Your brain is the most complicated and fascinating part of your being, and although it’s located in your head (skull), and communicates with the body through nerves that run down your spine.
It’s like the motherboard of a computer system that holds the core hardware and all software that controls the computer’s functioning. Just like the motherboard, your brain contains a complex network of interconnecting billions of brain cells that function as a single unit. It operates just like a computer by transmitting an electrical signal from one brain cell to another (neurotransmissions) using chemicals from the body.
So, let’s call your brain the Central Processing Unit (CPU) of your body. It acts just like the CPU of a computer by executing basic tasks such as regulating all organs’ function (brain included), it forms the basis of your learning and understanding, logical reasoning, it regulates your emotions, it’s your memory bank and it regulates all the processes of the body (voluntarily/ involuntarily).
For any seemingly simple task, your brain has to perform thousands of processes to ensure that you accurately execute these task. Proper brain function is the key to a healthy life!
This is why you need to understand how it works and be an active pilot, not letting it run on autopilot!
The autopilot function of your brain
There’s a control system in your brain that acts mainly unconsciously and regulates bodily functions such as the heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, pupillary response, urination, and sexual arousal. It’s called the autonomic nervous system.
This autopilot function is automatic and unconscious, and it’s the most important aspect of life because it regulates life sustaining organs such as your heart & lungs. You don’t have to remind your heart to beat, or your lungs to breathe. Autopilot has you covered!
A person is pronounced clinically dead if the lungs and heart stop working, and this is possible if the brain stem (part of the brain responsible for autonomic functions) is dead.
On the other hand, a brain dead person is someone whom other parts of the brain are dead except the brain stem. Clinically dead and brain dead are basically two different medical terms.
If the brain stem is still working, then the lungs and the heart are still functioning, so the person is still alive but lies like dead, sad
Your brain controls your movement
Your brain is the most significant organ in controlling your skeletal muscle. The term motor means muscular movements (contractions), and it depends on the ability of your brain cells to stimulate the muscle through the motor pathway to cause the muscle to contract or move at your request.
The muscle contractions help you to maintain a good body posture, sit up when you’re reading on your computer, stand tall while presenting, smile when you see someone you care about, laugh at a joke, speak, chew and even spit!
All these applications of the motor system help you to execute your day-to-day activities that involve the use of muscles.
The disorder of the motor brain function is called muscular paralysis (inability to move a muscle).
Your brain in sleep, heat and appetite
Your brain has a very important role in maintaining balance in your body. Picture a situation where you’re constantly hungry, even when you eat, or constantly cold! This is often a sign of an internal imbalance which is affected by the brain, whether directly or indirectly.
The brain maintains the balance in your internal body through a process known as homeostasis.
It regulates homeostasis through several processes like temperature regulation, sleep-wake cycle regulation, appetite regulation, pH regulation, hormones regulation etc.
Homeostasis is indispensable for life because a balanced internal body environment keeps us alive! The part of the brain that helps to regulate homeostasis is called hypothalamus; probably remember this term from Bio Class ☺
Take control of your sleep-wake pattern
Take sleep for example, which is regulated by this internal balance linked to the brain.
According to the dictionary, sleep is a natural state of body and mind. Sleep is meant to recur for several hours every night. It gives your nervous system a chance to be inactive. Your eyes are closed, your posture is relaxed, and your consciousness is suspended.
The sleep-wake homeostasis can be thought of as an internal timer that generates that urge or pressure you feel to sleep after a certain period has elapsed from the time you woke up.
You have an internal timer for sleep that forms part of the circadian rhythm (biological 24-hours internal timing) or circadian clock. This circadian clock is very intelligent, sometimes your internal body can be running on 29-hour days or even 18-hour days. You must learn how to guide it.
This clock takes cues from the environment, particularly light. When there is incoming light, the clock receives this information from the optic nerves which usually relay information from the eyes to the brain. When it is dark, the clock influences the brain to produce more melatonin – the sleep causing hormone – and that’s how you end up becoming drowsy.
There are people who have a normal cycle, they find themselves getting up in the morning when they’re exposed to natural light, and their clocks begin to shut down in the evening when it’s dark. They have the luxury of waking up between 6-7-8am and turning down at around 6-7-8 pm.
The case of Kenyans, especially from Nairobi, maybe a bit different. It could be worse in Lagos, where traffic adds up to 4-6 hours per day to your commute. Most of us wake up as early as 4:00 am, children included, so that we can make it to work/school by 8 am.
We leave the house by 5 am and are back anytime between 7-9pm. On a bad-traffic-day (the rainy ones), we get home after 10:30 pm. Traffic. So many of us can’t help but sleep in the matatus in the morning during the commute to work. It’s likely caused by the fact that it’s still relatively dark when we are heading to work. The same is true when we fall asleep in the matatu on our way back home in the evening.
The circadian clock is quite intuitive in its operation. The longer you’re awake, the stronger the urge and need to sleep.
On the other hand, the pressure to sleep reduces when you wake up from good sleep. It becomes easy for you to stay awake.
This is why it’s not advisable to sleep during the day or stay awake at night (unless you’re on night shift). Sleeping during the day threatens the quality of your night sleep, it also messes up with your normal sleep patterns.
