Describe sleep and tell me it's not an alien abduction
Jen Hatz MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, CSCS
Imagine trying to explain what sleep is to a five year old without completely scaring the life out of them and scarring them for eternity.
Uh, you close your eyes, and everything goes dark... and you can’t move your body no matter how hard you try, it’s like you’re paralyzed or like your legs were cut off… and sometimes you can hear things or see things but they aren’t actually there… sometimes you're being chased or falling off a cliff but you can't make it stop, you have to keep falling...time doesn’t exist anymore… and you don’t know what happened when it’s over because you can’t actually remember anything...
So sleep is an alien abduction. You just successfully traumatized a five year old. Easy to do, hard to undo. They’ll tell you all about it as part of their therapy in 30 years.
In fact, we just cracked open the door to our limited understanding of sleep. You don’t actually know what’s going on around you and you have absolutely no control of your body, but you trust that this self-induced coma that you miraculously and safely come out of every morning is like your very own time machine to breakfast.
What’s even crazier? There are a wide variety of sleep behaviors across the planet. Human adults for instance can actually consciously choose to avoid sleep. Babies fall asleep whenever and wherever they want. They don’t care. Those soft mushy angels can shapeshift into tiny drunk adults with narcolepsy. “Oh what a nice expensive day on this nice expensive vacation to your favorite theme park...would be a shame if someone were to sleep through every attraction and memory you’re trying to force me to have. Now we’ll have to repeat this same vacation again in a few years so I can be awake enough to make eye contact in pictures letting you believe it’s positively impacting my childhood experience.”
Pet-owners love watching their cats or dogs sleep in the most random and awkward positions, at any time of day, and we’ll show you 10,000 pictures we save on our phone for exactly. that. purpose. Even better, we like to guilt-trip our pets about their high volume sleep needs. “Oh, it must be nice to sleep all day, oh no no don’t get up, please stay stretched out and comfortable on MY couch that I bought because I work for a living. Oh BIG stretch! What a tough day for you, huh?”
But human adults, despite guilt-tripping our pets for honoring their inclination to sleep as our form of entertainment, will actually AVOID our natural inclination to sleep and force ourselves to stay awake.
I don’t need sleep, I’m born different.
Think of how many ill-prepared Kyles and Carleys will avoid sleep and pull all-nighters studying as if that’s going to suddenly cement the material in their head and erase the three months of weekend binge drinking prior to that. Or how many professions require night shift work, or 24 hour shifts, or military missions where sleep is not an option for days at a time while in the field. These individuals can actually will themselves to stay awake, meaning we have some power over our body through motivation alone.
We’ve all met the opposite too: a human adult (not a baby or a dog) but an adult that can literally fall asleep anywhere, at any time, and in any position like sitting upright in a folding chair in the middle of a crazy pregame tailgate outside the stadium, or laying flat face-down on the floor. Some of us can't fall asleep until we have 16 pillows creating a perimeter around us and propping up our limbs at odd angles. Some of us live and die by the greatest trick when overheating by simply sticking out one exposed bare foot from under the covers.
As hard as it is to wrap your head around what sleep actually IS, in reality it’s the most underrated necessity to life, and frankly it’s incredibly frustrating that we can't describe it in a way to do it justice. Because it’s not a thing. There’s nothing that we can physically touch or hold, nothing tangible that we can actually latch onto as a certainty. It’s a state of being. And it’s a state of being that we spend one third of our lives in, and yet it’s mysterious and miraculous.
Think of sleep as a state of being where we purposefully render ourselves unconscious, like putting ourselves into a deep coma, that we know and trust we will safely come out of. But there’s NO breakdown or regression occurring as time passes in our state of unconsciousness. In fact, we come out on the other end improved, rebuilt, repaired, recovered, organized and catalogued. Sleep is the ultimate final conclusion each day that takes us from where we are, and grows us into our next “future” self. Alien abduction. Time machine. Uh, Jen...
“Lady, you’re scaring us!” -Billy Madison
Consider this: all day long you are undergoing a constant state of breakdown (catabolism) where your body is constantly putting out energy through movement, activity, unconscious movement, and the normal functions of your cells, tissues, and organs just to keep you alive.
