Updated: Dec 9, 2022
As fundamentally biological beings, the function of our bodies and minds require time for rest and recovery. From the essential function of individual cells, to the tissue that those cells comprise, a consistent theme of cleaning and repairing can always be observed. When it comes to more complex organisms, everything from insects to human beings partake in the universal behavior of rest and sleep. Whether it is a nocturnal schedule, or seasonal hibernation, periods of low metabolic activity devoted to recuperation are essential in the performance of all living systems. So central in fact is sleep to the health of an individual, that the length of its deprivation is consistently linked to a progressive decline in physical, cognitive, and mental health. The foundational function that sleep serves can create a vicious cycle, where the lack of healthy sleep itself can become one of the drivers of a disease or disorder. In cases of mental health disorders, of which depression and anxiety are the most prevalent, dysregulated sleep is a common symptom that places a big burden on one’s quality of life.
Insomnia is the most common type of sleep dysregulation/disorder, and comorbidity, in everything from mental health disorders, metabolic health conditions, to chronic pain. Although not all sleep disorders can be categorized as insomnia, their occurrence is nevertheless still an issue that commonly compromises daytime function with symptoms like fatigue, daytime sleepiness, poor attention, increased accidents, aggression, and reduced motivation. According to the US Department of Transportation, 16% of all fatal car accidents were associated with sleep related drowsiness. Some form of disordered sleep is a wide-spread clinical complaint that is known to afflict about 30% of US adults in a given year, and the American Academy of Pediatrics reports that just over 50% of all school age children receive an insufficient amount of sleep. The prevalence of insomnia and poor sleep has grown 5% every year, and has influenced the expansion and development of therapeutic interventions to a scale that generates $30 billion in the US alone.
Unlike many other health concerns, sleep disorders do not only plague those whose health is already compromised, but even those on the opposite side of the health and performance spectrum, such as professional athletes and top corporate executives. Counterintuitively, statistics of certain countries show that those occupying a higher income bracket can actually have a greater incidence of dysregulated sleep. A recent study of Stanford University athletes reported that 42% met criteria for poor sleep performance. When something as integral as sleep is to the function of our minds and bodies, and the outcome it bears out in our lives, crosses every cultural and socioeconomic barrier with the tenacity that the dysfunction of it does, it deserves to graduate to the top of the world’s public health priorities.
Although scientific investigation into insomnia has spanned several decades, current conventional treatments typically amount to pharmaceutical interventions. Prescription drugs like Ambien, Lunesta, and Halcion, are commonly encouraged, yet have shown over time to be a poor solution, and pose serious health risks. Most pharmaceutical drugs prescribed for sleep dysfunction are meant to be short term measures, but very often become chronic habits that build both tolerance and dependence. The most concerning aspect of pharmaceuticals is that although they are effective in sedating a person, that same sedation prevents the healthy progression of the “4 stages” that are clinically used to qualify sleep.
The common explanation of the causes of insomnia often amounts to attributing the individual’s comorbidities to the cause/s of their sleep dysregulation. However, the complex nature of sleep has been shown to perpetuate and even instigate certain diseases. The role of sleep has been shown to have dramatic influence on a wide range of health markers, such as cardiovascular and metabolic. Most importantly it is not as important whether a sleep disorder is the cause of, or the outcome of something else, but that its management/regulation is shown to have immense clinical significance. In a large study conducted by The American Heart Association, showed that older adults who had healthy sleep habits showed 59% lower likelihood of having a heart attack, stroke, heart failure or other cardiovascular event.
Advances in medical technology and research have unveiled some important information about the nature of sleep, which have offered very promising answers to consider. One of these key features of sleep that has been discovered through technological means is it’s schedule, or stages. The ability of the brain to cycle through 4 distinct stages of sleep, is the defining feature that constitutes healthy sleep performance. This invaluable information has been elucidated through the advances of EEG/electroencephalography (brain wave) technology, which are measurements of the electrical activity emitted by different regions of the brain, often expressed in cycles per second (Hertz/Hz). Understanding the full scope and richness of sleep in this way, has provided scientists with a better way to target its many types of deviations.
It is a generally accepted fact of the nervous system, that its range of fast and slow activity tracks with the range of symptoms that are expressed by different parts of the brain. Scientific consensus has converged on a main cause of sleep dysregulation as being associated with a specific type of hyper-arousal of the brain. This hyper-arousal is measured by and is consistent with the increases of EEG activity of certain parts of the brain. In cases of sleep disruption, there are certain verifiable EEG markers that have a very strong influence on the stability of brain function that also affects healthy sleep.
One such marker is the brainwave Delta, which has shown to play a consistent and reliable role in sleep performance. The additional advantage to assessing Delta activity in the brain is that it is also a valid clinical marker for the circulatory and metabolic processes that take place throughout its four main lobes.
Another biomarker of dysregulated sleep has been shown in the unique pattern of brainwave activity called sensorimotor rhythm (SMR). SMR is a pattern that is only produced by the sensorimotor cortex of the brain, and is involved in overall stability of brain function, one part of which is producing healthy sleep function. This was the first brain wave signature that was researched in the 1960’s by Dr. Barry Sterman, who’s research revealed the strength of its influence not only on sleep, but on the generation of sleep spindles, which are an integral component to the quality of sleep. SMR has since been shown to be a key feature of attentional regulation, and has had unparalleled success in remediating disorders such as ADHD.
The brain is a vast and complex system, and what is important to understand about its function is that no part of the brain is typically just associated with one specific task. The management of sleep, stress, and attention are shared by the same brain circuits and networks, and their training in neurofeedback impacts this entire spectrum of function.
In the application of neurofeedback, the use of QEEG “brain mapping” measures the location and intensity of patterns of an individual’s brain activity. This invaluable information gives a clinician insight into exactly which sites and networks of the brain may have disordered or dysregulated activity. With respect to sleep performance of the brain, the QEEG has been a clinically reliable method of assessing both Delta and SMR anomalies. This data is essential to informing the neurofeedback provider with which protocols are the most likely candidates to redress an individual’s unique type of sleep dysfunction.
Through the work of figures such as Dr. Matthew Walker in his bestseller “Why We Sleep”, scientific innovation hasn’t only uncovered the complexity of sleep, but it's non-negotiable role in the health of the organism. This information has gradually spread through the public, and has even begun to influence public policy, such as the institution of later start times in schools. The benefits and advantages that can be capitalized on by refining sleep have a widespread positive effect on the health of not only individuals, but on a global scale.
Neurofeedback’s ability to intercede in key regulatory activity that play a role in the brain’s sleep performance, allows any individual to improve one of the most vital functions of their biology. As much as 50% of all clinical cases of ADHD, 80-90% of cases of PTSD, and 75% of cases of Depression all report significant sleep problems. One of the most common effects of various studies conducted on neurofeedback, from ADHD to PTSD, and everything in between, has been the enduring improvement in sleep quality, which brought along concomitant reductions in mental health complaints.
As technology has become the ever increasing backbone of everyone’s life, it has brought along LED lights, emails, social media, and unparalleled access to information that is completely foreign to the biological mechanisms with which humans have evolved. The increase of alertness and stress that technology has perpetuated require an increase in the sophistication necessary to abate their imposed dangers. The ingenuity that has allowed neurofeedback technology to influence sleep so powerfully, has also been discovered at a time when the greatest need for restoring it has come to pass.