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  • Writer's pictureMarilyn Saltzman

“When we all fall asleep, where do we go?”*

I plumped up my pillow, sat on the bed and pulled the fluffy down comforter over my body, leaving my arms free.

Opening my journal, I recorded the day’s three reasons for gratitude – a wintry walk in the national forest with the grandkids and dogs; a Zoom call with an old friend; and my husband, Irv, doing the laundry.

And then I lay down to sleep. Yet as too often happens these days, sleep eluded me. My busy mind flittered from “to dos” to “should have done,” from “should NOT have said” to “could have been.” Worries about family and friends sucked me into a vortex of “what ifs.”

I rearranged my body, shifting from the right side to the left and back again. I tried all my favorite techniques – distracting myself by attempting to recall the names of a former colleague’s kids; inhaling to a count of four and exhaling to five; matching my breaths to Irv’s gentle snore; and repeating my mantra of “shalom.”

Nothing was working! I snuck a peek at the clock. 11:05, 11:20, 11:45. Reluctant to leave the cocoon of my bed for the cold walk to the bathroom, I kept hoping to fall asleep, tossing and turning for a bit longer. No luck. So I removed the cozy comforter, placed my tired feet on the floor and headed for the medicine cabinet. Maybe a little CBD oil would help. I placed a few drops on my tongue and lumbered back to bed. My mind wandered for a few minutes, then suddenly became still. I was asleep.

The recent difficulties of falling asleep have made me ponder the sleep process. How do we move so suddenly between the two states of mind – from busy worry to dreams?

The science is complicated, and scientists are still working to figure it all out.

“The brain stem, at the base of the brain, communicates with the hypothalamus to control the transitions between wake and sleep,” according to the National Institute of Neurologic Disorders and Stroke. ** “Sleep-promoting cells within the hypothalamus and the brain stem produce a brain chemical called GABA, which acts to reduce the activity of arousal centers in the hypothalamus and the brain stem.”

And that’s just the start. The thalamus, the cerebral cortex, the pineal gland, the basal forebrain, the midbrain and the amygdala all get in the act of helping us sleep. Then there are the biological mechanisms: ­­the circadian rhythms that control when we sleep and the sleep-wake homeostasis that keeps track of our need for sleep. Of course, there are the different stages of sleep that we experience each night, from light sleep to deep REM when most dreams occur.

While the science is fascinating, it doesn’t completely solve the mystery for me. There are so many unanswered questions: What happens to the mind in that instant of transition? Why do some people (think Irv) fall asleep almost instantly while others (think me) can take hours? Why do I fall asleep quickly some nights and struggle through others? Why do I remember some dreams vividly and forget others the moment I wake? And the biggest question of all: “When we all fall asleep, where do we go?”

As with so many scientific explanations, the more I learn, the more wonderment it creates. The complexity of the human mind and body, working together to allow us to sleep and dream, seems miraculous. Instead of asking why sometimes falling asleep is so hard, the question becomes: How do all the moving parts fit together so perfectly that we sleep and dream?

So tonight, I will be grateful for the miracle of sleep – even if it takes hours of tossing and some medicinal drops on the tongue to get there.

*Billy Eilish album title

**Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep

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