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Why sleep is like a seesaw

by Dr. Jason Ong

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This post by sleep scientist Dr. Jason C. Ong is part of our Sleep Health course. You can experience the full 14-day course with a subscription to the Headspace app.

If you want to improve your sleep health, sleep more, and sleep better, it’s helpful to start with the science behind sleep regulation. Plus, if you know a bit about the theory, then the practice of meditation for sleep becomes a little easier to stick to.

One way to think about the systems in the brain that regulate sleep and waking is a seesaw: on one side, there’s alertness and on the other, sleepiness.

When you have a good night’s sleep, you wake up with a high level of alertness and a low level of sleepiness. As you go about your day, sleepiness builds up — just like hunger builds when you go a long time without food. And just like hunger, the longer you’re awake, the sleepier you will be.  

As sleepiness goes up, alertness comes down. Once sleepiness rises high enough and alertness falls, it becomes really difficult to stay awake. This is when most people go to bed and fall asleep. During the night, the brain “resets” your level of sleepiness while you sleep (much as hunger is satisfied when you eat), so if you get enough sleep, you wake up with a low level of sleepiness each morning and a relatively high level of alertness.

Every day and night, you go through this same up-and-down pattern with the brain, exchanging sleepiness for wakefulness.

Now let’s say you encounter some stressful event, for instance, a deadline at work, a stressful email, or an argument.  

Our body’s stress response is like a weight dropping down on the sleepiness side of the seesaw: it stops it from rising up. Stress triggers our fight-or-flight system, designed to keep us alert or even hyper-vigilant so that we can be ready to take action at any moment. This might have been helpful for survival in an earlier era in human history, but in modern society, it tends to serve as an “override button” to the sleep systems, making it difficult to sleep. By working out ways to reduce stress, we can get our seesaw back in motion. When the stress load is lifted, the sleepiness side of the seesaw can rise once again.

This is why meditation is so good for sleep. Not only will it help you to handle stress more skillfully, but it has also been shown to trigger the “rest and digest” response — that is the opposite of the stress reaction. The awareness that we develop in meditation also comes in really handy for knowing when the body is ready to sleep. And by being mindful, we can make better decisions when it comes to our response to poor sleep.

Learning to meditate might just be one of the best things you can do to keep your seesaw in harmonious motion.

Dr. Jason Ong

Dr. Jason Ong is an Associate Professor in the Department of Neurology and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine's Center of Circadian and Sleep Medicine. He received his PhD in clinical psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and completed a fellowship in Behavioral Sleep Medicine at Stanford University. Dr. Ong’s overall purpose is to help people sleep better without using drugs. His research lab is supported by the National Institutes of Health, with projects using mindfulness meditation and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for sleep disorders. In addition to his research interests, Dr. Ong also has a clinical practice where he uses mindfulness and behavioral approaches to help people with insomnia and hypersomnia.

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