotomy (this is actually a misnomer).  Patients who underwent this procedure often became passive and lacked all motivation.

Frontal Lobes

Found in the anterior portion of the frontal lobes the prefrontal cortex is the most evolved area of the brain and as such it is the last to develop.  This brain region gives an individual the capacity to exercise “good judgment” when presented with difficult life situations.  Brain research indicating that brain development is not complete until near the age of 25 refers specifically to the development of the prefrontal cortex.   It is often referred to as the “CEO of the brain, as it gradually becomes able to oversee and regulate the behavioral responses initiated by the more primitive limbic structures as well as supervise other complex brain activities.

The so-called “executive functions” of the human prefrontal cortex include:

  • Focusing attention
  • Organizing thoughts and problem solving
  • Simultaneously considering multiple streams of information when faced with complex and challenging information
  • Considering the future and making predictions
  • Forming strategies and planning
  • Initiating and halting thoughts and actions
  • Shifting/adjusting behavior when situations change (transitioning)
  • Impulse control and delaying gratification
  • Ability to balance short-term rewards with long term goals
  • Modulation of emotions
  • Inhibiting inappropriate behavior and initiating appropriate behavior
  • Foreseeing and weighing possible consequences of behavior

How the brain develops and functions is governed by epignetics; environmental influence on genetic expression, signals which turn genes on and off.  In a healthy environment, signals will orchestrate the ‘on-and-off switches’ appropriately for healthy brain development.  When there is a negative environmental influence, however, there can be a delay in the turning on or off of genes appropriately. This can result in certain aspects of brain function being affected negatively.

Negative environmental Influences can be broken down into two types, and three categories.  The two types are ‘toxicities’ and deficiencies; you either get too much of something bad or not enough of something good, respectively.  The categories are physical, chemical, and emotional.  A physical ‘toxicity’ can be seen as an injury at birth.  An example of a physical deficiency is lack of movement and exercise.  Chemical toxicities for instance, can be the pesticides in our food and water, or simply having too much sugar.  Chemical deficiencies are exemplified by a shortage of vitamins, minerals, proteins and water.  Stress, as we commonly think of it, is an emotional ‘toxicity’. The lack of encouragement, love, or support can be thought of as an emotional deficiency.

We have discussed epigenetics from the negative perspective.  Conversely, exposure to the appropriate environment influences can have positive effects on genetic expression, thus helping genes to be turned on and off properly. This lends us the ability to reach our fullest functional potential. 

Video Gallery

 

Brain Development Brain Structures
Explaining Epigenetics  More scientific information on Epigenetics

 

 

 

 

We have already mentioned the different anatomical and functional areas of the brain and their relationship to specific skills.  The brain is also divided into two distinct sides each with its own specialized function and associated skills.

As a general rule, the left and right sides of the brain possess complementary skills.  Most of human abilities have two components, each of which being equally important in fulfillment of a task.  Take for instance the ability to read, the skills of word reading lie on one side of the brain while the skills for comprehension are on the other and proper function in both is necessary to be a good reader.

While emotional and neuro-developmental disorders affect both sides of the brain, it has been often found that one side is affected at a much greater degree.  Below is a graphic, which depicts the possible effect of functionally weak areas on each side of the brain.

Video Gallery

Below are two videos, on the left is one that describes the different skills associated with each side of the brain and how the brain functions as a whole. On the right is a video which describes what its like when one side of the brain is in deficit.  While this video depicts a discreet brain injury and not a functional weakness, it remains a good example of how decreased function on a particular side of the brain can affect an individual.

 

The divided brain Left brain deficits

 

Your first experience at Brain Abilities is change.  It all starts with your initial phone consultation with one of our directors. Once our services are fully explained, it may forever change the way you view your concerns and what can be done about them.

The next step may include a complete evaluation, which you will find is not simply a rehash of all the other evaluations you may have encountered.  Our stress-free evaluation process thoroughly gauges and localizes areas of brain dysfunction.  Because your insight regarding your concern is invaluable, our process also allows you ample opportunity to express the challenges you are experiencing. Combined, this offers us all a comprehensive understanding of the unique challenges you, your child or a loved one may be experiencing.

The final stage of our evaluation process is the Report of Findings. It is during this report that we sit with you and discuss the specific functional deficits found and more importantly, how those deficits translate into the day-to-day difficulties being experienced. Once this has been reviewed, you will then be provided with a detailed explanation as to what should be done to address your individual needs.

