Sleep is perhaps the single most effective thing that we can do every day to reset the health of our brain and our body. And by understanding a little bit more about what sleep is, perhaps we can get the chance to improve both the quantity and the quality of our sleep. There are many myths and facts about sleep. Well, in this post we learn the science of sleep and tips for better sleep at night. So, let’s go.
What is sleep?
So, exactly what is sleep? Well, sleep, at least in human beings, is subdivided into two main types. On the one hand, we have non-rapid eye movement sleep or non-REM sleep for short. But on the other hand, we have rapid eye movement sleep or REM sleep. And non-REM (NREM) sleep has been further subdivided into four separate stages, unimaginatively called stages one through four, increasing in their depth of sleep.
Stages of NREM
- Awake/Light sleep
- Light sleep
- Deep sleep
As we go into those light stages of non-REM sleep, your heart rate starts to decrease, your body temperature starts to drop and your electrical brain wave activity starts to slow down. But as we move into deeper non-rapid eye movement sleep, stages three and four, now all of a sudden the brain erupts with these huge, big, powerful brain waves.
The body is actually recharged in terms of its immune system. We also get this beautiful overhaul of our cardiovascular system. And, in fact, upstairs in the brain, deep non-REM sleep will help consolidate memories and fixate them into the neural architecture of the brain. So that’s non-REM sleep.
But let’s come on to REM sleep, which is the other main type of sleep.
It’s during REM sleep when we principally have the most vivid, the most hallucinogenic types of dreams. The brain wave activity actually starts to speed up again. It’s during REM sleep that we receive almost a form of emotional first aid. And it’s also during REM sleep where we get a boost for creativity. It stitches information together so that we wake up with solutions to a previously difficult problem that we were facing.
How sleep is structured and what is a 90-minute Cycle?
Coming back to these two types of sleep. It turns out that non-REM and REM will play out in a battle for brain domination throughout the night, and that cerebral war is going to be won and lost every 90 minutes. And then it’s going to be replayed every 90 minutes. And what this produces, is a standard cycling architecture of human sleep, a standard 90-minute cycle.
REM and NREM Ratio
What’s different in this standard cycle? However, is that the ratio of non-REM to REM within those 90-minute cycles. The ratio changes as we move across the night. Such that in the first half of the night, the majority of those 90-minute cycles are comprised of lots of deep non-REM sleep, particularly stages three and four of non-REM sleep.
However, as we push through to the second half of the night, now that seesaw balance actually shifts over. Now, most of those 90-minute cycles are comprised of a lot more rapid eye movement sleep, or dream sleep. Moreover, this cycle also includes stage-two non-REM sleep, that lighter form of non-REM sleep. And it turns out that there are implications for understanding how sleep is structured in this way.
Let’s take someone who typically goes to bed at 10 pm, and they wake up at 6 am, so they have an eight-hour sleep window. But this morning, they have to wake up early for an early morning meeting, or they want to get a jump start on the day to get to the gym. And as a consequence, they have to wake up at 4 am, rather than 6am. How much sleep have they actually lost?
Two hours out of an eight-hour night of sleep means that they’ve lost 25 percent of their sleep. Well, yes and no. They have lost 25 percent of all of their sleep. But because REM sleep comes mostly in the second half of the night and particularly in those last few hours, they may have lost perhaps 50, 60, maybe even 70 percent of all of their REM sleep.
So there are real consequences to understanding what sleep is and how sleep is structured.
6 Tips for Better Sleep
We can all have a bad night of sleep and that’s perfectly normal. But how could we try to improve both the quantity and the quality of our sleep?
Here are six scientifically grounded tips for better sleep.
The first tip is regularity. Go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time. Regularity is king, and it will actually anchor your sleep and improve both the quantity and the quality, no matter, whether it’s the weekday or the weekend or even if you’ve had a bad night of sleep. And the reason is that deep within your brain, you actually have a master 24-hour clock. It expects regularity and works best under conditions of regularity, including the control of your sleep-wake schedule. Many of us use an alarm to wake up but very few of us use a to-bed alarm, and that’s something that can be helpful.
The next tip is temperature. Keep it cool. It turns out that your brain and your body need to drop their core temperature by about one degree Celsius or around two to three degrees Fahrenheit to initiate sleep and then to stay asleep. And this is the reason that you will always find it easier to fall asleep in a room that’s too cold than too hot. So, the current recommendation is to aim for a bedroom temperature of around about 65 degrees Fahrenheit or a little over 18 degrees Celsius. It sounds cold but cold it must be.
The next tip is darkness. We are a dark-deprived society and we need darkness specifically, in the evening to trigger the release of a hormone called melatonin. And melatonin helps regulate the healthy timing of our sleep. In the last hour before bed, try to stay away from all of those computer screens and tablets and phones. Dim down half the lights in your house. You’d actually be quite surprised at how sleepy that can make you feel. If you’d like, you can wear an eye mask. Additionally, you can have blackout shades and that will help best regulate that critical sleep hormone of melatonin.
The next tip is to walk it out. Don’t stay in bed awake for long periods. And the general rule of thumb is if you’ve been trying to fall asleep and it’s been 25 minutes or so, or you’ve woken up and you can’t get back to sleep after 25 minutes, the recommendation is to get out of bed and go and do something different. And the reason is that your brain is an incredibly associative device. The brain has learned the association that the bed is this trigger of wakefulness, and we need to break that association. And by getting out of bed you can go and do something else. Only return to bed when you’re sleepy. And in that way, gradually, your brain will relearn the association that your bed is this place of sound and consistent sleep.
The fifth tip is related to the impact of alcohol and caffeine. So, a good rule of thumb here is to try to stay away from caffeine in the afternoon and the evening and certainly try not to go to bed too tipsy.
The final tip: have a wind-down routine. I think many of us in the modern world, expect to be able to dive into bed at night, switch off the light, and we think that sleep is also just like a light switch, that we should immediately be able to fall asleep. Well, unfortunately, sleep isn’t quite like that for most of us. Sleep, as a physiological process, is much more similar to landing a plane. It takes time for your brain to gradually descend onto the firm bedrock of good sleep. In the last 20 minutes before be or the last half an hour, even the last hour, disengage from your computer and your phone and try to do something relaxing. Find out whatever works for you and when you have found it, stick to that routine.
The bottom line- Science of sleep
So this was all about sleeping science and how to sleep better. The last thing I should note is that if you are suffering from a sleep disorder, for example, from insomnia or sleep apnea, then these tips aren’t necessarily going to help you. If I was your sports coach, I could give you all of these tips to improve your performance, but if you have a broken ankle, it’s not going to make a difference. We have to treat the broken ankle first before we can get back to improving the quality of your performance. And it’s the same way with sleep. So, if you think you have a sleep disorder, just go and speak with your doctor. That’s the best piece of advice.
So, where do we stand, then, in all of this conversation about sleep? Well, I think the evidence is clear. We can think of sleep almost like a life-support system. Some may even call sleep a superpower.
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