Every night, without fail, people across the world climb into their beds and shut down for hours. This phenomenon we call “sleep” is something we are all very familiar with, but how exactly does it work? Up until the 1950s, it was widely believed that sleep was just a passive period of unconscious rest, but now we know that it’s a complex process that is essential to the rejuvenation of the body and mind.
When you’re asleep, your eyes are closed, most of your muscles are relaxed, and your consciousness is practically suspended. But while your body is still, your brain is quite active. Your body’s internal systems control when you sleep and when you’re awake. If these systems get out of alignment, due to work, illness, screen time or other reasons, it can have a big impact on your sleeping and bring about health problems as a result. In this piece we will address what sleep is, why we need it, the dangers of not having enough, while providing some tips to help you improve it.
What is it?
Sleep consists of REM sleep (rapid eye movement) and three NREM stages (non-rapid eye movement). During NREM the breathing and heart rate are slow and regular, the blood pressure is low, and the sleep is relatively still. As NREM sleep progresses, the brain becomes less responsive to external stimuli, and it becomes increasingly difficult to awaken an individual. This stage is linked to deep sleeping. During REM sleep your breathing becomes faster and irregular, and your heart rate and blood pressure increase to near waking levels. Your arm and leg muscles also become temporarily paralysed, which prevents you from acting out your dreams and this is when most of your dreaming occurs.
Over the course of the night your body moves four to six times through these different stages of NREM and REM sleep, spending an average of 90 minutes in each stage.
Each stage of sleeping serves a unique restorative function, including muscle recovery, hormone regulation, and memory, making it essential to allow enough time to cycle through all the sleep stages. A good night’s rest allows for growth and healing, as well as consolidation of memory and learnings. Sleep is also thought to help keep your immune system strong and your heart and blood vessels healthy. Without a full night of rest, your body and mind are deprived of the essential elements needed to help you be your best.
How much sleep do we need?
Most of us need around 8 hours of good-quality slumber a night to function properly – give or take. Whereas teenagers need between 8 and 10 and younger children between 9 and 11 hours or longer depending on the age. Since appropriate sleep-time allows for growth and learning it is particularly important for kids to get more rest for their development and mental alertness.
Generally, if you wake up tired and spend the day longing for a chance to nap, it’s likely that you’re not getting enough rest. A variety of factors can cause poor sleep, including health conditions such as sleep apnoea. But in most cases, it’s normally due to bad sleeping habits or stress.
Tips for good sleeping habits
Contrary to popular belief, you can’t catch up on sleep. If you lose hours due to a late night or other reasons, completing your hours the next day isn’t going to make up for it. It’s best to maintain similar wakeup and bedtimes, with an average of 8 hours to keep a healthy schedule. Consistency is key here.
Luckily there are some steps you can take to improve your chances of getting a sound sleep and that much needed rejuvenation.
Try incorporating all or some of these tips listed below:
- Have a consistent bed and wake up time
- Maintain your pre-bed routine to slow down heart rate, whether that be a warm shower, meditative breathing or reading
- Reduce irregular or long daytime naps
- Create the ideal environment for sleeping. A cool, dark room (18°C/64°F is optimal) with a nice pillow is a good place to start (weighted blanket for extra points), as well as minimising noise and external light
- Consider your stress levels and try to de-stress before lights out
- Cut out screen time before bed and minimise blue light as it interferes with our circadian rhythm
- Avoid alcohol before bed, as it can stop REM sleep (the most restorative type)
- Limit caffeine intake throughout the day, as caffeine is known to disturb your sleep states. Our Nutrition & Fitness report’s personalised caffeine insights can help guide your caffeine intake.
- Reduce fluid intake late in the evening and try to go to the bathroom right before bed
- Exercise is great for improving your sleep and can enhance all aspects of it (although exercise too late in the day can cause problems)
- Increase bright light exposure during the day and get your daily dose of sunlight
- You could consider taking a melatonin supplement to help promote sleep
The Dangers of not getting enough sleep
Believe it or not, one in 3 of us suffers from poor sleep, with stress, computers, smartphones and taking work home often blamed. However, the cost of all those sleepless nights is more than just bad moods and a lack of focus.
Sleeping also helps control your appetite and your weight due to hormones released from fat cells known as Leptin and Ghrelin. Leptin suppresses hunger and signals to your brain when you’re full. Whereas Ghrelin is named the “hunger hormone”, is responsible for telling your brain you’re hungry and to seek out food. When you don’t get adequate rest, the body produces more Ghrelin and less Leptin, leaving you hungry and increasing your appetite.
While an occasional night without sleep makes you feel tired and irritable the next day, it won’t kill you. Although after several sleepless nights, the mental effects can become more serious. Your brain will start to fog, causing difficulty in concentration and decision-making. You’ll start to feel down, lethargic or fall asleep during the day. This can result in an increase to your risk of injury and accidents, while also being detrimental to both your physical and mental health.
Sleep is essential for a healthy heart too. People who don’t sleep enough are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease—regardless of age, weight, smoking and exercise habits. Getting enough good quality rest is important if you want to lower your risk of these conditions. It’s not completely clear why less sleep is detrimental to heart health, but researchers understand that sleeping too little causes disruptions in underlying health conditions and biological processes like glucose metabolism, blood pressure, and inflammation. The same may be true for oversleeping as well.
A good night’s sleep can boost your immune system and protect you against viral infections
Numerous studies have shown a clear link between stress and poor sleep, which makes you more vulnerable to viral infections. If COVID19 springs to mind, there is no evidence showing that adequate sleep can protect you from the new coronavirus. But there is no harm in making sure you get the rest you need these days to keep your immune system strong!
When you don’t have adequate sleep, you aren’t equipping your immune system with the tools it needs to fight back. Lack of rest raises your chances of catching an infection, while also hindering your ability to recover from one.
Bottom line is sleep plays a key role in both your physical and mental health. The benefits of a good night’s rest are endless, just as the negative complications from loss of sleep are. To get the most out of yourself, you need to be moving around every day, eating the right foods to fuel your body and getting the best possible rest you can. Through these 3 elements you can sustainably achieve a healthier and happier life.