Why am I sleepy?
You have a principal hormone that regulates sleep, it’s called melatonin. Melatonin is a naturally produced substance in your body, mostly found in the brain. It follows your circadian clock.
Light exposure during the day suppresses melatonin, which makes you stay awake and work or play and at night, the substance levels of melatonin are high in your brain, backbone and blood, making you feel sleepy.
Your posture and intake of substances such as caffeine and alcohol can influence your melatonin levels.
Sitting upright and concentrating on work can have you working until 3 am. That’s why some people can stay up all night dancing, they’re posture (and activity), coupled with the alcohol or caffeine in their bodies keeps them going.
When you are awake, sleep-regulating substances like adenosine build up in your body’s cerebrospinal fluid. The build-up of these substances in the cerebrospinal fluid increases the pressure for you to sleep. Caffeine counters the effects of adenosine.
Ultimately excessive pressure to sleep can only reduce when you sleep. The levels of the sleep-regulating substances in your body rapidly decline with sleep. If you have to work and are absolutely sleepy, sometimes it’s better to take a short nap, then get back to work.
Insomnia and Hypersomnia and other sleep conditions
A well-balanced Sleep-Wake cycle is essential to life. But sometimes your internal sleep clock is not naturally synchronised with light and darkness. You sleep during the day and are awake all night. It could be a sleeping disorder.
For example, if you work the night shift, and have a side gig (job) during the day, you may actually be running on a 29-30 hour day. This is most common with night guards and customer service agents who work at night.
Lack of adequate sleep is dangerous for you, and so is too much sleep.
Take Hypersomnia, a sleep disorder where someone has a very high propensity to sleep. A person with hypersomnia sleeps unnecessarily, takes long naps that do not refresh them, and their night-time sleep is equally long (10-12 hours).
These people are usually moody and have that drunken-sleep look. Most of us accuse them of being lazy, “yeye huwanga amekaa tu.” It’s not always a case of laziness and demotivation, some of the people we know suffer from medical conditions.
Narcolepsy is a type of hypersomnia. People with this condition have a constant overwhelming urge to sleep during the day.
With narcolepsy, the brain has trouble regulating wakefulness, because a number of cells have been wiped out of the hypothalamus. So their muscles collapse (muscle paralysis, same thing that happens to the muscles when you sleep) but the sleep is not as pleasant; you get hypnagogic hallucinations (they occur when one is about to fall asleep).
These conditions should not be taken lightly, unlike normal sleepiness, caffeine does not work to counter these conditions. Seek medical help.
On the other hand, you might know someone who barely has a good night sleep. Insomnia disorder occurs when you are dissatisfied with the quantity or quality of your sleep.
Insomnia affects your functioning at work or school and has physical and emotional consequences. These people have difficulty sleeping. They lack a good night sleep, and when they wake up in the middle of the night, they are unable to find sleep.
Most times insomnia cases are associated with anxiety and mood disorders. Sometimes we lose sleep because we have suffered emotional turmoil. This could be losing someone we love or having a financial strain that stresses us, and for others, stress at work.
Insomnia leads to digestive problems such as diarrhoea, bloating and constipation and non digestive conditions like migraines, chronic fatigue, high blood pressure and diabetes.
An estimated 37% of Kenyans have hypertension (chronic high blood pressure), and the prevalence of diabetes is 4.56%. It is therefore important to address the underlying psychological causes of these illnesses by seeking professional help.
If you suffer from insomnia, we advise you to assess your diet and body activity for about 3 weeks. Stress and depression has been associated with an increased intake of refined carbohydrates (chips, crisps, deep fried take-outs etc.).
Reduce your consumption of refined carbohydrates, fried foods and sodium (especially before sleep), and substitute these with whole foods. Eating high energy foods right before sleeping keeps the body working hard when it’s supposed to be resting.
Exercise also helps to reduce insomnia. Exercise relaxes your muscles and your brain, giving you a moment to lose your worries. Consider walking, running or joining a gym if you suffer from insomnia.
You need adequate sleep. The recommended average sleeping time is about 7-9 hours every night. This time may vary from person to person, but if you consistently sleep for less than 6 hours every night, you should review your diet and seek medical help.
Benefits of sleep
Sleep restores and repairs your body tissues. When you sleep, your brain and body get rid of the toxic substances in your body. Your body also discharges toxic metabolic by-products like oxidants, failure of which can cause oxidative stress.
Oxidative stress causes accumulation of free oxygen radicals that can damage the brain cells. The free radicals or toxins, such as superoxide that is formed in the electron transport when you’re stressed, accumulate in the brain cell. These toxins can also damage the brain cells over time.
If you have a wound, sleep improves wound healing. It also improves immunity.
Your brain performs better after a good night sleep, you learn, understand and have a better functioning memory.
Sleep is extremely important for children, it promotes their bodies’ growth.
Our favourite thing about sleep is that it causes dreams, and dreams are the gateways to our subconscious mind!
Sleep well! Sleep every day!! Remember you can’t cheat nature, lack of sleep will always catch up with you!!!