My Social Clock is Ticking

Depending on the society you live in and/or culture you identify in, there are certain expectations of accomplishment by the milestone ages of young adulthood. Much like the tell tale biological clock, the social clock ticks away throughout the lifespan signaling you to get your shit together with the rest of your age group. Career establishment, finding a life partner, starting a family, buying a home and so forth are markers set in a chronological order determined by society (hence it being a social clock). The biggest enforcers of this clock are within families i.e. your parents. They will assess you as you progress through young adulthood and give verbal reminders of where you “should” be by the age you are. They make fun comparisons to other people in your age group, usually friends and relatives who have accomplished what you have not. Society doesn’t do you any favors either, as the media drills what is appropriate for your chronological section of the population. Suddenly, the guy in the Lowes commercial kind of looks like you, as he sands down his deck and gets ready to grill some food for his family. The 20 something year old actress with her swollen baby bump stands next to the mid 30’s journalist with a smaller bump and they compare pregnancy symptoms and the helpfulness of their respective partners. You get the picture.

What happens when you haven’t satisfied all the “shoulds” for the age that you are? This is an existential exploration that some are perfectly okay with (i.e. they don’t care) and others derive extreme distress from. Here is where it gets personal.

I spent the bulk of my 20s in suspended animation. I don’t want to say it was time wasted; however, my eating disorder coupled with maladaptive cognitive distortions kept me from really establishing myself in the world as a career person, continuing my education or having a healthy romantic relationship. It wasn’t until my 30th year that I entered “the game.” I recovered, met and entered into what became a long term cohabitative relationship and went back to school to establish a more stable career. Now 35, I am at another transition point. The career is established, but my mind and body yearn for something more. I decided to go back to school again to make that happen. The relationship is no longer and the biological yearnings have kicked up their volume three-fold. I’m the healthiest physically I have ever been in my life, but emotionally I feel like I am in what psychologist Erikson described as the conflict of young adulthood – intimacy vs. isolation. His theory notes that a secure identity makes intimacy possible because you will be able to open your own self up to a permanent commitment to a partner, share in their interests and values as well as be faithful and develop love. If intimacy isn’t achieved, then isolation is the result, which for those who rejected intimacy or had insecure identity produces a sense of self-absorption or loneliness at the other extreme. You’re essentially in a state of searching for the ONE…beginning with YOU!

All those self-help books and talk shows do have a point when they stress being in a relationship with and loving yourself first before anyone else can love you. Attraction and passion come a lot more easily than compassion and love. American society is very attraction and passion driven. The latter two qualities are only possible if you have a secure sense of yourself. Starting from childhood, how your parents raised you will determine what sense of self you develop by early adulthood. Did they make you feel warm, supported and safe? Or were they nurturing in practical ways, but not very emotionally demonstrative of their love? Were they absentee due to work or their own life struggles, making you feel like you were last on the priority list? Although many people can still have a healthy self concept in some pretty gnarly childhood circumstances, the warm, supportive parenting style i.e. authoritative is going to set you up for success in the intimacy department.

Your parents might play a huge part in setting you up for success or failure, but taking responsibility for your own actions, thoughts and feeling is also important. Doing the work to build a secure sense of yourself. In exploring some of my existential issues, I find myself wishing I belonged in the “I don’t care” group who continue along their life path paying no mind at all to the social clock. The thing is, they have created their own social clock or as the English expression goes “they walk to the beat of their own drum.” Live for you; not for others’ expectations. I find that I haven’t been doing enough of the former and I’m not alone. And as if we need any more motivation, know that the buildup of stress hormones in the blood at this early age can cause your organs and body systems to fail sooner by the time you make it to a ripe old age. So, take a deep breath, let go of the distress and open your heart to loving you and creating a time line of goals that resonate with your needs and desires, separate from family, culture or society. The time is now…

 

 

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Light Therapy: Baking the pain away

