How can magnetic fields improve sleep?

We have all suffered from a poor night’s sleep. According to the National Center on Sleep Disorders, more than 40% of Americans report suffering from one or more nights of insomnia during any given year. But when a sleep disorder becomes frequent, its effects can be devastating – physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Chronic insomnia, bouts of brief, restless sleep – an hour here, three hours there – lasting beyond three weeks into months or even years, has become increasingly common, with upwards of 10% of Americans afflicted. Even not getting enough sleep per night can be dangerous: studies show that mortality rates spike in those that sleep drastically less than seven hours per night.

Although the full function of sleep is not wholly understood, the basic need for sleep is accepted in almost all mammals. Sleep takes up approximately one third of the adult life, and rightfully so. The ill effects of insomnia can be immediate after just one sleepless night: memory capacity and speech control diminish, irritability spikes, hormones can become unbalanced, vision may become blurry, body temperature may go haywire.

Sleep complaints often involve three areas of sleep disturbances: our sense of not getting enough sleep, excessive sleepiness or fatigue during the day, or unusual events during sleep.

Insomnia is both a condition and a symptom, meaning it may exist on its own (primary sleep disorder), or may be a symptom of a separate ailment (secondary sleep disorder).

The Sleep Cycle

Our sleep cycle is part of our natural circadian rhythm, a 24-hour biological process sequence. Although circadian rhythms are inherent and self-sustained, they can be adjusted (or entrained) to the local environment by external cues like daylight. Such entrainment is what allows you to ‘reset’ your sleep patterns when traveling to a different time zone, for example.

In much the same way a radio receiver changes frequency to match that of a dominant frequency, so our brains are capable of becoming entrained by a dominant frequency. To this end, low-frequency magnetic field therapies are able to help the brain entrain down (causing drowsiness), and if applied through the night, can help the brain stay in a sleeping state more easily. Additionally, magnetic field stimulation can improve sleep by stimulating the hypothalamus, which controls circadian and sleep rhythms.

Sleep is divided into two types: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM). NREM sleep makes up about 80% of total sleep time in the adult. The most critical and restorative part of NREM sleep occurs early at night, during slow wave sleep (SWS). SWS is the deepest, most difficult to interrupt, and most refreshing of the sleep stages. It is prominent in youth and diminishes in the elderly, which accounts for an increase in sleep complaints among seniors.

Magnetic fields (PEMF) increase slow wave activity by directly effecting the serotonin system, including melatonin production and secretion.

Sleep Disorders

There are a number of conditions that are associated with insomnia in the absence of an underlying condition. In these cases, the sleep disorder itself is the primary cause of the insomnia. Dyssomnias are disorders that result in insomnia or excessive sleepiness, and include sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, and circadian rhythm disorders. Parasomnias are disorders of arousal or partial arousal, and include sleepwalking, sleep terrors, sleep talking, bruxism (teeth grinding), and enuresis (bedwetting).

The majority of causes for chronic insomnia are linked to an underlying psychiatric or physiologic condition. In these cases, it is usually ideal to treat the underlying problem. There is a huge variety of ailments that can cause sleep disorders, including use of or withdrawal from drugs, chronic or acute pain, mood disorders including depression or bipolar disorder, neurological disorders such as parkinsonism and dementia, life events like stress or anxiety, poor sleep hygiene, excessive alcohol intake, hormone shifts, and so on.

Since such a large percent of the causes of sleep problems are not directly sleep-control related, treatment of the rest of the body is needed. To this end, use of magnetic therapies for many other conditions, even for general health maintenance, will also tend to help with sleep coincidently, as magnetic therapies are known to relax muscles, improve circulation, and decrease stress.

Sleep studies have suggested that people who have sleep disruption have elevated nighttime levels of circulating cortisol and adrenaline hormones. They also tend to have elevated metabolic rates both by night and by day. The question remains whether these changes are the causes or consequences of long-term sleep disorders. Either way, magnetic therapies may be of great value, as they have been shown to inhibit activation of the sympathetic nervous system and adrenal glands, while helping the body better cope with stressors.

Treatment

Because finding the cause of a sleep disorder can be so complex, the path of least resistance is often to simply treat the sleep problem as if it were the primary problem. There are a wide variety of pharmacological strategies for treating sleep disorders, though many cause tolerance or dependence. So-called hypnotic medication, then, is generally only recommended for short-term use, which carries little risk.

Many (if not most) sleep problems relate to behavior patterns that lead to difficulty sleeping. Watching the 11PM news, for example, may be very disturbing and lead to issues with sleep and dreaming. Other examples of poor sleep hygiene include exercising late at night, drinking caffeine later than the afternoon, and smoking before bed. If one of the main functions of sleep is restoration, not only of the physical body, but also of the psycho and emotional ‘bodies’, then giving the right messages at entry to sleep is critical to positive and sound sleep and function the next day.

More research clearly needs to be done on sleep and sleep disorders. Since sleep problems affect us all at some time or another, and because magnetic field therapies have been shown to positively impact sleep, they should be able to help most people to some degree.