Contrary to popular belief, sleep is an active, ongoing, organized process. It is an essential biological function and when we sleep, our body and mind rejuvenates and restores itself. While sleep is characterized by a decrease in body temperature, blood pressure and breathing rate, our brain continues to remain active during this time. Sleep allows for our body to rest, while our brain organizes long-term memory, as well as repairs and renews tissue, nerve cells and biochemicals.
Sleep is determined by a complex 24-hour sleep wake cycle, also known as the Circadian Rhythm. The Circadian rhythm is regulated by our brain’s response to how long you’ve been awake, as well as, the changes between dark and light. When it is dark out, or at nighttime, your body reacts to the loss of light by producing melatonin, a hormone that causes drowsiness. During the daytime, your brain responds to sunlight and inhibits the production of melatonin so that you will be able to stay awake.
The process of sleep involves a constant cycling of two different stages of activity: non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
Typically, most people’s sleep cycles begin with non-REM sleep. Non-REM sleep is comprised of three different stages.
Stage N1 Non-REM: Duringthis stage, your eyes are closed and you may feel as if you have not actually slept.
Stage N2 Non-REM: Stage 2 is characterized by a light sleep with intermittent periods of muscle tone mixed with muscle relaxation, as well as, a slowed heart rate and a decrease in body temperature.
Stage N3 Non-REM: Also known as delta sleep, slow wave sleep, or deep sleep. If you find yourself awakened during these stages, you may feel disoriented for a few minutes. Most deep sleep occurs in the first third of the night and is typically absent in the last third of the night.
Typically, REM sleep occurs 90 minutes after falling asleep. The first stage of REM usually lasts around 10 minutes. Each stage of REM can lengthen in time. During REM sleep, your eyes move rapidly in different directions and those without sleep disorders experience an increase in heart rate and respiration.
Regulation of core body temperature also decreases during REM sleep. Since most REM sleep occurs in the last third of the night, people will often find themselves reaching for covers or taking covers off to adjust to changes in core body temperature.
Heighted brain activity during this period causes intense dreaming and paralysis occurs simultaneously in the major voluntary muscle groups. Because REM is a mixture of states of brain excitement and muscular immobility, REM sleep has also been referred to as paradoxical sleep.
The average amount of sleep an individual needs varies from person to person, but it is most often around eight hours. here are those who report to be naturally short sleepers like Thomas Edison or Jay Leno, whom have claimed they slept less than five hours a night; however, what is not reported is the amount of naps they take, how productive they could have been with more sleep or the health consequences they had from not getting enough sleep. What is clear is that in today’s society, most people do not have the luxury to take naps during working hours. Research has shown that people who can sleep six hours or less without consequences is less than one percent of the population.
It has been suggested that the best way to determine the amount of sleep a person needs per night is by waking up without an alarm clock. The amount of time slept is the average amount of time needed. Keep a record of when you go to sleep and your natural wake time for two weeks to get an idea of what may be your needed amount of sleep time. If you hit your snooze alarm multiple times you are most likely not getting enough sleep.
Maintaining a regular sleep wake cycle is crucial in achieving quality sleep. Any change in your sleep wake cycle may cause difficulty falling asleep or waking up. Follow the rules listed below to maintain a healthier sleep:
Set your body clock - As mentioned above, light causes your body to stay active during daytime. Before you get out of bed, turn on the light beside your bed. Do light stretching for your low back before you get out of bed (link to low back stretches). As soon as you get out of bed be sure to turn all the lights on in your room, open the blinds or even go outside. ‘
Do not oversleep - Never oversleep, even in the case of a poor night’s sleep. It is critical you wake up at the same time every day. Sleeping in, even if just for a few days, can cause your body clock to reset and can cause drowsiness during the day.
Don’t nap - Do not nap, especially after a poor night’s sleep. If you feel yourself becoming drowsy, get up, walk around or do something like household chores or run errands. If you feel drowsy while you are driving, pull over and take a short 20 minute nap. If you feel drowsy and you need to do an activity that demands concentration it is appropriate to take a 20 minute nap. Ultimately you should not depend on naps for alertness during the day. A good nights sleep should be the answer to feeling alert during the day.
Exercise - Keeping physically active during the day promotes a more restful sleep. Studies have shown that lack of exercise is possibly one of the worst habits an insomniac can have. The best time to exercise is three to four hours before bedtime. This allows the core body temperature to rise and begin to fall at bedtime. If you cannot exercise at this time, any time before this is appropriate. Do not exercise right before bedtime. The increase in core body temperature will interrupt sleep.
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