Sleep is a small miracle – it always has been. In yonder times many myths ranked around the topic of sleep, dreams were often a means for the gods to communicate with us, ordinary mortals. Modern sleep science could remove some of its mysticism and chase down hard facts, yet many questions persist and remain an area of guessing rather than knowing.

Throughout this post, we’re talking about the knowing part of the former sentence. We’re trying to dismantle sleep into its hard, data-driven facts and see how this mechanistic knowledge helps us to be better sleepers. As awkward as that might sound, many of us aren’t. Modern life often opposes ancient sleep patterns, and our environment accommodates other threats that interfere with our body’s innermost workings. Knowing the most important mechanisms empowers us to create certain protocols and abstain from some potential hazards that could cause issues. Plus, removing some of the mystery regarding sleep is a good thing – yet especially dreams or the advent of sleep itself remain big unsolved mysteries and even the smartest people, like Freud or Jung, could only come up with hypotheses.

But without further ado, let’s look at what the word means and what happens while you sleep before proceeding further into the depths of it!

What happens while you’re asleep?

What is Sleep?

A bed in darkness. The place where you reap the positive effects on your health from sleep.

Before we dive into the hard facts and benefits of sleep, let’s first think about what sleep is. We should get a working definition going! Have you ever asked yourself this philosophical-seeming question? You probably might come up with things like:

  • Sleep is a means of recovery from daily life
  • Sleep acts as a medium to connect with what is beyond
  • Sleep provides a pause to the very active metabolism of bodies

And there is truth to all of them. But one problem is that to truly know what sleep is we have to know where it emerged from – and this remains a big mystery. Smart people came up with the compelling idea that sleep is the default state of life and that wakefulness came out of sleep – not the other way around like many people might intuitively think. Rather than sleep being solely a necessity to promote recovery for consciousness, the state of unconsciousness might be the default. I find this idea very compelling and other areas, like mythology, religion, depth psychology also tell this idea – Jung with his collective unconsciousness, order in the myths emerging out of chaos by heroic deeds, and the creation of the world by the conscious creator out of the void. All tell the same story.

Out of this unconsciousness, wakefulness evolved, yet we always have to return to unconsciousness. It seems to be a paradigm of all living things – without sleep, there is no wakefulness.

Sleep and Health

If we now start looking at the benefits, or rather the default operations, standard quality sleep provides, we see that it influences literally every process in some ways. This is not an exaggeration. By influencing our circadian rhythm and the setting of the clocks, but also the recovery it provides to the entire system, sleep has its hands in every process. It is a necessity to live.

If you sleep badly, things start to go south pretty quick:

This image explains the 6 major benefits that come with optimized sleep.

One night without sleep will have you feel low-level drunk, your memory starts to fail, and your performance is non-existent. Clearness of thought, good decision-making, and precise aims all go out of the window. More sleeplessness further increases the issues, likely will make you go insane, and can end fatally if taken to extremes. That’s why it was a common form of white torture.

But bad sleep can always be impaired sleep over a longer period of time, it doesn’t always have to mean no sleep. Even 1-2 hours less sleep than normal have shown clear impairments in many tested parameters, such as your performance on tests, but also hard ones such as blood markers.1Sleep deprivation: Impact on cognitive performance

Only one night. If taken further, and you have chronic issues, even insomnia, things get only worse. A lot of potential can lie dormant if you sleep badly.

With the right amount of sleep, you’ll improve:

  • Cognition, memory & clearness of mind
  • Keep your mood & emotions balanced and anchored in reality
  • Your body will recover well – from sports or daily challenges, even just daily life
  • Your hormones will get secreted more optimally and balanced
  • Your genes will work optimally and DNA repair happens as it should
  • You will feel better, more energetic, clear, and awake
  • Plus, you will fend off literally any disease better – chronic, metabolic, infectious, cardiovascular, you name it.

