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Brain Waves Explained

Kate Rhéaume, ND

Brain Waves Explained

Humans are energetic beings. This isn't a mystical or figurative concept – it is literally true. We all have measurable electrical activity throughout our bodies. Everyone is familiar with the characteristic spiky tracings of an electrocardiogram (ECG). This represents the electrical activity in the heart, revealing much about the organ's function. Electroencephalograms (EEGs) do the same thing for the brain. The brain has distinct states that can be mapped, and we call these brain waves. Your brain is making waves right now…but which ones?

Brain waves being measured

Types of Brain Waves

Like fingerprints, brain waves are unique to each individual. There are also common patterns of brain waves that we all share. Delta waves are the slowest recorded brain waves in humans. In adults, these are seen primarily in deep, dreamless sleep. This type of deep, slow-wave sleep predominates early in the night. It is widely recognized as the most relaxing and physically restorative phase of sleep. Not getting enough of this rejuvenating, healing sleep has negative impacts on the immune system, glucose metabolism, and overall well-being. [1]

The brain shifts gears to theta waves during light sleep, such as when we dream. In the wee hours of the morning (think 4–6 am), our sleep transitions to more rapid eye movement (REM). Dreaming and the theta state are critical to consolidating memories and restoring ourselves psychologically. Theta waves can also occur when we are retrieving memories, and when we are on “autopilot.” Ever been driving and suddenly realized you don’t remember getting to where you are? Your brain was in theta mode.

During normal waking life, beta waves predominate. This fast wave activity can be useful when we need to be alert to our surroundings and perform focused mental activity. Need to solve math equations or compose a well-worded email? Beta waves are your friends. Extreme beta action, however, is associated with anxiety and agitation. In the evening, beta waves that won’t slow down can prevent us from unwinding, resulting in the tired-and-wired syndrome.

Being awake but calm and relaxed is associated with alpha waves. The chill alertness of being in the now, in flow, or in the zone are all ways of describing the alpha state. Learning happens best when the brain is in alpha mode. Suboptimal alpha wave activity is associated with aging and cognitive decline. [2]

Ways You Can Promote Calm Brain Waves

By now, it should be clear that different brain waves are useful for different tasks and situations. That said, while awake, we generally feel and perform our best when our brain is making alpha waves. Here are things we can do to slide into alpha’s DMs:

Woman taking a break after working out at home, sitting on an exercise mat, and taking a deep breath with her eyes closed

Deep breathing – Practice this for a quick calming alpha fix anywhere, anytime. Slow, deliberate breathing with a focus on prolonged exhalation will tune your brain to the alpha channel. [4]

GABA – Gamma-aminobutyric acid is an amino acid made in the body and found in some foods, like kimchi and brown rice. GABA nutritional supplements have been shown to increase alpha and decrease beta brain waves. [5]

Our brain’s pattern of energetic activity varies depending on our state of consciousness and state of mind. But we aren’t at the mercy of our brain waves. With a little practice, we can increase peaceful, feel-good brain waves when we need them.

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  1. Léger D, Debellemaniere E, Rabat A, et al. Slow-wave sleep: From the cell to the clinic. Sleep Med Rev. 2018; 41:113-32. 
  2. Posada-Quintero HF, Reljin N, Bolkhovsky JB, et al. Brain activity correlates with cognitive performance deterioration during sleep deprivation. Front Neurosci. 2019; 13:1001. 
  3. Van Lutterveld R, van Dellen E, Pal P, et al. Meditation is associated with increased brain network integration. Neuroimage. 2017; 158:18-25.
  4. Komori T. Extreme prolongation of expiration breathing: Effects on electroencephalogram and autonomic nervous function. Ment Illn. 2018; 10(2):7881.
  5. Abdou AM, Higashiguchi S, Horie K, et al. Relaxation and immunity enhancement effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) administration in humans. Biofactors. 2006; 26(3):201-8.
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Dr. Rhéaume is a graduate of the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine.

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