While we are lying quietly in bed, a firework of activities rages inside us. They make us fit for the next day and keep us healthy.
Six nights with full board, all meals in your room and $ 1,000 in your pocket. A tempting offer. But those who got involved did not experience a vacation. The hotel guests were participants in an experiment by sleep researchers in the USA.
The test subjects inhaled a nasal spray with a cold virus and spent the following five days in the hotel in a shielded place. As expected, some caught a cold. But those who slept an average of less than six hours at night had a 4.5 times higher risk.
Sleeping strengthens the immune system
The study shows: Sleep is important for the defense against pathogens. Our immune system works at full speed at night. And long-term immune protection obviously also benefits from this.
The team led by Professor Jan Born from the University of Tübingen was able to prove this using the example of hepatitis vaccinations. “A year later, those who did not sleep the night after the jab had only half as many immune cells against hepatitis viruses as their peers,” summarizes the scientist.
The day in a fast run
Even if we don’t notice anything, a lot happens in our body at night too. It was only discovered a few years ago that the brain and spinal cord have a coherent disposal system. It transports – especially during sleep – away pollutants that have accumulated during the day.
In addition, the memory is strengthened. Nerve connections activated during the day are strengthened, unused ones weakened. To do this, the brain replays important events from the previous day. The same nerve cells fire in the same sequence – only ten times faster.
“Dreams, on the other hand, have the same pace at which we experience things,” says Dr. Martin Dresler, sleep researcher at Radboud University Nijmegen (Netherlands). He therefore considers it implausible that they play a major role in memory formation.
Dreams: space to try out and experience
Some researchers regard dreams as an accessory to brain activity – without meaning. On the other hand, the nocturnal head cinema has something to do with the person of the dreaming. It is often surreal, more emotionally charged and more eventful than what actually happened.
Some experts suspect that dreams offer us space to safely practice new behaviors. Dresler: “We can try everything in dreams without risking our lives or making ourselves look ridiculous in front of others.” For example, fighting lions or bluntly saying what people think of you who annoy you.
But why do we lose consciousness as soon as we fall asleep? We are then exposed to real threats without protection. “Presumably we have to be decoupled from the outside world, otherwise certain sleep processes could not take place,” says Dresler: the memory building, the brain cleaning and the dream experience.
Bad sleep indicates illness
One thing is certain: we need sleep, it keeps us healthy. If it is too short or not restful, we feel tired, irritable and inattentive the next day. If this happens frequently, the quality of life decreases. Poor sleep can also be a sign of illness.
Conversely, chronic lack of sleep promotes high blood pressure, depression, dementia, type 2 diabetes and obesity. Therefore, talk to your health care provider about sleep problems!
The power of negative thoughts
One of the greatest troublemakers during the night are negative thoughts. “There are a lot of people who brood over their sleep every night, making it difficult for them to rest,” says Professor Kai Spiegelhalder from the Society for Sleep Research and Sleep Medicine.
But that usually makes the problem even worse. A cycle begins: those affected are afraid of going to bed, are even more unable to switch off, fall asleep even worse, and worry even more.
Habits play a major role in the quality of sleep: “That’s crazy! I fell asleep better with you, because it’s so boring here!” – Professor Kai Spiegelhalder hears this or something like that over and over again – from people who suffer from insomnia and therefore come to him.
They then spend a night or two there – connected to devices that measure sleep, but disconnected from television and the Internet. Spiegelhalder: “Many patients are amazed at the effect this has on them.”
Small changes are often enough to improve the night’s sleep. However, there are no recommendations that work for everyone. “Everyone should try out what works best for them”.
About coffee, alcohol and sleeping pills
People react differently to possible triggers of sleep problems. For example, on the stimulant caffeine. Some people fall asleep better if they go without coffee in the afternoon, others feel no effect.
For alcohol, however, the situation is clear. “It helps you to fall asleep, but disturbs your sleep in the second half of the night,” says Dresler. You wake up again and find it difficult to get back to sleep.
Cell phones do not allow many people to relax. The blue light contributes to this. Many devices can be dimmed. Better: switch off
And how about sleeping pills? Experts agree: Doctors should be cautious about prescribing drugs to their patients – most substances should only be taken for a short time.
Dresler explains why: “With so-called benzodiazepines and the similarly acting Z-substances, habituation effects become apparent very quickly, and a higher dose is required after just a few days.”
And those who take the medication over a longer period of time will find it difficult to get rid of them. Dresler: “As soon as you take it off, your sleep disorder is worse off than before.”
Note side effects
Synthetic antihistamines, also available over the counter, are more effective, but have some side effects. The most common are drowsiness, lightheadedness and dizziness, muscle pain and headaches, skin reactions and gastrointestinal problems.
If you stop taking the medication after a long period of daily use, you can expect poor sleep again. “For these reasons, you can take them for a maximum of two weeks,” says Wohlert. There are also diseases such as prostate enlargement for which antihistamines should not be taken.
Natural sleep aids
There are a few things to consider with herbal medicines like valerian root, hops, lemon balm leaves or passion flowers.
Herbal products need a few days to work. But you can take them for a long time without any problems. In most cases the preparations only have a weak sleep-promoting influence and you often have to try a few to find what works for you.
Products with natural Melatonin often have a greater effect. Melatonin levels can also be checked with your GP.
For children a homeopathic sleep remedy would be the first thing to try.
Clarify the causes
For patients who repeatedly ask for sleeping pills, the advice is: “See a doctor to clarify the causes and treat them specifically.” Because insomnia can have many reasons, and nobody should spend too much time in uncertainty.
The first point of contact is usually the GP. For example, he uses a blood test to check whether there is an overactive thyroid and, if necessary, refers the patient to a specialist for further examinations.
In the sleep laboratory, for example, doctors can check whether there are nocturnal pauses in breathing (sleep apnea) or other physical causes. Therapy then depends on the diagnosis.
Relearn how to sleep
However, doctors do not always find a disease to be the trigger. Or the disease is treated successfully, but the sleep problems remain. In these cases, the treatment guidelines recommend cognitive behavioral therapy from a psychotherapist. This is actually an old hat, but extremely effective.
Tips for the day
The need for sleep varies from person to person and is between five and nine hours. Patients can learn methods that help them to relax, to structure their sleep-wake cycle better and to brood less in bed.
Sleep later, get up earlier
Those who have enough motivation and perseverance can try to improve their sleep quality on their own.
A particularly effective measure is to go to bed half an hour later in the evening or to get up half an hour earlier in the morning – for a week.
This means that you are more tired during the day, but you fall asleep easier in the evening and then also feel better during the day. Many people are surprised that it allows them to regain a certain amount of control over their sleep.
Tips for evening and night
- Wait for the tiredness and only go to bed when the need for sleep is acute. But don’t skip the signs, otherwise you might be right awake again for hours.
- The bedroom should be quiet, darkened, cool and well ventilated.
- Make sure you have a comfortable mattress, duvet and pillow.
- Stop the flood of stimuli. Switch off the TV, computer and smartphone an hour before bed and deposit them outside of the bedroom. Mental and emotional stimuli keep you awake.
- Rituals help you come down and fall asleep, for example a warm bath or a cup of fruit or herbal tea.
- Relaxation techniques such as autogenic training, progressive muscle relaxation or meditation are also useful and can be learned.
- Avoid sleeping pills and use them very sparingly.
- Alcoholic beverages are not suitable as a nightcap. Best to avoid completely, even during the day. Especially in combination with sleeping pills, it is absolutely necessary to avoid it completely.