We could go on with this list for ages, but you get the gist. Sleep lies at the very root of human health. No other cornerstone of health, neither nutrition, nor movement, or mental health, is so important. If you sleep badly, you live below your potential.

Do all Living Beings sleep?

Sleep has been observed in many species, all the way down to worms. But even below the zoological level of worms, the effects of light information on bacteria are well known. All living things respond to light information and have something like a circadian rhythm. The question then is how we define sleep. If these simple organisms regulate their metabolism to the time of the day, probably times of increased restoration like they would happen when asleep could exist. But that is not for me, but for much smarter people to establish.

That said, all the greater animal classes, mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and even insects sleep. There seems to exist no cheat code to come around the need for sleep. Although all these animals sleep somehow, the actual how looks very different. While some sleep in the daytime like many nocturnal species, others are asleep with half of their brain, as found in fish or birds. Also, the duration changes vastly, with horses being the most sleep-averse punching in at 2-4 hours per day, and bats or sloths leading the statistic with 16-20 hours per day. As a fun fact aside, even hibernating animals have to sleep – a hibernating bear will end his hibernation a few times to make time to actually sleep.2

The basic Sleep Architecture – NREM & REM Sleep

Non-Rapid Eye Movement Sleep aka NREM Sleep

NREM stands for non-rapid eye movement sleep. It is one of two main stages of our sleep – quite obvious, the other is REM sleep. NREM sleep emerges once a child reaches the age of one, and it is often seen as bodily sleep, as many recovery processes happen. But let’s first have a look at the general sleep architecture of NREM, before we head off into the distinct roles it fulfills.

The Architecture of NREM Sleep

This image shows the necessities affected by NREM sleep.

NREM sleep is divided into 4 further levels, NREM 1, 2, 3 & 4. They all differ from each other in their activity that can be measured by an EEG. An EEG measures the flow of electricity in the brain from outside the skull with electrodes. NREM 1 & 2 are often called slow-wave sleep, stage 3 & 4 deep sleep.3

NREM Stage I-IV explained

Stage 1 is a transistor phase and the first that happens during the onset of sleep or very light sleep throughout the night. Stage 2 is often seen as the first, real stage of sleep, as it shows distinctive structures known as sleep spindles. Sleep spindles are rhythmic activities of electricity that communicate back and forth between your cortex and thalamus.
The further we get down into stages 3 & 4 the more brain activity regulates down – that’s where the name slow-wave sleep comes from, as on an EEG one would see very slow waves. During that time your body recovers and many hormone levels rise such as growth hormone and leptin, while others fall such as insulin and cortisol. But slow-wave sleep is not purely physical – it was discovered that some areas light up frequently that are involved in cognitive function. In that manner, slow-wave sleep might also help learning, attention and memory.4

Brain Chemistry of NREM-Sleep

If we now look at the chemistry going on throughout NREM, we see high levels of inhibitory neurotransmitters at the onset of sleep in substances like GABA & Galanin. These make your brain calm down. Throughout NREM sleep Serotonin levels, as well as Norepinephrine levels are quite high, while Acetylcholine levels are very low. The explanation for that is that Acetylcholine activates REM sleep, while serotonin and norepinephrine tend to fight REM sleep off.5Role of Sleep and Sleep Loss in Hormonal Release and Metabolism

Rapid Eye Movement Sleep aka REM Sleep

REM sleep acts as your nightly therapy session. You live through many troubling topics, sometimes memories that happened the past day, sometimes total randomly seeming garbage. Yet, your brain seems to make sense and live through these experiences. Plus, it is closely tied to memory consolidation and moving worth bits from your daily memory to longer-lasting areas.