Let the sun’s rays bake my pain away…

I am FINALLY on vacation after a long, hard year of doing what a New Yorker does best – hustling! Gratuitous amounts of massage meant that business has been very good, but inevitably that overwork had its downside a.k.a tendonitis. My workouts helped me push through and past my ¨magic number¨ of massages per day, but with all that repetative movement it was inevitable that I would develop an overuse injury. Nevertheless, in the weeks that led up to my Mediterranean vacay, I had been laying out in the sun every morning before work to both settle my mind and develop a ¨starter¨ tan. The added bonus was the heat of the sun hitting directly onto my upper back and shoulders really dissipated a lot of the pain and tension I felt from the previous day´s physical demands. Unbeknownst to me this heliotherapy I was giving myself is actually a therapeutic technique dating back to antiquity. A number of ancient cultures had an idea of the healing properties of light. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, prescribed sitting in the sun to heal a variety of illnesses. Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, preached that the sun could help heal nerves and muscles. Many ancient Greeks built roofless buildings for the purpose of exposing themselves to the sun´s rays. Outside of ancient Greece, the Egyptians took it a step further and practiced bathing themselves in various colored light to cure diseases. Thousands of miles away in India, medical texts dating back to 1,500 BC also note the healing properties of light for skin disorders. Go even further to China and their medical texts from over 2000 years ago detail a range of color and light therapies for skin and mental illness.

A woman receiving light from a modern light therapy i.e. phototherapy box

So, seeing that the ancients had an inkling of what the sun could do for one´s health, modern medicine didn´t get the memo until the early 19th century, where Niels Ryberg Finsen, a Danish doctor of Icelandic decent, studied the medicinal affects of light rays. His impetus was the severe metabolic disease he suffered from whose symptoms  he experimented with sunbathing to relieve. He died a year after winning the Nobel for a phototherapeutic device he created that simulated sun light to treat several skin conditions. Thirty years later, scientists realized a lack of Vitamin D produced in the body by exposure to sunlight, was the main cause of a disease known as ¨Rickets¨ which leads to the weakening and softening of bones. Twenty years after that, researchers in Hungary used soft laser light to relieve arthritis pain. In later years, NASA scientists did a plethora of research on the manner that LED light affects plant biology in an effort to understand how to grow plants in space. What they found was a very small spectrum of light provided most of the energy needed to grow plants. From this research, more strides were made in the understanding of the healing properties of light within animal and human cells. Currently, two forms of phototherapy exist; Non targeted light therapy that comes from a box, like in the image of the woman above and targeted light therapy, which is administered by a laser. These forms are used with much success in the treatment of such skin disorders as psoriasis, non-severe acne, vitiligo, eczema, atopic dermatitis, polymorphous light eruption and lichen planus. They have also been effective at treating mood and sleep disorders like SAD (seasonal affective disorder), non seasonal depression and circadian rhythm disorders like delayed sleep phase disorder. Further medical research is being done with light therapy to address accelerated wound healing and pain management, which brings me back to my tendonitis. My experimentation with light therapy from its natural source (the sun) elicited the following note. On the days that I did not lay out because weather did not permit me to, I found that the pain and weakness in my anterior shoulder and neck would become mildly worse and last the full work day. The days that I did get about 45 mins of sun exposure, it felt more like a dull ache and only after doing 6 hours of massage at the end of my day. It is clear to me that the sun does heal. In the two weeks I will be bathing in its Mediterranean glory, my hope is to eradicate most of the pain and heal those weary tendons. I am looking forward to the day when the medical community finally approves its use for pain management. We need more natural and ancient approved manners to heal our bodies and minds.

The Magic Number

What’s your magic number?

How many massages can you do in a day?