You also spend all day continually absorbing stimuli all around you (sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and whatever it is you’re constantly touching even though they asked you three times to stop). Your senses are like giant sponges soaking up signals and stimuli all day long:
...whether you are trying to (like focusing on reading because you want to actually remember the words and learn something, go figure)
...or completely unconscious to it (like mindlessly scanning across a million different words, shapes, colors in normal everyday life as you go about your day, really with no intent of trying to remember any of it because who wants to remember the make, model, and color of the car parked next to them unless that person parked like an a-hole and you want to harbor resentment by attaching a-hole drivers to that type of car).
“Oh, it’s a Jeep thing.”
But your senses are busy picking up, or absorbing, these signals all day long, essentially like you’re “open for business” and the only thing you’re doing during business hours involves your direct interaction with your customers. It’s not until closing time when you have a chance to go through the books, file and stock inventory, assess your day and prepare for the next. It’s only during this time, in the off-hours, that there are no more sales being made, no more interacting with customers (no more absorbing stimuli and signals from interacting with your environment and the world around you). Otherwise you never turn down a sale or interaction with a customer during your “business hours” so you keep everything else for after closing time.
“Sorry man, we’re closed! Come back tomorrow!”
Sleep is basically closing time for your brain when you can finally do a good sweep-through of everything before another high volume day. Your brain doesn’t actually process all of the sensory input and stimuli you were absorbing all day until you shut off your senses...no longer RECEIVING INPUT. It’s only when you stop receiving input, when you stop sales for the day, that you can actually cash out the register and file and organize your inventory, meaning understanding and organizing all of that sensory input and storing it appropriately into your memory. This means you actually learn, acquire knowledge, and essentially become more aware, gain perspective, and wisdom, while you SLEEP because it’s only when these signals are stored into memory that you retain the message itself.
“I heard that I actually learn in my sleep, so I need to nap during class.”
[In reality, listen intently to the message while you're awake and "receiving input" but then prioritize sleep so you can retain the message and store it.]
The same goes for your body physically: it’s not until your body stops moving, when you are quite honestly in a complete state of paralysis, that actual rebuilding, repairing, and growth and development can now finally take place (anabolism).
You think you grow lean muscle when you’re in the gym? Negative bro. You break down muscle in the gym. You eat and break down that food throughout the day. It’s not until you shut down these processes of breakdown (movement is a process of breakdown, digesting food is a process of breakdown) that you actually allow yourself to start processes of building, repair, and preparation. It’s only when you reach paralysis in sleep that the food you ate and digested during the day can actually act on those cells and tissues and repair the damage, rebuild and reinforce the tissue (hence growth) and actually store those important calories for safe-keeping so that you can use them when and how you want.
Drumroll…. big revelation coming your way…
In reality, ALL of the actual growth and development you go through, physically and mentally, really occurs when you sleep. You underwent the stressor or the stimulus during the day, but the changes happen at night. Everything it takes to improve you, to increase your wisdom, knowledge, and insight, to improve your health, your body, how your body moves, and to function better, everything you want to accomplish to make yourself run at a higher capacity, all occurs when you sleep. It’s not until you shut out the noise from the outside world that you can actually improve yourself from within. You have to stop allowing the stressors to happen TO you before you can learn, or grow, FROM them.
Damn Jen, that. is. DEEP.
I KNOW, right? Speaking of deep, time for the best thing to happen to you at night, in the sheets...
Because sleep is not a tangible “thing” but rather a state, we measure physiological signs (like brain waves, heart rate, breathing, hormonal signaling) to monitor what happens. From these physiological signs, we determine that sleep occurs in stages that make up one sleep cycle, and you rotate through sleep cycles repeatedly throughout the night:
Stages 1 & 2 are called “light sleep”
Stages 3 & 4 are called “deep sleep”
And a separate fifth stage called REM, or rapid eye-movement, because unlike the other stages (Stages 1-4 are also considered non-REM sleep), during REM sleep your eyeballs actually move back and forth under your eyelids. Riveting stuff, I know.
Not to be confused with R.E.M. the band, where your eyeballs may be fixed in a soft gaze of 90’s nostalgia with a possible contact high, or deep boredom, depending on whether you’re Gen Z or Millennial.
Now here’s the big distinction between these different stages:
During “light sleep” your brain waves actually increase and it’s EASIER for you to wake up. Wait, why would it be “easier” to wake up when you’re asleep?