The Architecture of REM Sleep

If we take a look at neurotransmitters, the chemical mixture looks very different from NREM sleep, too. REM sleep starts with the activation of the REM-on cells that originate in your Pons. These cells release high levels of Acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter that brings about REM sleep. At the same time, Serotonin & Norepinephrine are shut off. On top of that, glycine & GABA will paralyze you.
Let’s untie this lot. Why the heck the paralysis? To keep you in the gene pool, by hindering you from acting out on your dreams. Would be stupid to run away from some imaginary specter and fall out of your window, or slaughter your spouse while trying to defend this specter off. Low serotonin levels will also help you live through these moments because without this neurotransmitter you will feel more detached from these experiences. The dream of every psychologist working with traumatized patients. In short, your body provides your mind with the best tools it can to live through many troubling experiences again. Nightly therapy.6The neuropharmacology of sleep paralysis hallucinations: serotonin 2A activation and a novel therapeutic drug

At the same time, certain spindles go from your pons to your visual centre and memory consolidating areas. These create the vivid dream images and move the memory worthwhile into your long-term memory. At the same time, one can imagine vividly what goes to waste if one misses out on REM sleep – high emotionality, mental illness, memory issues, low cognition – all immediate effects of a bad night in bed.7

The Role of Ultradian Cycles

Sleep and many other bodily functions happen in Ultradian cycles. An ultradian cycle means in the area of chronobiology nothing more than a timeframe that spans less than 24 hours of a day. The ultradian cycles we talk about in response to the human body span roughly 90 minutes.8

Your sleep is structured into these bouts of 90 minutes. Throughout one cycle you will live through all the NREM stages, one after another, plus one bout of REM afterward. What changes throughout the night is the exact timings each sleep stage occupies. While NREM dominates the first half of the night, REM sleep dominates the second half of the night. The chunks of each literally take longer – while we could say that at the beginning of the night one might just experience smaller bouts of 5-10 minutes of REM sleep, in the second half you will spend a lot more time within REM at the expense of total NREM sleep time.9

That said, even when you miss out on one of those, your brain will catch up on it, to a degree.

As a last word aside about ultradian cycles, many other things like attention, the effectiveness of learning, and productivity when working could also be tied to ultradian cycles. These 90-minute bouts seem to be the preferred way of working for our bodies. If you can, you should try to structure your reading, working, learning around those bouts, too. It works wonders from my experience.

What is the Relation of Sleep and Dreams?

As we’ve seen, the REM part of our sleep acts as our nightly therapy session. While in, it we:

  • try to sort through our gained memory, throw away the garbage and connect the worth experiences towards others that might come handy in the future.
  • go through a therapy session aided by neurochemicals that help us feel more detached, as well as vivid imaginary.
Eine Stadt bei Nacht, jeder (hoffentlich) tief im NREM und REM-Schlaf.

Throughout these mechanisms, REM sleep and dreams are of fundamental importance for our mental health, cognition, emotional attunement, and groundedness in reality. Deprive human beings of REM sleep, and they will go insane real quick – early signs are emotionality, large decreases in performance, as well as hallucinations. Reality and your mind start to crumble without your nightly date with unconsciousness and the yonder dream world.10

Many mind-bogglingly smart people tried to make sense of dreams. The ancient Greeks thought of dreams often as the workings of the gods, trying to communicate with mortals. Dreams were there to convey a message, either to help the individual or punish it. They were the actors within the play of the gods. Hindus thought differently and imagined dreams either as inner desires, or the soul leaving the body to forego guiding. Christians, likewise the Hebrews, thought of them as supernatural, godly phenomena that should inspire the individual. Just open the Bible randomly, chances are you will find a passage of a prophet dreaming a message sent by god – like the Dreams of Daniel or Jacob’s Dream Ladder.11

In modern times especially psychologists, rather than beforehand mystics, tried to dismember sleep through reason. Foremost came Sigmund Freud, and his acquaintance Carl Jung. While Freud thought of dreams as wish fulfillment, even sometimes twixt ones12, Jung tied dreams to the Collective Unconsciousness and discovered a deep underlying symbolism. He believed dreams also had a message and tried to communicate through different figures that he found in the unconsciousness – like for example each soul’s Shadow or other gender counterparts, the Anima/Animus.13

While all the formerly mentioned hypotheses sound legit, none can say for sure what the heck dreams stand for and where they come from. Are they products of our own imagination, or a deeper layer of the unconscious universe – that some might call god? No one knows for sure, yet many dreams were indeed reported that conveyed direct knowledge. Some showcased people wrestling with the experiences of their day, others even granted looks into future happenings. Everyone experienced a deja-vu, basically a daydream telling you that you already knew of a present situation.