This is a popular question posited to me by many a new and regular client. You can never be fully honest for obvious reasons. You don’t want to seem tired and overworked, even if you are, because now the client is thinking they will get a shitty massage or feel guilty that they are number (insert double digit) of the day. If I am in the spa setting, I usually make a joke and say that I am “strong like bull” in a mock Eastern European accent and tell them not to worry. If I am in a clinical setting, I distract them back to the matter at hand – their condition, thus dismissing the question altogether. If they bring it up again, I then tell them these clinical massages are shorter and more focused, so don’t worry about me. Let’s focus on you!

The only thing a client should be focused on…

Truthfully, there is a magic number of massages a therapist can perform consecutively before burn out happens. Of course, this number is different for all of us. I weight train and exercise at least three times a week; therefore I am “strong like bull.” Despite this strength and stamina, I know that if I do 5.5 hours of consecutive massage, I am at my body’s limit for the day. I learned this from the rare times I had done 7 or even 8 hours of consecutive massages. The next day, I could barely make my hands into fists coupled with the ache in my forearms and shoulders. Now, for those of you who may say, “You work a 6 hour shift? That’s so part time.” Let me take a moment here and define what consecutive means in this context. These massages are occurring literally back to back. Once the one client is off the table, there are between 5 to 7 minutes to get the room changed over, grab a sip of water, then run to get the next guest without looking like you ran to get them. This is usually what happens in a spa setting, as the booking is done to maximize profitability; not to consider the physical demands made on the therapist. So, you see how 5.5 hours of continuous physical work plus the added cardio of running up and down stairs for guest pick up, drop off and supplies is enough of a full work day for me. You cannot compare it to a 9-5 p.m. desk job, which exhausts many in a different manner (i.e. from holding their bodies in poor sedentary posture and mentally focusing on a screen with few breaks).

Burnout of a different kind…

I recall working an event where another therapist boasted at the amount of clients they could take on in a day. Observing their body mechanics, I assessed that within a few years this therapist would surely burn out. Chronic Tendonitis is a common occurrence in any profession that requires repetitive movements over long periods of time. Taking breaks to stretch, hydrate and regroup mentally and physically allow this career to last beyond the statistical death knell of 3-5 years. I’m not ashamed or scared to say NO when asked to go above and beyond my limit at this 3 year mark of my professional career. After all, I want to be able to straddle both physical worlds – the demands of my fitness regimen with those of my profession. I feel blessed that I know what my magic number feels like, as it makes me a better practitioner for my current and future clients. As for the rest of my fellow LMT’s, may yours pop up sooner than later.

Psychosomatic Medicine

Acupuncture chart from Chinese medical text circa 1340s A.D.

There is nothing worse than going to a doctor with a host of symptoms and being told there is nothing wrong with you. Many people who appear on the program, Mystery Diagnosis, (my second Discovery Health obsession next to the The Food MD) have had this experience. I recall one particularly disturbing episode, where a young woman complaining of extreme gastrointestinal distress was prescribed an anti-depressant by one of the many doctors she sought answers from. Confused, she asked how these would help her to which the doctor responded that her condition was basically all in her head. When a physical illness or condition is caused by or aggravated by a mental factor it is termed psychosomatic. Essentially, that is how this young woman’s doctor viewed her illness. Many years later, she was properly diagnosed with severe endometriosis, a condition where the cells of the uterus grow in other places of the body causing cramping, severe bleeding and infertility to name a few. In her case, the cells had grown into and over parts of her GI tract. She had a full hysterectomy and a section of her large intestine removed in order to reclaim some quality of life. Take that, anti-depressants!

As you can glean from the above story, defining an illness as psychosomatic carries with it an intense social stigma here in the west, even though almost all physical illnesses have mental factors that determine their onset, presentation, maintenance, susceptibility to treatment and resolution. When doctors dismiss symptoms like in the case of this young woman, the rest of the world follows suit. The person who is suffering internally and externally is labeled “dramatic” or even worse, a liar. For thousands of years, Chinese medicine viewed the psychosomatic as the greatest key to diagnosing deeper illness and imbalance in the body. The strength of the nervous system and physical state of the individual (including their environment) is assessed in order to understand the degree in which an organ or a system is affected. Every symptom is taken into account and treated seriously, with the objective being to restore balance. Moreover, the eastern approach considers how interconnected the body and mind are.

