What happens when you sleep? Many will say that your brain turns off and nothing happens. This is not the case. Your brain is actually incredibly active while you sleep. Each night, your brain moves through 4-6 sleep cycles. Each cycle lasts about 90 minutes each, accumulating about 8 hours of sleep per night.
During the first phase of sleep (NREM – N1) you doze off and begin to fall asleep. Your heart rate starts to drop, and your eye movement, brain waves, and breathing slow down. You may experience muscle twitches as well. This phase lasts only a few minutes.
During the second phase of sleep (NREM – N2) your heart and breathing gets even slower. You no longer have eye movement and your body temperature drops. This lasts about 10-25 minutes and gets longer, each time you cycle through this stage during your night’s rest.
In the third phase of sleep (NREM – N3 – slow wave sleep) you slip into your deepest state of sleep. Your heart rate and breathing operate at their lowest rate, and your body becomes fully relaxed. In this phase, bodily tissues repair and grow, cells regenerate, and your immune system strengthens. This stage lasts anywhere from 20-40 minutes long. As you move through the cycles of sleep, you spend less time in this stage and more time in stage 4, REM sleep.
Lastly, you drop into REM sleep. In this sleep stage, your eye movement picks back up, your heart rate and breathing patterns increase, and your brain becomes more active. Your body also experiences temporary muscle paralysis. This is the stage where all your wildest dreams are formed, and it’s believed that REM sleep is essential to cognitive functions, such as memory, learning, and creativity. In the early cycles of sleep, your REM sleep may last only a few minutes. In later stages, you may stay in REM sleep for almost an hour.
Why Is It Important to Get Quality Sleep?
The quality of sleep you get every night directly impacts important aspects of your health. Getting insufficient deep sleep or REM sleep has negative consequences. Without solid sleep every night, your ability to think clearly and pay attention is lowered. Your emotional well-being heightens and you may experience feelings of tension, anger, confusion, fatigue, and anxiety. When your brain is tired, it will subconsciously label everything as emotional, regardless if your conscious brain can label it as non-emotional or not.
Your ability to perform sports or athletics also decreases as your risk for cancer and inflammation levels increase. You may also feel hungry more often as sleep restriction is often associated with weight gain. Lastly, poor sleeping patterns can also lead to gut issues since the brain and gut are directly linked. Sadly, low quality sleep means a less diverse gut biome.This can all be avoided by getting enough proper sleep every night.
How Can You Get Better Sleep?
- Regulate Your Light
Expose yourself to blue light (natural light) during the day and very dim light at night. Exposing yourself to the wrong amount and type of light suppresses your melatonin.
- Manage Your Stress
Stress and anxiety causes us to ruminate and overthink. This leads directly to bad quality sleep. To help manage your stress before going to bed, use a bedtime app to play calming music, listen to a soothing audiobook, or practice yoga nidra.
- Associate Bed With Sleep
If you do homework or work in bed, your brain will turn work mode on when you try to go to sleep for the night. Dedicate your bed as a place to wind down and relax. Make your sleep space cozy and fill it with things that will personally help you sleep.
- Get on a Routine
Practice waking up and going to bed at the same time every day. Because your brain is so good at associating, getting into a routine is one of the best things you can do to achieve quality sleep.
- Control Your Temperatures
Back in the day, hunters and gatherers knew it was time for sleep when the sun went down and the temperature cooled off. Naturally, your body sleeps better in cooler temperatures. Make a habit of turning your A/C down at night, or turning on a fan.
- Perform Daily Physical Activity
Exercise relieves stress and anxiety, and helps you cope with your worries in a healthy manner throughout the day, instead of right before bed. It’s also important to note that the more you do throughout the day, the sleepier you’ll be at night.
- Limit Your Caffeine Intake
I know this one can be challenging for many, but practice consuming less caffeine throughout the day to improve your sleep at night. As your sleep habits strengthen, you’ll find you really didn’t need all that caffeine to begin with!
- Nap Strategically
For some, a nap is crucial and leaves them feeling refreshed. For others, it may make them more lethargic. Only nap if it works for you, and make sure to still get 8 hours of sleep per night.
-Danielle Lasky, ZDC