That said, dreams have the possibility to convey meaning and help one come to grips with one’s problems. Listening to them, either through a journal or even by analytically dissecting them in the manners of Carl Jung, can reap insights.
But what they truly do is help you cope with consciousness – that we know for sure. The best therapy there is, each night, for free.

How to improve your Sleep!

After going through this whole lot of sleep architecture and dream theory, we now get pragmatic and try to work out something grabbable. At least in an abstract meaning. Armed with the former knowledge, let’s now try to create practical guidelines and protocols that work with your biology and help you be a better sleeper in our modern society where sleep deprivation rather is the norm than an exception – even sometimes a celebrated standard.

What is your Chronotype?

The first thing to figure out, and truly low-hanging fruit, is your chronotype. Your chronotype is the preferred time period for you to be awake – some people are larks, others night owls. From an ancestral survival standpoint, these chronotypes evolved to have always a few tribal members awake even throughout the night to fight off dangers, tend for fires, and the like.

There are 5 chronotypes:

  • Extreme Early Risers (rising around 3-4 am while going to bed at 7pm.)
  • Early risers (rising around 5-6am, while going to bed at 9-10pm)
  • Neither, Nor (moderates who do not fall in any category, neither night owl nor lark)
  • Night Owls (rising around 7-9am, going to bed at 10-12pm)
  • Extreme Night Owls (rising around 11am-2pm going to bed sometime until 4am)

In earlier tribal times, all fulfilled their role and covered most of the daytime to always have some kind of safeguard awake. Nowadays especially the night owl tends to get punished by work-life, early risers on the other hand by social life. While companies and schools often start earlier and do not provide flexible work period, social life often happen in the evening into the night. Finding your chronotype is rather intuitive – what time would you wake up if you were off everybody for 3 weeks? What does it look like on your holiday? That’s your chronotype.

Find a Schedule that works for You!

There are many schedules around, most of us will fall into the monophasic category, meaning we engage in only one long bout of sleep. But there are many more:

  • Biphasic sleep (two bouts of sleep, often a longer night rest of 6-7h + a nap in the midtime of 0.5 – 1.5h)
  • Segmented sleep (two bouts of sleep in the night, with 1-3 hours of wake time in between after midnight)
  • Siesta Sleep (shorter and relatively late night sleep, followed by a longer sleep period in the early afternoon)
  • plus many more exotic schedules that do not work in my opinion.

The 3 above are all more natural sleeping periods, and a lot of evidence supports segmented as well as biphasic sleep as a more natural sleep schedule for humans. Monophasic sleep experienced its rise just with the advent of industrialization and companies calling for long daytime hours of labour. You can mess around with these 3 or already might have a feeling about which one you naturally move towards. A good source is mattressnerd providing a lot of articles about different schedules.

Address your overall Quality of Sleep

Often more important nowadays than the raw total time of overall sleep is sleep quality. If you sleep badly, even 10h will let you live below your potential – and more is neither necessarily better. Sleep needs to be balanced, the right amount of hours and great quality are the goals to aim towards.

Your Quality of Sleep is strongly determined by environmental, habitual, nutritional facts such as:

  • The environment of your bedroom (e.g. cold, dark, no LEDs or artificial lights, fresh air, no mold or mildew, quiet)
  • The nutrition of yours (e.g. no foods at least 3h before bed, enough tryptophan/tyrosine/choline to support neurotransmitters & melatonin, periods of intermittent fasting)
  • Your habits (winding down, reading/meditating/journaling before bed, banishment of artificial lights 1-2h before bed, dimming of lights, no late work/TV)

All of these terms are summarized under the term ‘Sleep Hygiene’ – the act of creating a sleep-positive, ancestrally consistent environment to sleep. Work with your biology, not against it. It is a fight no one can win.

