Health & Fitness

What Part of the Brain Controls Sleep?

May 8, 2023   By Jennifer Cook

For something we spend a tonne of time doing, we hardly know what sleep is. Even today, experts are not entirely sure why we started sleeping the way we did.

Add to that the fact that some people need less sleep than others, and the mystery of the brain and sleep deepens.

How do our brains and sleep interconnect, and how does knowing all these improve your life? Read on to find out!

Nervous System 101

The nervous system, filled with neurons tasked with carrying and relaying sensory information, is the Internet of our body, where data is stored and decisions made. 

That is our attempt at simplifying brain function, but really, neuroscience is complex and technical. Please keep that in mind as you read on. 

We begin our journey by identifying the three major regions of the brain, namely the cerebrum, cerebellum, and brainstem. 

Our cerebrums are the largest part of the brain, charged with regulating body temperature, controlling our movement, including speech and reasoning, as well as managing our senses. 

What makes the cerebrum important is it also contains the limbic system that oversees memory consolidation, learning, and sexual stirrings—cue Marvin Gaye’s whole discography.

Composed of two major structures, namely the amygdala and hypothalamus, the limbic system is a significant player in how and why we sleep. More on that later.

The cerebellum, or the “little brain”, is the second most prominent area of the brain divided by two hemispheres. Filled with neurons that produce brain waves, the cerebellum maintains our balance and voluntary muscles.

Finally, the brain stem serves as a bridge between the cerebrum and the spinal cord, so it’s one you’d want to keep connected. It also facilitates the creation of valuable substances like serotonin (the key hormone that stabilizes our mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness), so there’s that.

Like other parts, the brain stem comprises three regions, specifically the midbrain, pons and the medulla—Google pictures at your own risk.

What does it do? It varies, from connecting neurotransmitters to telling us when we need to vomit, which, again, might happen if you’re squeamish and search brain photos as we did.

How Does Sleep and Brain Activity Work?

Why did we spend hours of our day researching zombies’ favourite snack? Because recent studies show that the brain and sleep are intertwined. Here’s why experts think that is.

There are four stages of sleep, often divided between REM or rapid-eye-movement sleep and non-REM sleep (NREM), where deep sleep occurs. Understanding the functions of these sleep patterns will help us unravel how sleep and our grey matter correlate.

According to Dr Thomas Scammell of Harvard, drowsiness might begin from the hypothalamus that contains light-sensing nerve cells called suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN for short. Spoiler alert, that term makes a cameo later!

After sensing the resetting of a sleep-wake cycle, the brainstem prepares the rest of the body for closing time, including preventing muscles from moving while we’re dreaming during REM sleep.

After getting a signal from the SCN that it’s time for shut-eye, the pineal gland then releases melatonin, a substance that works to facilitate sleepiness in the body based on how much light we see. 

From there, parts of the basal forebrain or the front and bottom part of the brain produce another substance called adenosine to facilitate sleep.

At this time, the body moves from a state of lessened wakefulness into a deep sleep. Bodily function decreases to prepare for another day, with our heart rates slowing and breathing becoming more rhythmic.

Before hitting REM sleep, a sleeper experiences slow-wave slumber or the deepest part of NREM sleep where you’re less likely to be awakened. It’s like jet lag and a hangover at the same time.

SWS or slow-wave sleep is where the brain performs memory consolidation, which might be the reason why it’s hard to wake up once you’re in this state.

As you move from NREM sleep to the REM stage, the thalamus powers up and begins flooding the cerebral cortex with visuals composed of memories and thoughts, basically like binging YouTube inside your head. Except with the thalamic gland, there are no skipping videos that make you cringe!

Train Your Brain and Sleep Better!

Now that we’re familiar with brain parts that influence sleep, the next item on the agenda is how we can train those regions to our advantage. Talk about a no-brainer!

Turning our brains into the perfect bedtime companion can be tricky, but it’s not impossible. With the correct mindset (finally hit our daily pun quota), you can say goodbye to sleep deprivation with these hacks!

Set Your Internal Clock

Also called the circadian rhythm, our bodies possess innate timers that tell us when to power down and sleep. As mentioned earlier, scientists believe that the hypothalamus is at work here.

How does knowing that help you?

Identifying the importance of maintaining a regular bedtime in tune with your circadian rhythm can lead to more hours of sleep. That said, why aren’t people paying more attention?

It’s difficult keeping a set bedtime when we have lots of stimuli – even right on our fingertips. You might be reading this article while you’re in bed, trying to fall asleep. That’s a no-no.

Our internal clocks work in tandem with light sensors, meaning the more we are exposed to light, the harder it is for our brain to convince other body parts that it’s time for bed.

What you can do is refrain from using gadgets minutes before sleep, including your mobile phones. You might also want to dim your lights. 

Making your bed comfy and relaxing is another excellent way to set your body clock. Thankfully the Ecosa Pure Mattress blends comfort and eco-friendly design to ensure that you, your brain, and the environment are taken care of.

Proper Diet and Exercise

Why are we talking about the brain and exercise in the same breath?

Simple. The amount of food you eat and shed can control how easy or difficult sleeping gets. 

Eating unhealthy foods can lead to excessive cortisol production, a substance that dictates alertness and wakefulness. Generally, we avoid those when sleeping.

What about exercise?

Like most things in life, exercising is good in moderation and with proper timing. It’s not something you’d want to do before bedtime, especially for those suffering from sleep disorders.

Tiring yourself to sleep through push-ups or cardio might sound good in theory, but the actual scientific theories say otherwise in practice.

Strenuous physical activity can lead to increased blood pressure and temperature-regulating effort by your body. Those are things you want to avoid before going to bed.

If you have to work out, it’s advisable to do it an hour before bedtime.

Think about it (pun intended), when was the last time you cared about your sleep habits? Take the first step towards a better-rested brain today!

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