The biggest physical bully is emotional stress, which can infiltrate suddenly or slowly, over a long period of time. Even from a western perspective, stress can be incredibly destructive, wreaking havoc on connective tissues, digestion, vascular integrity and the body’s restorative sleep cycles if not managed properly i.e. not just a script for anti-depressants. In Chinese medicine, if the nervous system of the individual is weak, the symptoms of illness will be more psychological. On a physical level, the organ most affected by the emotional stress will be the weakest/dysfunctional one. Whatever the natural emotions associated with this organ are, they will become stronger and more destructive to the nervous system overall. As the organ breaks down, it takes the system it is associated with along for the ride, leading ultimately to disease. If the emotional stress comes on suddenly, it will affect the Heart and the Lungs. If it is gradual and long term, it will take a toll on the Liver, Spleen and Kidneys. Even more specific is the type of emotional stress broken down into these 5 categories: tense/chronic, shock/sudden, sadness, rumination and fearful emotion. This gives an even more precise view of the affected organs/systems in the body, further honing the treatment approach.

Our young woman with endometriosis would have been assessed as having a strong nervous system in the beginning, as her symptoms were predominantly physical. By the time she had gone to see the doctor who prescribed the anti-depressants, she was exhibiting a combination of physical and mental symptoms. This would signify that her nervous system was deteriorating. If she had also gone to see an eastern doctor from the get go, much of her later suffering might have been alleviated, as the weakest organ, her large intestine would have been addressed immediately with herbs and acupuncture/bodywork. Since organs are partnered in the Chinese system of yin/yang (solid/hollow), the untreated large intestinal dysfunction would have affected her lungs. This woman developed an eczema like rash all over her trunk and extremities that would get worse every time she had a violent bout of diarrhea. The skin is considered the 3rd lung of the body in Chinese medicine. This symptom developed 5 years after her initial bout of gastrointestinal distress. After ten years, she began to bleed copiously during her period, which lasted over two weeks. Initial blood tests had already indicated she was mildly anemic, but this massive blood loss rendered her immobile. Ironically, during this time, her large intestine dysfunction seemed to dissipate; however, as soon as the period would end, the violent diarrhea would return. At this point in her illness, the Spleen had become involved. Responsible for creating Blood/Qi and keeping things upright and in their proper place, it’s no wonder that when she finally got her diagnosis 15 years in the making, this was the most affected organ. (Note: One could even argue that the Spleen could have been the weakest organ overall, but I won’t complicate things for the reader) The cells of the uterus growing out of control outside of their proper place is demonstrative of Spleen weakness. The uncontrollable bleeding led to a massive loss of Qi that just couldn’t be replaced by her depleted system. The only solution, at that point, was to remove the uterus and large intestine to prevent the out of control cell growth from migrating elsewhere. While organ removal can have detrimental affects on the Spleen, it proved more harmful to keep the stagnation in there than to remove it. If I were this young woman, I would seek out an acupuncturist to help me keep my nervous system strong and balance the loss of the organs that were surgically removed. They would be able to recommend herbs and dietary changes to support her treatment. After watching this episode, it made me all the more fired up about Integrating Eastern and Western medicine. If East met West from the beginning, she and others like her would have been spared a lifetime of suffering. We would all have a better understanding of our body-mind relationship and keep the stigmatic tongue wagging at bay.

SOURCES & ADDITIONAL READING:

http://www.dragonrises.edu/learning-opportunities/articles-books/

http://www.psychosomaticmedicine.org/

E tu, Iliopsoas?