Track your Sleep

Tracking your sleep provides you with the tools to especially address the quality of sleep. You basically see real-time changes in your sleep by the habits you change:

  • When you decide to skip dinner or leave at least 3h of non-eating between dinner and bedtime, you will probably see changes in overall REM-time and NREM-time. Boom, quality improved.
  • When you decide to banish electronic devices from your bedroom 1h before sleep while creating a great environment, you might see an increased amount of hours, plus a quicker onset of sleep.

Tracking is not necessary, but a great tool when figuring out things and experimenting with sleep to find out what works for you or where you leave stuff on the table. To track, the Oura ring is a great, albeit pricey choice. Despite that, there are many other sleep tracking devices out there, like to ones from Fitbit* & Garmin* that come with an app. Just be aware that all of them work through Bluetooth if you happen to take EMF for a matter of concern.

Sleep Supplements

Sleep and health are intimiately connected. It is not a luxury but a necessity of life.

Sleep supplements should be the last resort – unfortunately for many, it is often the first step. In terms of sleep supplements, they are a great use for stressful times, jetlags, or low-level insomnia when used periodically. But for long-term use, most are not the best choice. I truly believe many problems can be fixed by altering the environment, habits, and nutrition to achieve long-term improvements – supplements just supplement it.

On top, many sleep supplements are either useless or dangerous, too. Many quickly prescribed drugs are truly hard stuff and fall into categories such as benzodiazepines and barbiturates. Those things are not taken easily. Even common ones as melatonin, 5-HTP, and GABA come with their own critical side effects – these 3 things are truly hormones and neurotransmitters freely available. And nobody would freely inject adrenalin, or testosterone without knowing what the fuck they’re doing.

The problem with melatonin is that it elevated the blood levels by multitudes compared to your natural baseline. Plus, supplemental labels often are highly inaccurate and in animal models, melatonin showed to decrease testicle size significantly. 5-HTP & GABA are true neurotransmitters and work on some while showing adverse effects with others. Leave these out if you do not know the downstream effects.

So with that long pre-text – what does work?

Great supplements I used in troublesome times are:

Those 3 all work through different mechanisms on GABA, too. The difference is they are not directly GABA, but rather change the receptor binding and time. Plus, they are all well studied and come just with a few side effects. In general, these 3 compounds seem to be very safe. Nonetheless, inform yourself and use them as periodical helpers, not an all-time band aid. Just because they come from a plant does by no means mean they are not potent.

Optimizing Sleep is low-hanging Fruit

4000 words later we combed through a lot of sources and discovered many mechanisms for sleep! Thank you for staying with me down here. The most stunning thing in my opinion is that fixing your sleep is in many cases low-hanging fruit:

  1. Go to bed each day at the same time and wake up at the same time, no excuses.
  2. Create a sleep-positive environment
  3. Work with your biology, not against it and think actively about the modern environment.
  4. Eat generally good and think about nutrition, proteins & amino acids
  5. Avoid most sleep supplements, use safe ones for periodical fixes.

All of those 5 are neither hard nor have many obstacles attached. All of them hang just above the ground. The obstacle for most is to detach themselves from modern life and society on a low level:

  • Consumerism here,
  • Technology there…
  • Maybe a party, and a few catch-ups on sleep.

That is where sleep goes wrong and insomnia with all its downstream effects might develop. If you manage to actively do that, and prioritize sleep for the importance it has within your life – your life will become more filled with it rather than less. Sleeping well does not mean missing out, but feeling more energetic, healthy, and maybe even staying healthy. With these few fixes established, you will probably never have to think again about sleep and your life that intensely – when we live like we’re supposed to, close to nature and consistent with how our ancestors lived, wonderful things happen. All starts to fall into place like magic. The further we disconnect, the more disease arises.


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