Hold on speed racer, we’ll get to that…
It’s not until you move out of “light sleep” and into “deep sleep” that your brain waves actually decrease, and your body becomes paralyzed, and it’s hard for you to wake up. This is when your body actually goes through it’s repair, rebuilding, recovery processes, when your immune system can fight off invaders, when cells and tissues can be repaired and rebuilt to be stronger and more resilient. This is when all of the food that you’ve been eating and digesting all day can actually be put into STORAGE instead of being used immediately for energy. It’s during this time, when you can’t physically move or control any movement of your body, that your body actually has a chance to catch up.
After “deep sleep”, you move into REM sleep and get this: your eyeballs move back and forth under your eyelids during this stage because you are actually visualizing dream sequences. Why does dreaming happen in this stage? This is the stage where your brain is actually processing all the info and data you absorb, cataloguing and organizing everything, and filing it away in storage. Your senses are absorbing things all day long whether you are aware of it or not. And your dreams are actually incredible visuals you conjure up from anything you picked up through your senses (any sights, sounds, etc) where your beautiful, glamorous, perfect brain with its endless bank of memories creates images that might seem familiar, or might scare the daylights out of us because we’ve never seen that person before. Who the hell is that? Relax, you unknowingly saw them at some point in time and for whatever reason, stored them in your memory. Don’t stress about it, they don’t know you stored them there. Maybe they stored you in their memory too. Or maybe they implanted themself into your dream, as the ultimate inception, but now you’re in a dream within a dream within their dream, and everyone is actually just hanging out in each other's dreams.
But not only is dreaming occurring in REM sleep, this is where you are organizing and storing memory data so anything you were reading, studying, concentrating on, any new skills you were practicing, taking reps in the gym or on the field, all of that memorizing, learning, attempts for newly-acquired knowledge and insight, and even MUSCLE MEMORY, it all gets programmed for the long-haul during this stage of sleep.
The band R.E.M. however, does not involve a dream stage, they perform on a real stage.
And yes you heard that right: trying to learn a new skill, practicing a million repetitions, repeating something over and over to try to memorize it… it’s not until your brain processes this info and stores it into your memory during sleep that you have actually memorized it, or learned it, or established that muscle memory. This can also help us understand why babies sleep SO MUCH and go through the most insane growth and development, physically and cognitively, at crazy warp speed.
“Babies are like sponges, they absorb everything around them”… why yes, thank you Carol… actually we’re all like sponges but those soft narcoleptic mini-humans also sleep their days away and basically develop superhuman speed with learning new skills and they grow like weeds so you can buy new clothes for them to outgrow every four weeks.
Now for us human adults, knowing how the sleep cycle works is imperative to making sure you get the most out of it. Throughout the night, you’ll move through these stages of sleep, on average cycling through all stages within 90 minutes and then repeating this cycle over and over. The amount of time you spend in each stage totally depends on you and what you need at that particular point in time, so the sleep that you go through really will never look the same for any two nights of your life. For instance, if your body is physically beaten and trashed from your high intensity training or if you’re fighting off a virus, you might stay in deep sleep longer so you can help repair the tissue damage or cell repair needed. If you’ve been going through a super stressful time in your life, like oh I don't know...being furloughed during a pandemic while every media outlet bombards you with horrific news of a failing economy, death, and social injustice, you very likely visualized the worst dreams of your life and you stayed in REM sleep longer because your brain had to process a whole lot of new sensory input that you’ve been absorbing all day. So the circumstances around you and what you are personally going through, physically or mentally, will influence the stages of your sleep cycle to best serve its purpose.
“How sweet, sleep is like snowflakes, no two nights are the same.”
I could say the same about my college social life...
But wait, what’s the deal with “light sleep”? Why would you have a stage that’s easier to wake up, and why would you cycle through that stage too? Why wouldn’t you just stay in “deep sleep” and REM sleep if that’s where everything important happens?
Think of “light sleep” as a survival mechanism. It’s not actually doing much of anything to you (no healing or repairing your body or processing and storing data in your brain), but it is acting like the greatest watch-dog you could have bargained for. Unlike your dog that openly greets every stranger he meets and immediately submits to anything that even resembles a hand scratching them. He doesn’t care that he’s terrible at protecting you, he’s just happy being here.