What your Iliacus and Psoas look like – separate, but together…

Iliopsoas is a term used for the combo platter of muscles that is Iliacus and Psoas Major. These muscles call the posterior abdominal wall home, where they attach the lumbar spine and pelvis to the hip. This trajectory makes iliopsoas not only an important postural muscle (you need it for standing and walking) but also a strong flexor of the hip joint. Sprinting and running with high knees (i.e. hips and knees are flexed above a 90 degree angle) really recruits this muscle complex along with the usual suspects of Quads, TFL and Sartorius. Also, a wonderful calisthenic exercise known as the Mountain Climber is good for strengthening this muscle for the same reason that it flexes the hip beyond 90 degrees. We need our iliopsoas to be strong in order to keep that back straight and supported through all our daily activities outside of just exercise. Too much sitting shortens and weakens this muscle complex, causing an exaggerated curve in the lower back known as lordosis, which in turn tightens the muscles of the lumbar spine causing pain and instability. Another cause of weakness is inefficient recruitment, like say, if you were a long distance runner. Iliopsoas just goes along for the ride when your knees and hips stay below 90 degrees because you are running at a slower, more methodical pace. Even though you are maintaining a good level of fitness, overtime iliopsoas will weaken because it is not really being strengthened. Add old age to the equation, which naturally reduces muscle strength and viability, and you have all the factors that directly affect this muscular unit. Well, almost. What else is located in the deep recesses of your belly? Your guts.

Your guts and Iliopsoas have a “tight” relationship – pun intentional.

Aside from your abs, the iliopsoas (specifically psoas major) keeps that lower abdomen flat, preventing the intestines from pushing forward as it creates a kind of long shelf for them to rest in. In times of elevated stress and emotional issues, your psoas major tightens and is less efficient at keeping your guts at bay. Primordially tied into our “fight or flight” nervous system, the psoas is our true “gut” muscle, stabilizing and destabilizing at the will of our environment. Digestion and other non-essential activities cease when we are on high alert leading to a buildup of toxins, inflammation and other muscular disturbances. And speaking of said disturbances, also located in the lower right corner of your abdomen in the region of iliopsoas is a valve known as the ileocaecal valve (IVC). It is where digested food passes from the small intestine into the large intestine, so that water and vitamin absorption can occur and toxins can be eliminated. This valve is designed to open for the above function and then close to prevent back-up. Any number of factors including stress, diet, parasites and irritation of the nerves that power the valve can cause it to stay in either a closed or open position. This leads to a buildup of toxins where they do not belong. The body responds with fluid retention and a host of symptoms such as joint and muscular aches/pains, circulatory problems, pinched nerves or even whole body arthritis. How does this affect iliopsoas? One of the most common symptoms is low back pain that comes on suddenly and with no explained cause. Picture yourself sitting one minute, then getting a sharp, stabbing pain in your lower back upon getting up. This low back pain is due to the close relationship iliacus has with the valve. Any dysfunction refers to this muscle, which in turn destabilizes the lumbar spine and affects the surrounding musculature in the back and hip. Chiropractors, Massage Therapists who specialize in Applied Kinesiology and Naturopaths can all address this issue effectively through  a variety of changes to one’s diet, exercise and with soft tissue manipulation to name a few techniques. Do not underestimate the importance of this muscle complex. Its betrayal by either pathological and/or other causes can have severe repercussions in the whole body. Keep your guts and back in perfect alignment and they will take care of you.

Additional information and SOURCES:

http://blog.corewalking.com/psoas-major-and-rectus-abdominis-a-strained-alliance/

http://digestiveawareness.drupalgardens.com/content/ileocecal-valve-preventing-backflow

Massage for a Broken Heart

This too shall pass…

One out of every three clients I encountered this past month was in the midst of a break up. Although February is nationally recognized as a time to celebrate love, thanks in part to the mass market holiday that Valentine’s has become, it seems that more and more people choose to end their relationships during this time. Break ups apply to all kinds of human connections like friendships, romantic partners, marriages or family members and illicit the same range of emotions one would encounter within the grieving process. Rather than swimming in the vortex of loss alone, these clients sought out massage as comfort. How is it that heartbreak “hurts” so much? The physical reaction to emotional loss can be explained through medical science.

