Sleep, Chronic Pain and Our Biological Clock


SleepDeprivation_0Pain and sleep are integrally connected. A person’s quality of life and health can be disrupted due to many different reasons; like diet, activity level, and stress. However, one important, yet underestimated cause of a person’s reduction in quality of life, can be contributed to sleep loss or not enough restorative recovery.

Over the course of the last several decades, the modern worlds working hours have been consistently increased, along with an emphasis on active leisure, and “more” is typically seen as being better.

Depending on your profession, in some designations, people face sleep restriction. Professions; such as health care, emergency response and security and transportation require working varied shifts and often rounds of night work. In these fields, the effect of acute total sleep deprivation (SD) on performance is crucial and possibly life threatening. Furthermore, on average, in almost every profession, people tend to stretch their capacity and compromise their nightly sleep, thus becoming chronically sleep deprived. On a neurological level, this changes a persons biochemical, biological and psychological health. Thus, increasing risk for mental illness, chronic pain and disease.

What The Stats Tell Us:

In the adult population, about 15% of those surveyed report experiencing chronic pain. Nearly 50% of older adults have insomnia, have difficulty in getting to sleep, early awakening, and/or feeling unrefreshed upon waking. As we age, several changes occur that can place one at risk for insomnia, and less than restorative sleep; including age-related changes in various circadian rhythms, environmental and lifestyle changes, and decreased nutrients intake, absorption, retention, and utilization.

In all age groups, those who suffer from insomnia and consistently achieve less than restorative sleep show memory weakness, increased reaction time, decreased fine motor skills, short-term memory problems, and lowered efficacy levels.

A lack of sleep and restorative recovery can be more problematic in elderly subjects, because it puts them at higher risk for falling, cognitive impairments, weak physical function, and mortality. Not to mention, not getting enough sleep takes time off our life span. There’s a reason, our body tells us when it needs a time out to re boot, filter and process daily existence.

Minerals Count:

In order to have a restorative sleep, we must have the right percentage of calcium and magnesium present in our system. This directly relates to cell formation and re generation, as well as key processes in our body.

Magnesium: Plays an essential role in ion channels conductivity, such as N-Methyl-D-aspartic acid (NMDA) receptor, and unilateral entrance of potassium channels. Therefore, magnesium as a natural antagonist of NMDA and agonist of GABA is critical in sleep regulation.

Magnesium is the fourth most abundant cation in the body and the second most abundant intracellular cation. It is involved in more than 300 biochemical reactions of the body.  Magnesium is an essential cofactor for many enzymatic reactions, especially those that are involved in energy metabolism and neurotransmitter synthesis. It contributes to teeth and bones as well as activating enzymes, contributing to energy production, and helps regulate calcium, copper, zinc, potassium, vitamin D, and other important nutrients.

Calcium: Does not work alone in your body. It requires vitamin D, parathyroid hormone and healthy saturated fat in order to be utilized for strong bones, teeth and muscles. Nerve cells have calcium channels that act like gates in their membranes, regulating calcium flow in and out, triggering each cell to take action.

Bone health not only requires calcium, but an array of other vitamins, minerals and hormones to complete that process.  Another notable amino acid in sleep regulation is Tryptophan; which your brain uses to make serotonin and melatonin. These two substances are neurotransmitters that slow down nerve transmissions, relaxing your brain and body and encouraging deep sleep.


Sleep & Chronic Pain

Pain triggers poor sleep; we shift around, can’t get comfortable, and thus can’t fall or stay asleep. For instance, someone experiencing lower back pain may experience several intense microarousals (a change in the sleep state to a lighter stage of sleep) per each hour of sleep, which lead to awakenings.

Pain is a serious intrusion to sleep. Charles Bae, MD, a neurologist in the Sleep Disorders Center at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, puts it this way: “Pain can be the main reason that someone wakes up multiple times a night, and this results in a decrease in sleep quantity and quality, and on the flip side, sleep deprivation can lower your pain threshold and pain tolerance and make existing pain feel worse.”

The body’s has a built-in circadian clock, which is located at the center in the hypothalamus in the brain. This is the main mechanism that controls the timing of sleep, and is independent of the amount of preceding sleep or wakefulness. Therefore, it is no wonder that people who experience chronic pain, adrenal fatigue or other auto immune diseases have trouble sleeping. The Hypothalamus is one of the most important organs related to regulation of body systems and re generation of cell formation.

Circadian Rhythm & Sleep:

When considering the effects of sleep loss, the distinction between total and partial SD is important. The need for sleep varies considerably between individuals; averaging sleep length is between 7 and 8.5 h per day. Sleep is regulated by a two-part process that adjusts to the body’s needs every day. This two-part process is known as the homeostatic debt and the phase of your circadian rhythm.

The homeostatic process depends on sleep and wakefulness; the need for sleep increases as wakefulness continues. This homeostatic debt increases as a function of how long you have been awake and decreases as you sleep.

The second process that greatly influences the onset, of sleep and the duration, and quality of your sleep is the phase of your circadian rhythm. This phase is governed by your biological clock, whose rhythm is endogenous but is reset regularly by daylight, but deeply affected with inadequate amount of sleep. Studies show, that the circadian rhythm dips and rises at different times of the day. In adults, the strongest sleep drive generally occurs between 2:00-4:00 am and in the afternoon between 1:00-3:00 pm

The interaction of these two processes determines the sleep/wake cycle of a person and can be used to describe fluctuations in alertness, performance, energy levels and cognitive functions.

To perform at your best, achieve your dreams and reach your goals, ensure sleep is restorative recovery is part of your daily optimal well being plan.

About the Author: Sarah Jamieson

Sarah Jamieson has written 155 posts on this site.

Sarah is the owner and head movement coach at Moveolution; a Vancouver based consulting company focused on the integration of movement and recovery science. Bridging the gaps between the clinical and performance fields Sarah’s passion stems from lifelong passion of Yoga, Jujitsu, and Qi Gong; which she integrates into her coaching practice. She is a full time social change maker, a ‘run-a-muker’ of everything outdoors and repeatedly engages in random acts of compassion.

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