You’ll often hear people saying they really need to get some rest.
But what exactly is ‘rest’ anyway? How does it compare to sleep? And can it be a useful tool for those struggling to get some quality shut eye - or just further hinder their efforts to get back on track to a healthy sleep cycle?
THE CASE FOR REST
It would seem that opinions are divided on the subject. On the one side, there is a trendy new term in conversations around sleep called “quiet wakefulness”, a term that simply refers to the act of resting with your eyes closed.
The idea behind is largely to eliminate the pressure of trying to fall asleep, as this can cause individuals to become hyper aware of their inability to sleep, overthink it and chastise themselves for it… which ultimately just keeps perpetuating the problem.
It can also help combat the feelings of powerlessness that sleep deprivation can bring on - because you may not always be able to control when you sleep, but you can control when you rest. And because you’re not actually falling asleep, it doesn’t cause the same grogginess that naps often do.
Dr. Ritchie Edward Brown, a research professor at Harvard Medical School who studies the brain and the sleep-wake cycle, says that during rest or “quiet wakefulness”, electrical activity in the brain is very similar to what it is when someone is sleeping. This is because the brain isn’t directly engaging with your external environment when your eyes are closed and you’re lying in one place.
One study focusing on rats found that they are able to naturally enter a state of “quiet wakefulness” while grooming themselves, looking around, or simply while they were sitting or lying still.
More than that, researchers also found that the same parts of the brain that are responsible for problem solving and the processing of information, which are active while we sleep, were also active in rat subjects while they were in this state of rest.
So what are the benefits of “quiet wakefulness’? It was published by The National Sleep Foundation that helps to give brain cells, muscles, and organs a break, as well as reduce stress, and improve things like mood, alertness, creativity.
THE CASE FOR SLEEP
However, on the other side of things, researchers do acknowledge that the extent of these benefits can never come close to the profoundly restorative state of proper sleep - otherwise why would we keep feeling the strong urge to sleep at night instead of simply being quietly wakeful? It would also not explain the extreme impact that sleep deprivation can have on new parents or anyone else who suffers from it.
The brain also uses 40% less energy while we are sleeping, whereas there are higher levels of wakefulness-promoting neurotransmitters like histamine when you are in a state of quiet wakefulness.
And as previously mentioned, deep sleep also helps us to process our emotions, to retain any new information we’ve learned as well as to repair cells in our bodies - and rest, or ‘quiet wakefulness’ simply does not purge it of anywhere near as many toxic proteins as proper sleep does.
In fact, researchers believe sleep evolved with the specific intention of recharging the brain. Dr. Chiara Cirelli, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, has studied the difference in neuron activity between states of sleep and ‘quiet wake’ in humans.
She explains that while all of our neurons are continuously firing while we are awake, when we fall asleep they revert to an “up-and-down” state where only some of them are active, and then all neuron activity goes silent when we are in certain stages of deep sleep, Ir is thought that this state of being is very likely when the truly restful part of sleeping occurs.
A study conducted by the medical centre of the University of Frieburg in Germany seemingly confirms this, showing that the state reached by the brain in deep sleep is unique and that rest is no substitute for it when it comes to maintaining our daily performance.
The study consisted of 66 participants split into three groups. One group stayed awake playing video games or playing table tennis, while a second group slept for an hour, and the third were kept awake but placed in a dark room without any stimuli.
Naturally the performance of those who slept was better than those who stayed awake and active, but it was also significantly better than those in the third group, who were essentially in a state of quiet wakefulness.
This improved performance was found to be linked to the brain activity that occurs specifically in a state of deep sleep, which serves an important function for the connectivity and recovery of our nerve cells (a.k.a. neural plasticity).
Simply put, “this shows that it is sleep itself that makes the difference,” says Professor Dieter Riemann, the study’s co-leader and the head of the sleep laboratory at the University of Frieburg.
So while it seems that rest is better than nothing, research shows that sleep is truly irreplaceable and getting 7-8 hours of it each night is imperative for our optimal daily operations and output as humans.
However, while this fact is important to know it is still not helpful to hold onto, as it can create a lot of additional pressure and stress around having to achieve this state of proper sleep.
The research also shows that entering a state of quiet wakefulness still definitely has its benefits, and can actually be a useful intermediary tool for those struggling to sleep to ultimately get those deep ZZZ’s.