When emotional stress is experienced, especially loss, our brains signal the release of stress hormones from the adrenal glands and certain proteins that constrict blood flow causing part of the heart to become temporarily enlarged and incapable of pumping well. The rest of the heart has to compensate by contracting more forcefully. The pain felt in one’s chest resembles that of a heart attack; however without the permanent damage associated with it. The heart is described as being temporarily stunned or rendered “helpless” which is an interesting choice of words given the sufferer’s mental state. This condition is known medically as stress cardiomyopathy (formerly takotsubo cardiomyopathy) but many doctors refer to it as Broken Heart Syndrome.

Pain is the brain’s primal way of responding to trouble. That trouble can be caused by stimuli both inside and outside of the physical body. Sensory receptors known as nociceptors register these stimuli and in milliseconds return the signal of pain. When we are in a state of emotional distress, the brain’s blood supply is altered, sending more blood to the area responsible for regulating physical pain. This excess flow has been found in people with depression making them more peaked to pain. The emotions felt during a break up enact this physiological response, registering an ache or hollow feeling often felt within the organs of our core; not just in the heart. The state of pain also kicks in the sympathetic nervous system to respond, known as our state of “fight or flight.” The hormones and proteins released inhibit appetite which can lead to anorexic behavior, keep us over alert which translates into insomnia or disrupted sleeping patterns, constricts blood vessels causing headaches, stops digestive juices from being released causing tummy troubles and for some, their overabundance can lead to panic attacks and adrenal fatigue.

Brain and pain rhyme for a reason, kids.

One of the main things massage can do is kick into gear the parasympathetic (i.e. “rest and digest”) response. This is why it is so effective in stress management. Massage counters a lot of the physiological affects of a broken heart by switching off the sympathetic release of hormones and proteins related to emotional stress. In addition, it counters any muscular and postural imbalances that could develop from protective patterns of movement or the general feeling of wanting to cocoon into oneself. It also prevents the isolation and loneliness that creeps in after the shock, denial, guilt, anger and bargaining stages of the grieving process pass because it allows for touch from another that is warm, therapeutic and outside of any emotional attachment or expectation. It is a safe place to let go of emotions and come back into the body.  Some of us put names on slips of paper in the freezer, bury all the things ever given as gifts, move out of the apartment whose walls are saturated with the memory of YOU and THEM, cut or dye hair in all kinds of ways to deal with a break up. But giving yourself the love you once had for another person, which in the case of my clients was in the form of therapeutic massage, will have the most beneficial overall effect for all parties involved. Acceptance is a whole lot easier when you don’t have to HURT as much.

A big plate of Sleep

Many health and nutritional experts say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but I beg to differ. Let me draw your attention to the period of time that precedes that meal. A time that should be spent in a state of deep restfulness. Doing without this form of nutrition will set your body up for certain demise. Sleep is the meal that should never be skipped.

Our appetite for sleep is programmed into a part of the brain known as the hypothalamus, which is the regulating center for the various biological drives that keep our bodies functioning. When we are infants, the part responsible for sleep and wakefulness is out of control. Think of how many babies sleep all day and are up all night or those that have short bouts of sleep spread out over an entire day. The reason for this insane sleep schedule is the immaturity of the internal clock that sets daily functions to the rhythm of 24 hours. Human beings have it, as do plants, animals, fungi and certain bacteria. Dubbed our Circadian Rhythm, sleep and wakefulness is dependent on exposure to light and dark. The first few months of life are pivotal in establishing this internal rhythm, but some babies take as long as a year to sleep a solid 8 hour night. Once the rhythm is established, your body will function on a 24 hour cycle. When in the presence of darkness, our brain’s pineal gland, which is light sensitive, produces a hormone melatonin that helps to make us sleepy. Desire for sleep is strongest during the darkest hours between midnight and 6 a.m. and to a lesser extent in the mid-afternoon. In American culture, this is the 2-4 p.m. slump when most people grab themselves a coffee and/or some kind of energy boosting snack. In Europe and Latin America, this would be your afternoon nap-time otherwise called the “siesta.”