 

As you may know, proper diet and nutrition are critical elements to the successful relief of emotional, behavioral and cognitive disorders.  Research has shown that proper nutrition goes hand in hand with fostering optimal function within the brain and body. The nutrients we take in is the fuel that powers the engine that is us.  And like the fuel intended for high performance automobiles, if a substandard grade is used the engine doesn’t run quite right.  This is why it’s paramount that we take in the right amount of prime quality nutrients and assimilate them into the nourishment we need.

The way we eat

“We eat to live, we do not live to eat” that’s the first rule of a healthy diet.  Again, if we make the analogy to fuel, we should only take in enough of the proper grade of fuel to keep our body running optimally. The problem is many do not; we take in more calories than we use, resulting in weight gain and ultimately disease.  The CDC reports that more than a third (35.7%) of adults and approximately 17% of our children in the US are obese.  The CDC also estimates that by 2030 the adult obesity rate will reach 42%, that’s roughly 32 million Americans who will become obese in the next 18 yrs.  The estimated healthcare cost for this percentage of people is 550 billion dollars.

Fast Foods and Junk Foods

Fast food chains are overabundant, much of what they offer is nutritionally inferior, as well as very high in fat, salts and sugars.  One becomes accustomed to these high concentrations and eventually finds healthier choices less palatable.  Studies have shown that together with Junk Foods they contribute to the aforementioned obesity problems industrialized countries are dealing with.  Intake of fast food and sweets has also been shown to negatively affect emotional, developmental and cognitive disorders.

Processed and mass produced 

There is overwhelming evidence that processing and mass production has had a profound effect on the quality of our foods and ultimately on our heath.  For many, their diets consist of at least some foods that have been altered in some manner.  Companies use various techniques to appease the American palate, increase production, extend shelf life and ultimately save money.

“If you can’t pronounce it don’t eat it” can be your guide to processed foods and their additives.  A food can be considered processed if it has been boxed, bagged, canned or jarred and has a list of additives on the label.  There are thousands of chemicals used in the manufacturing of processed foods.  Chemicals are used to preserve freshness, add sweetness, change texture, alter appearance (bleaching, coloring) and add flavor.  Many contain trans-fats, high fructose corn syrup, refined grains and salts, all of which should be avoided.

Let’s play a game, first try to quickly say all the chemical ingredients, then try to guess what the product is, remember items are listed in the order of abundance from most to least:

1.    Enriched flour (bleached wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, high fructose corn syrup and/or sugar, soybean oil and/or canola oil, contains 2% or less of the following: salt, calcium sulfate, calcium carbonate, wheat gluten, ammonium sulfate, ammonium chloride, dough conditioners (may contain one or more of the following: sodium stearoyl lactylate, datem, ascorbic acid, azodicarbonamide, mono- and diglycerides, ethoxylated monoglycerides, monocalcium phosphate, enzymes, guar gum, calcium peroxide), calcium propionate and/or sodium propionate (preservatives), soy lecithin, sesame seed.

 2.    Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Whey (from Milk), Sugar, Corn Syrup Solids, Cocoa (Alkali Process), Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Sodium Caseinate (from Milk), Nonfat Dry Milk, Salt, Tricalcium Phosphate, Dipotassium Phosphate, Xanthan Gum, Guar Gum, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Soy Lecithin, Mono and Diglycerides, Vitamin A Palmitate, Niacinamide (Vitamin B3), Vitamin D3, Riboflavin (Vitamin B2).

 3.    Corn Syrup, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Water, Cellulose Gum, Caramel color, Salt, Sodium Benzoate and Sorbic Acid (preservatives), Artificial and Natural Flavors, Sodium Hexametaphosphate.

One cost saving mass production strategy is Factory Farming. This is the process of raising livestock in confinement at high density.  The main products derived from this strategy are meat, milk and eggs.  To make the livestock more productive, farm factories employ methods such as the feeding of non-typical food types including excessive grains, animal byproducts and meat from their own species. The crowded conditions are detrimental to the growth and health of the animals, as a result they are given chemicals and medicines including antibiotics.  Basically, factory farms attempt to mass produce animals and animal products to have the most profit value, with little regard for the life of the animal or the final quality of the product.

Another mass production technique is the use of Genetically Modified Organisms or GMO. This is where genes are taken from one species are forced into another, thus creating an entirely new species, one that has not gone through the evolutionary process and one that our immune systems may over react to.  GMO crops are developed presumably to have a positive effect on crop production through weed elimination and insect resistance.  In 1996 GMO were first introduced as corn as well as soy crops, and currently there are over 100 million acres of GMO crops in the US.  GMO are now also being used for crops such as alfalfa, canola, cottonseed and sugar-beets. 