Imagine a primitive human laying down in the dirt under the night sky thinking “I’m sure I’ll be fine. What could go wrong?” and then they drift off immediately into their coma of deep sleep where they can’t move or see or hear anything, and then sweet Mother Nature unleashes a fury of killer bees, or a pissed off jungle cat, or a flash flood, or a myriad of other Hunger Games scenarios.
Deep sleep is really THE most vulnerable state you could ever put yourself in. You are physically incapable of moving, incapable of controlling your body, and completely tuned out from the world around you. This makes you easy prey for anything in your surroundings. You’re a sitting duck. Except even a duck has some sense of surroundings. You’ve just completely shut your senses off from the world around you. So really you’re a deaf, blind, mute, sitting duck that doesn’t stand a chance against a gust of wind because you just scared yourself simply thinking you’re falling off a cliff that somehow has a 10 minute free-fall. You silly vulnerable human.
Don’t worry, it’s okay to be vulnerable. That now 35-year-old in therapy will tell you more since he's uncovered the root of his childhood trauma around sleep and abductions.
So instead of you instantly falling unconscious and paralyzed where your life is in direct danger of your environment, you first drift off into “light sleep” where you become MORE sensitive to stimuli around you and it’s therefore EASIER for you to wake up if needed because you suddenly picked up on something in your surroundings that could be a threat. You continue to cycle through “light sleep” as part of the full sleep cycle throughout the night to check in with your surroundings and ensure your safety before going back under with your personal anesthesia of “deep sleep”.
[Some of us will actually wake up at points throughout the night] ...Your Spidey senses are tingling in “light sleep”
Since “light sleep” is an increased ability to pick up stimuli in your environment that could be a threat, that means you have to remove anything that could be considered a threat to your biologically designed ultra absorbent sponge of a human body. As important as “light sleep” is for you as a survival mechanism, you want to move through it and get to the good stuff: You have to EARN that deep sleep because that’s where the magic happens.
But that means that to earn that deep sleep, that good-good, you need to first pass the test of survivability in light sleep. Survivability in modern times means this:
Turn off your damn electronics.
Turn off the TV.
Put the phone away, and keep it away.
Keep the room silent, dark, and cool.
Like the guy mom warned you about but you refused to listen… silent, dark, and cool. But mom, I love him!
Remove anything that any of your five senses could pick up. Friendly reminder: you have five senses: you can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, so remove anything that your senses can pick up, like a glowing screen, a bunch of changing sounds from music or conversations, the stranger you just met at the bar that overstayed their welcome and won’t go home and it’s too late to say anything so now they’re taking up space in your bed and you can feel their body heat, remove it all. If your sixth sense is causing you to lose sleep, you might need additional counseling, and you might want to channel your gift into your own side hustle as a medium and host your own seances.
If you’re the type to identify strongly with using electronics to help you wind down and fall asleep, then set a timer so that they are turned off completely and not interrupting your sleep cycle. If you keep those joints on while you sleep, you’re basically staying in light sleep all night and missing out on all the best things that happen in deep sleep. Don’t sell yourself short! Switch up your bedtime routine by using guided meditations to help you wind down: apps with guided meditations like Calm, or Headspace, are designed for that purpose and they are already timed to turn off on their own.
If you strongly identify with having background noise, maybe you need to strongly identify with silence for a change. Even though mom says otherwise, you LOVE that silent, dark, cool guy because you just feel so damn vulnerable around him. I can open up to him mom, he understands me! Let yourself feel vulnerable. Let that dark silence of the room swallow you up. The more vulnerable you feel, the more likely you’re moving into deep sleep when you are quite literally in a biologically vulnerable state. Allow yourself to relax your senses, relax your defenses. That now 35-year-old that we traumatized with our horrific rendering of sleep abductions will tell you all about being vulnerable and how embracing it changed his life. He learned that when he surrenders to being vulnerable in a dark silent room, nothing actually abducts him or harms him, but rather because he shuts off the outside noise, he actually has a chance to work on himself from within so that he can wake up tomorrow as his improved future self, the one that he’s working hard to be, that only sleep can allow.
Congratulations, I just saved you some moolah in future therapy.
Thank you for attending my JEN talk. Let’s keep this going…