National Nap-time is the right idea! (Image of the first ever Sleeping Championship in Madrid, Spain 2010)

Sleep itself is a highly involved process consisting of 4 stages that each have a physiological affect on the body and brain. The first three stages are part of what is called Non-REM or quiet sleep, a state where thinking and most physiological activities slow down, but movement can still occur, and a person often shifts position while sinking into deeper stages of sleep. Unless something disturbs the process, people will pass through these 3 stages of sleep smoothly. The fourth stage of sleep is called REM or dreaming sleep, a state where the brain is very active, but the body is paralyzed. Normal sleep cycles alternate between quiet and dreaming, with most deep sleep occurring in the first half of the night. During the second half of the night, dreaming sleep gets much longer and alternates with the second stage of quiet sleep. More on these stages now…

During the first stage of sleep, dubbed drowsiness, your brain no longer receives visual stimuli from your shut eyes, body temperature begins to drop, muscles relax, and eyes often move slowly from side to side. Although you may start to lose awareness of your surroundings, you can very easily be awakened. In the second stage of sleep, known as light sleep eyes remain still and breathing and heart rate are much slower. The brain starts to show irregular electrical patterns of slow waves and short bursts of activity. The brain can also respond to outside stimuli, like someone whispering your name, which scientists believe could be a built in vigilance system to ready you for awakening if necessary. Half of a good night’s sleep is spent in this stage. Once you enter the third stage of sleep, known as deep sleep, your body undergoes some important cellular changes. Blood flow to the brain decreases and it stops responding to outside stimuli, making it difficult to wake up the sleeper. Breathing becomes regular, blood pressure falls and the heart slows to 30% of its waking rate. The pituitary gland releases growth hormone at the beginning of this stage which stimulates tissue growth and muscle repair. Proteins in the blood that activate your immune system also increase, helping build the body’s defenses against illness and infection. Interesting side note here: People in young adulthood have many stretches of deep sleep, while those over 65 have none.

Enter now the fourth stage of sleep or dreaming sleep where the eyes dart back and forth rapidly behind your closed lids ( this is where the acronym REM comes from standing for “rapid eye movement”) and the brain races with thoughts and “dreams. Your body temperature and blood pressure rise, and your heart rate and breathing speed up to daytime levels. What is interesting is that the sympathetic nervous system, our fight-or-flight response, is twice as active as when we are awake. Despite all this activity, the body hardly moves, except for intermittent twitches. The rest of the muscles not needed for breathing or eye movement are essentially paralyzed. A normal night’s slumber consists of 3 to 5 approximately 90 minute periods of REM, but as we age they get shorter. Many scientists feel this is the time when the mind restores itself, which is important for cognition and memory. Early research into the role of REM sleep in-utero indicated that the rapid firing of nerve cells during this period was important for the growth and development of nerves. Subsequent studies on adult humans found that REM sleep deprivation led to poor performance on a variety of recall tests or logical tasks. In addition, memory loss occurred when sleep was deprived on the same night or two nights after the material had been learned and especially when subjects had been selectively deprived of one of the first two or last two REM episodes of the night. In other studies, REM cycles were found to increase after complex material had been studied, indicating that the brain uses this time to sort and process information into its memory banks. Other scientists suggest that REM sleep functions to dispose of unwanted memories through a mechanism called reverse learning. Reverse learning operates during this period of sleep to prevent the brain from being overloaded with massive amounts of information stored during wakefulness. A fine explanation for the insane dreams one may have, but testing this is pretty difficult, so it’s just a theory.