Basically, there are two main types of GMO crops, those that are herbicide tolerant and those that are pesticide producing.  There is mounting anecdotal and laboratory evidence that each type of GMO is having a profound effect on both humans and the livestock .  Consumption of GMO crops and GMO feed livestock has been linked to maladies such as inflammation, allergies, auto immune disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, infertility, birth defects, cancer and developmental disorders such as Autism, to name a few.  

The nutritional value of our foods

Over the past half century many of our fruits and vegetables have shown a reliable decline in the amount of protein, vitamins and minerals they possess.  Scientists have postulated the following explanations:

  • Selective Breeding: Our fruits and vegetables have changed, have you noticed how bright red some strawberries are or how round the packaged tomatoes are?  Farmers use selective breeding and cross breading to increase the robustness and output of their crops and to produce and encourage other desirable traits related to shipping, esthetics, and weight.  This too is considered genetic modification.
  • Another culprit may be aggressive farming techniques leading to soil depletion.  Modern intensive agricultural methods have stripped increasing amounts of nutrients from the soil in which the food we eat grows.  The practice of alternating fields between growing seasons to give land time to restore as well as foregoing pesticides and fertilizers in favor of organic growing methods are rarely considered.
  • One of the chemicals used to treat the herbicide resistant GMO crops mentioned above is glyphosate.  Originally produced as a chelating agent, it is said to bind to the nutrients in the soil and in the crops thus making the nutrients less bio-available.

At Brain Abilities we take advantage of practical assessment tools to get the information we need. We then recommend appropriate food choices and supplementation, based upon not only the symptoms but also the careful analysis of laboratory testing.  Why is nutritional assessment so critical?

Leaky Gut and Leaky Brain

You may have heard of leaky gut, or intestinal hyper-permeability.  The lining of the digestive tract becomes porous and allows undigested foods, toxins, and other pathogens into the bloodstream.  These irritants trigger a delayed response in the immune system, releasing inflammatory compounds, increasing the risk for food sensitivities, inflammation, pain, and autoimmune disease.

Since the brain and gut are intimately connected, leaky gut eventually leads to leaky brain.  In other words, the protective lining of the brain, called the blood-brain barrier, also becomes porous, allowing harmful irritants to affect the brain.  These foreign particles trigger the brain’s immune system, resulting in damaging inflammation.  At the very least, leaky brain results in ‘brain fog’ – in more severe cases, it contributes to emotional and developmental delays such as anxiety, depression, autism, ADHD, learning and behavioral challenges.

Gut issues are not always obvious when the brain is being affected; an individual may be experiencing food-sensitivity related inflammation, but have no outward symptoms of digestive dysfunction.  The good news is that addressing and repairing the gut will help restore the blood-brain barrier, as both are very responsive to positive nutritional and lifestyle changes.

Food allergy vs. Food Intolerance: Allergic reactions trigger an immediate histamine release or may even result in anaphylactic shock.  Food sensitivities or intolerance trigger a cascade of inflammatory chemicals, between 6 – 72 hours later, which makes it difficult to identify the offending foods thus necessitating specialized testing.

Optimizing Digestive Function

Children and adults are plagued by many health complaints that are related to digestive dysfunction.  The reciprocal relationship between gut and brain function has been well established.  In addition, maladies such as impaired immunity, digestive distress, malabsorption and nutritional deficiencies have long been correlated to emotional, cognitive and developmental well-being.

Digestion begins in the mouth and concludes in the large intestine, along the way there are many factors that contribute to optimizing the process.  From breakdown and transport to absorption and assimilation, throughout the process there are various regions with their own specialized function.  And not unlike the brain, all these specialized areas need to work together appropriately for us to have proper function.

One common factor related to digestive dysfunction is the incomplete breakdown of what we ingest.  Food is broken down by mechanical, chemical and enzymatic processes.  When one or more of these processes are insufficient, food passes through the gastrointestinal tract without being absorbed or it is improperly absorbed despite being too large. The result is poor nutritional status, which can contribute to numerous emotional, physical and cognitive disorders.

