Sleeping is an integral part of life. It plays a key role in brain function, regulates mood, appetite, and libido. But living in a fast-paced and demanding society, getting a restful night’s sleep can seem impossible. Leading lives with an assortment of variables are complex and often stressful.
Below is a basic introduction to how sleep works, why it is crucial to everyday life and followed by 10 steps to take in order to improve your sleep hygiene.
According to Mental Health Daily, researchers discovered in the 1950’s that when asleep the body shuts down but the brain is still hard at work (1). While sleeping, the brain does everything from re-energizing and repairing itself, to retaining and storing information from the prior day.
Since then, researchers have determined that there are distinct parts of sleep comprised of a total of five stages, ultimately making up what is known today as the sleep cycle. These stages work sequentially from a light and more conscious form of sleep to a deep, fully unconscious slumber. The first four stages of sleep are known as non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, and the fifth stage is known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. At each step in the cycle, the brain has a crucial role while working at various wavelengths that determine the level of consciousness.
Before getting into stage one of the sleep cycle, it is important to understand that there is a pre-stage, called relaxed wakefulness. Stage one can only happen after relaxed wakefulness has taken full effect, but often times can be the most difficult part of the whole sleep cycle.
Relaxed wakefulness is when the conscious is still awake and active, but the brain begins to wind down and move from awake to asleep. This is the point in time where conscious thinking slows and the feeling of deep relaxation sets in before drifting off to sleep. According to Sleep.com, the brain starts to function at a lower wavelength range known as the alpha wave range (2). Sometimes it can be difficult for the brain to get into a state of relaxed wakefulness due to stress. When stress overstimulates the brain, a phenomenon known as alpha blocking occurs. This means you are unable to get into this relaxed state of mind, which is the gateway to falling asleep.
Stage 1: After you reach the state of relaxed wakefulness, the consciousness starts to slip away. Stage 1 is an inception point to sleep. As the brain is functioning in the alpha frequency range, it transitions to a lower frequency range called Theta waves. This is a short stage, lasting up to about seven or nine minutes.
Stage 2: Moving into Stage 2, the brain’s frequency waves decline again as eye movement stops, and the body begins to prepare itself for the deeper subsequent stages of sleep. The brain will allow the body’s temperature to drop while heart rate begins to slow.
Stage 3: Stage 3 is the beginning of falling into a deep sleep. The brain starts producing slower frequency wavelengths known as Delta waves. At this point in the cycle, it’s becoming especially difficult to be awakened because the body is less responsive to external stimuli and the brain is beginning to perform maintenance.
Stage 4: Stage 4 is the point where the brain can start to become productive, which means it’s the most difficult to wake up. In this stage, the brain will repair muscles and tissue. This stimulates development and growth while giving your immune system a boost to provide you with energy for the following day.
REM: Typically, we move into REM sleep about 70-90 minutes after initially falling asleep. At this point, the brain revs up and becomes more active. Most of all dream sequences happen in this stage and the eyes can rapidly move back and forth, hence how the REM stage got its name. Due to the increase in brain activity and dreaming, bodies will react by increasing blood pressure and heart rate, resulting in making for faster breathing. REM sleep is known for allowing dreams to occur and enables the brain to consolidate information to store into long-term memory or get rid of it.
On average, adults go through the sleep cycle approximately four to six times throughout one night’s sleep. And while you don’t have control after you’re asleep, you can control your daily habits to optimize getting to sleep with ease, and stay asleep all night.
As difficult as it might seem, a restful night’s sleep begins when you wake up. That’s right, your actions and habits throughout the day will determine whether you get a restful night’s sleep, or you have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. According to the Helping Guide in collaboration with Harvard Health Publications, the average adult needs approximately seven to nine hours of sleep every night (3).
Keeping your sleep-wake cycle or Circadian Rhythm on a consistent cadence is one of the most important strategies for getting a rested night’s sleep. The Circadian Rhythm is an internal 24-hour clock that cycles through drowsy and alert intervals. According to the National Sleep Foundation, dips in energy usually occur in the middle of the night (2:00 a.m. – 4:00 a.m.) and right after lunchtime (1:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.) (4). Have you ever felt exhausted right after lunch? You can thank your Circadian Rhythm for your mid-afternoon plunge in energy. If you’re a morning person or a night owl, these times will vary.
A factor that can keep a healthy circadian rhythm flowing is controlling your exposure to lights and the lack thereof. There is a specific part of your brain that controls your circadian rhythm called the hypothalamus. According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, when it becomes dark in the evening, your eyes receive this darkness and it sends a signal to the hypothalamus, which ultimately releases a chemical making you tired (5). This is why our circadian rhythm tends to be fairly in sync with the flow of our days, and also explains why shift workers have difficulty adjusting to a healthy sleep schedule because of their work hours.
When refining your circadian rhythm to a more routine schedule, the best tactic to sync your rhythm is to set aside seven to eight hours each night. Your body synch