If your sleep is going to be interrupted, you do not want it to be during your stage 3 and stage 4 cycles. Overtime, deprivation of these levels of restorative sleep will take a toll on your outward appearance and your internal health, mentally and physically. Dermatologists have noted that collagen production increases during sleep, strengthening the bond between your exterior and deeper skin layers and allowing for the water retention necessary for suppleness. Also, growth hormone gets released in deep sleep, as mentioned earlier, which builds and repairs tissue. Without it, water evaporates from the skin leading to a dry, sallow complexion and the appearance of fine lines. Keep it up and skin could react with rashes and eczema. Lack of deep sleep increases the amount of inflammatory proteins in the blood and decreases immune system response. The more deprived you are, the more likely it will be that your body will react to pathogens and itself. The increased inflammatory proteins can lead to such conditions as heart disease and overall, research has indicated that people who get less than 6 hours of rest a night tend to have a higher mortality rate than those getting the recommended 7-8 hours. If you are a person who weight trains or exercises a lot, the lack of deep sleep does not allow for muscles to repair themselves and grow properly. This negates the affects of the workout and leaves them prone to injury. Outside memory loss, deprivation of REM sleep can lead to a diminished awareness of one’s surroundings, a severely reduced response time and an inability to perform tasks that are highly involved, such as driving or operating machinery. Far beyond drinking and drug use, lack of sleep is responsible for most of the accidents that occur on America’s roadways.

 

If you are having trouble getting to sleep at night, some of the obvious culprits could be stress, use of electronic equipment before bed, drinking too much caffeine and eating a big meal or going to bed hungry. Those have easy solutions, relatively speaking. You can get a massage, meditate or do some yoga to relax your body and bring your mind down from its stressful state. Have your coffee earlier in the day and cut down on the amount. No eating of large meals or snacks within 2 hours of going to bed, so you have ample time to digest. Shut the computer and the television and get them away from the area dedicated for sleepy time. Plunge yourself into darkness (remember that melatonin) and relative warmth, and sleep should come to you. However, there are some not so obvious culprits for disturbance of sleep. Check these out:

  • Taking a B vitamin supplement before bed – The B’s are super important for stimulating the nervous system, so popping supplements before bed can lead to fidgeting and constant awakening because the brain is way too “ON” to enter deep sleep.
  • Having a few drinks in your system – While it might get you to sleep faster, alcohol impedes the natural cycling of sleep stages, plunging you into what feels like deep sleep right away, but wearing off in the second half of the night when your REM cycles start kicking in. Since you never get to REM, you wake up more often than not feeling groggy, achy and depending on how much you drank, possibly still drunk.
  • Taking Prescription medications – Consider that sleep disturbance is a common side affect of some high blood pressure pills, birth control pills, steroids (including asthma inhalers), diet pills, antidepressants and cough and cold medications.
  • Smoking – Nicotine is a stimulant like caffeine so depending on how much you smoke and for how long, sleep can be dramatically reduced.
  • Working out at night – Some work schedules do not allow for morning or midday exercise, so many people will go to the gym after work. Exercise raises epinephrine levels in the blood, which makes us more alert and overall body temperature. These 2 factors can prevent sleep.
  • Hormonal changes – Long before menopause has kicked in, many women find they wake up in the night numerous times. This is due to fluctuating levels of estrogen and progesterone. Some younger women suffer from erratic sleep patterns before or during their menstrual cycles due to imbalances of these hormones.
  • Sleeping in on the weekends – It’s good for the circadian rhythm to awaken and go to sleep around the same times each day, but many of us tend to stay up later and sleep in more on days off. This throws off your internal clock, making it harder to fall asleep and awaken when faced with your normal schedule. Doctors suggest to sleep no longer than an hour more than you normally would in order to maintain the cycle.

Lastly, if you are chronically deprived of sleep despite your best efforts you should really think about visiting a doctor and/or finding a sleep clinic in your area to better assess and diagnose your problem. Now, go get a heaping helping of rest please!