Digestive health can be further impaired by an imbalance between beneficial and pathogenic bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract, which can contribute to flatulence, diarrhea, constipation and or poor utilization of nutrients.  Along with incomplete breakdown of food and its absorption, this imbalance contributes to the aforementioned leaky gut syndrome and its deleterious effect upon us.

Needed ‘fats’

Fats also known as lipids are essential to health and specifically for our conversation, healthy brain function.  Lipids are composed of fatty acids which act as the building blocks for cell membranes and other essential substances needed by the brain and body.  Most are unaware that the majority of our brain’s dry weight is actually comprised of fat.  This fat is necessary for proper nerve conduction and the electrical activity of the brain depends greatly upon it.  Fatty acids also serve as the raw material used to produce energy.  It is now well understood that the correct balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids is essential if you want to be the healthiest you can be.

There are actually two problems related to how these fats are being consumed by most in the typical American diet:

  1. Most people are consuming far too many omega-6 fats compared to omega-3 fats.
  2. The ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats is 1:1, but the typical Western diet is between 1:20 and 1:50.

Basically, most consume the wrong amount and the wrong ratio of these highly beneficial fats.  Both omega-3 and omega-6 fats are essential to your health, but when omega-6 is consumed in excess, it becomes problematic.  As a group, when consumed in the wrong ratios, they tend to stimulate inflammatory processes in your body, rather than inhibit them.

Deficiencies and inappropriate ratios of fatty acids have been linked to the following:

  • Dry flaky or cracked skin
  • Lowered immunity, frequent infections
  • Fatigue
  • Allergies
  • Food intolerance
  • Poor attention span, hyperactivity, or irritability
  • Decreased cognition and learning difficulties

Is the ‘perfect diet’ enough?

First let’s define the ‘perfect diet’.  An individual’s ‘perfect diet’ should be rich in protein, have moderate amounts of complex carbohydrates, contain appropriate amounts of good fats, vitamins and minerals, while being low in bad fats, salts and sugar.  The only foods to be eaten are non processed, organic, free range, non factory farmed and  non GMO. While achievable for some, this type of diet is not attainable for many.  So we need to be practical and do the best we can to guide you in your own particular situation.

As previously mentioned, the Brain Abilities approach is one of moderation when making dietary recommendations and is based on our practical testing and your specific needs.  Our long-term goal is to increase function of all systems within the body, including the digestive system.  Thus allowing the body to properly utilize nutrients provided from a healthy diet.

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Do you ever feel sleepy or are you “zone out” during the day?  Do you find it hard to wake up on Monday mornings?  If so, you are familiar with the powerful need for sleep.  However, you may not realize that sleep is as essential for our well-being as food and water.

It is estimated that 40 to 70 million Americans chronically suffer from a disorder of sleep and wakefulness, hindering daily functioning and adversely affecting health and longevity.

Since sleep is fundamental to our body’s function and plays a large role in emotional and cognitive disorders, our evaluation process includes sleep analysis.  This multifactorial analysis will help us determine the type, and quality of sleep occurring.  If a disturbance is found, we then give you a personalized and practical solution to help.

 

What is sleep?

Until the 1950s, most people thought of sleep as a passive, dormant part of our daily lives.  We now know that our brains are very active during sleep.  Moreover, sleep affects our daily functioning and our physical and mental health in many ways that we are just beginning to understand.

During sleep, we usually pass through four phases of sleep: stages 1, 2, 3, and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.  These stages progress in a cycle from stage 1 to REM sleep, then the cycle starts over again with stage 1.  We spend almost 50 percent of our total sleep time in stage 2 sleep, about 20 percent in REM sleep, and the remaining 30 percent in the other stages.  Infants, by contrast, spend about half of their sleep time in REM sleep.

Stage 1

 During stage 1, which is light sleep, we drift in and out of sleep and can be awakened easily.  Our eyes move very slowly and muscle activity slows.  People awakened from stage 1 sleep often remember fragmented visual images.  Many also experience sudden muscle contractions called hypnic myoclonia, often preceded by a sensation of starting to fall.  These sudden movements are similar to the “jump” we make when startled.

 Stage 2

When we enter stage 2 sleep, our eye movements stop and our brain waves (fluctuations of electrical activity that can be measured by electrodes) become slower, with occasional bursts of rapid waves called sleep spindles.

Stage 3

Formerly divided into stages 3 and 4, Stage 3 is called slow wave sleep or deep sleep.  It is characterized by extremely slow brain waves called delta waves.  There is no eye movement or muscle activity.  People awakened during deep sleep do not adjust immediately and often feel groggy and disoriented for several minutes after they wake up.  Some children experience bed-wetting, night terrors, or sleepwalking during deep sleep.

