Sleep is a mystery and paradox to most people. We can’t do without it and yet, at times, we put it off to complete unfinished business of the day. Even sleep researchers admit they don’t completely understand the purpose of sleep. While not sure of the exact purpose of sleep, world famous researcher Rechtschaffen pointed out all the things we don’t do in sleep. “We do not procreate, protect or nurture the young, gather food, earn money, write papers, etc,” he notes. But sleep cannot be done away with. When humans lose sleep, they need to make up for it by sleeping longer or more intensely later on. Sleep deprivation can have serious consequences and is even blamed for deaths, when it is severe enough. In one disorder called Familial Fatal Insomnia, the victim gradually loses the ability to fall asleep and is dead within a year. In China, two deaths were blamed on lack of sleep among teen agers, who were addicted to Internet games and played non-stop marathons lasting three days and nights.
The periods of REM sleep, which punctuate deep sleep, may give us the greatest clue to the meaning of sleep. In REM sleep the sleeper has dreams, but the body is paralyzed from moving by circuit changes in the brain and brain stem. Successful REM sleep is associated with superior learning and pattern learning, including grammar recognition, and object recognition.
During REM sleep, researchers have found that the brain repeats patterns of nervous activity that occurred during the day, without the accompanying bodily movements. This suggests that the brain is reviewing the actions of the day, and integrating the memory of them into higher memory circuits. An accompanying process that takes place during sleep is the trimming of unnecessary or redundant neural synapses
You can best understand the process that might be taking place during REM sleep if you remember that your own brain is the center of your own personal subjective realm. The brain is the site of subjective experiences unique to you, and the center of the feelings of who you are as an individual. And then think of the challenge your brain has every night processing all the experiences you had during the day, which at times may have been disturbing, foreign, frightening. It’s a bit like putting things away after you’ve entertained guests in your home; the house must be cleaned and everything put back into order.
However, with the brain it is even more complex than that, as each night it has to integrate the new memories and experiences of the day into its own unique circuitry. Importantly, the subjective symbolism and topography of your own mental circuitry is the product of your own developmental experiences that began even before birth. But you have to integrate shared social experiences of the day, into your own unique subjective life, that may be far different than life as others, outside of you, see and experience it. In dream work, therefore, your brain recodes experiences of the day into your own subjective language, and then stores those memories, thoughts and feelings into your own personally designed mental filing system.
This is very important work. This ability to take time each night to recover from the day’s activity, allows the individual, and the brain, to maintain homeostasis. The need for this important task explains the fallibility of the sedative approach to sleep, because sedatives, whether herbal or pharmacological, frequently mess with the REM sleep cycles. Using sedatives to insure quick entry into sleep is an action which has the theoretical potential to undermine the very essence of a person’s own internal homeostasis over the long run.
For this reason, Chinese herbal science has produced supplements that ensure restful sleep by tonifying the sleep-wake cycle. BioDream, by E-helps is a herbal sleep promoting product that uses this approach. The supplement consists of 12 herbs, which together stimulate the energy flow (Qi) in all twelve meridians of the body. The herbs energize the body and promote a healthy sleep-wake cycle. People using the product fall asleep naturally because they are living fully during the waking hours. And most importantly, BioDream, and other products like it, do not interfere with the important work that the body does during REM sleep!