REM

REM, stands for Rapid Eye Movements, which are inherent to this stage of sleep.  When we switch into REM sleep, our breathing becomes more rapid, irregular, and shallow, our eyes jerk rapidly in various directions, and our limb muscles become temporarily paralyzed.  Our heart rate increases, our blood pressure rises, and males develop penile erections.  When people awaken during REM sleep, they often describe bizarre and illogical dreams.

The first REM sleep period usually occurs about 70 to 90 minutes after we fall asleep.  A complete sleep cycle takes 90 to 110 minutes on average.  The first sleep cycles each night contain relatively short REM periods and long periods of deep sleep.  As the night progresses, REM sleep periods increase in length while deep sleep decreases.  By morning, people spend nearly all their sleep time in stages 1, 2, and REM.

 

What affects sleep?

Since sleep and wakefulness are influenced by different neurotransmitter signals in the brain, anything in our environment that changes the balance of these signals affects whether we feel alert or drowsy and how well we sleep.

  • Caffeinated drinks such as coffee and drugs such as diet pills and decongestants stimulate some parts of the brain and can cause insomnia, or an inability to sleep.
  • Many antidepressants suppress REM sleep.  Heavy smokers often sleep very lightly and have reduced amounts of REM sleep.  They also tend to wake up after 3 or 4 hours of sleep due to nicotine withdrawal.
  • Many people who suffer from insomnia try to solve the problem with alcohol – the so-called night cap.  While alcohol does help people fall into light sleep, it also robs them of REM and the deeper, more restorative stages of sleep.  Instead, it keeps them in the lighter stages of sleep, from which they can be awakened easily.
  • People lose some of the ability to regulate their body temperature during REM, so abnormally hot or cold temperatures in the environment can disrupt this stage of sleep.
  • Though research shows that exercise is certainly good for one’s body and health, properly timing exercise is necessary to maximize the beneficial effects.  For example, a good workout can make you more alert, speed up your metabolism and energize you for the day ahead, but exercise right before bedtime can lead to a poor night’s sleep.  Sleep experts recommend exercising at least three hours before bedtime.

If our REM sleep is disrupted one night, our bodies don’t follow the normal sleep cycle progression the next time we doze off.  Instead, we often slip directly into REM sleep and go through extended periods of REM until we “catch up” on this stage of sleep.

Doctors have described more than 70 sleep disorders, most of which can be managed effectively once they are correctly diagnosed.  They also account for an estimated $16 billion in medical costs each year, while the indirect costs due to lost productivity and other factors are much greater.  The most common sleep disorders include insomnia, sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, and narcolepsy.

 

How much sleep do we need?

The amount of sleep each person needs depends on many factors, including age.  Infants generally require more and this need steadily decreases with age until adulthood.  The chart below represents the sleep needs by age according to the National Sleep Foundation.

 

Newborns (0–2 months) 12 to 18 hours
Infants (3–11 months) 14 to 15 hours
Toddlers (1–3 years) 12 to 14 hours
Preschoolers (3–5 years) 11 to 13 hours
School-age children (5–10 years) 10 to 11 hours
Adolescents (10–17 years) 8.5 to 9.25 hours
Adults, including elderly 7 to 9 hours

 

When to sleep

The optimal amount of sleep is not a meaningful concept unless the timing of that sleep is seen in relation to an individual’s circadian rhythms.   Circadian rhythms are regular changes in mental and physical characteristics that occur in the course of a day (circadian is Latin for “around a day”).  Most circadian rhythms are controlled by the body’s biological “clock.”  This clock, called the suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN, is actually a pair of pinhead-sized brain structures that together contain about 20,000 neurons.

Signals from the SCN travel to several brain regions, including the pineal gland, which responds to light-induced signals by switching off production of the hormone melatonin.  The body’s level of melatonin normally increases after darkness falls, making people feel drowsy.  The SCN also governs functions that are synchronized with the sleep/wake cycle, including body temperature, hormone secretion, urine production, and changes in blood pressure.  Our biological cycles normally follow the 24-hour cycle of the sun, unless we are light deprived.

When travelers pass from one time zone to another, they suffer from disrupted circadian rhythms, an uncomfortable feeling known as jet lag.  For instance, if you travel from California to New York, you “lose” 3 hours according to your body’s clock.  It usually takes several days for your body’s cycles to adjust to the new time.

Symptoms much like jet lag are common in people who work nights or who perform shift work.  Because these people’s work schedules are at odds with powerful sleep-regulating cues like sunlight, they often become uncontrollably drowsy during work, and they may suffer insomnia or other problems when they try to sleep.

 

What does sleep do for us?

Although scientists are still trying to learn exactly why people need sleep, animal studies show that sleep is necessary for survival.  For example, while rats normally live for two to three years, those deprived of REM sleep survive only about 5 weeks on average, and rats deprived of all sleep stages live only about 3 weeks.

Sleep appears necessary for our nervous systems to work properly.  Too little sleep leaves us drowsy and unable to concentrate the next day.  It also leads to impaired memory and physical performance and reduced ability to carry out math calculations.  If sleep deprivation continues, hallucinations and mood swings may develop.  Some experts believe sleep gives neurons used while we are awake a chance to shut down and repair themselves.  Without sleep, neurons may become so depleted in energy or so polluted with byproducts of normal cellular activities that they begin to malfunction.  Sleep also may give the brain a chance to exercise important neuronal connections that might otherwise deteriorate from lack of activity.

Deep sleep coincides with the release of growth hormone in children and young adults.  Many of the body’s cells also show increased production and reduced breakdown of proteins during deep sleep.  Since proteins are the building blocks needed for cell growth and for repair of damage from factors like stress and ultraviolet rays, deep sleep may truly be “beauty sleep.”  Activity in parts of the brain that control emotions, decision-making processes, and social interactions is drastically reduced during deep sleep, suggesting that this type of sleep may help people maintain optimal emotional and social functioning while they are awake.  A study in rats also showed that certain nerve-signaling patterns which the rats generated during the day were repeated during deep sleep.  This pattern repetition may help encode memories and improve learning.

REM sleep stimulates the brain regions used in learning.  One study found that People taught a skill and then deprived of non-REM sleep could recall what they had learned after sleeping, while people deprived of REM sleep could not.

Some scientists believe dreams are the cortex’s attempt to find meaning in the random signals that it receives during REM sleep.  The cortex is the part of the brain that interprets and organizes information from the environment during consciousness.

 

The effects of sleep deprivation

Experts say that if you feel drowsy during the day, even during boring activities, you haven’t had enough sleep.  If you routinely fall asleep within 5 minutes of lying down, you probably have severe sleep deprivation, possibly even a sleep disorder.  Microsleeps, or very brief episodes of sleep in an otherwise awake person, are another mark of sleep deprivation.  In many cases, people are not aware that they are experiencing microsleeps.  The widespread practice of “burning the candle at both ends” in western industrialized societies has created so much sleep deprivation that what is really abnormal sleepiness is now almost the norm.

  • A chronic lack of high-quality sleep simply cannot be recovered.  You can’t stockpile a supply to use later, nor can you pay your body’s sleep debt back.
  • You may feel rested and sharper after sleeping in, but the benefit is temporary and can be compared to depositing money in your account then withdrawing it again a day or two later.
  • Lost sleep is lost forever, and persistent lack of sleep has a cumulative effect when it comes to the havoc it can wreak on your health.

The cumulative long-term effects of sleep loss and sleep disorders have been associated with a wide range of deleterious health consequences.  Studies suggest that sleep loss may have pervasive effects on the cardiovascular, endocrine, immune, and nervous systems, including the following:

 

Anxiety symptoms Depressed mood
Decreased attention and working memory Impaired physical and cognitive abilities
Impaired learning Emotional reactivity
Obesity in adults and children Gastrointestinal disorders
Diabetes and impaired glucose tolerance Cardiovascular disease and hypertension
Impaired healing Alcohol use

 

Healthy Lifestyle

By now you realize that health is complex, if one of the body systems suffers functionally you’re likely to see consequences in emotional physical and cognitive well-being.   We’ve also discussed that everything we ingest or are subjected to is defined as our environment and how our environment affects development and function.  You can count on us to give you practical solutions to improve your particular situation as well as offering you the support needed to make the lifestyle choices necessary to create positive change.

 

Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research; Colten HR, Altevogt BM, editors.  Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem.  Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2006.  3, Extent and Health Consequences of Chronic Sleep Loss and Sleep Disorders.  Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK19961/
http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2010/02/02/lost-sleep-can-never-be-made-up.aspx
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleep#Siesta_or_nap
http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/brain_basics/understanding_sleep.htm