Yes, Knowing Your Sleep Cycle Helps You Feel Awake in the Morning – But There’s a Lot More to It
Many of us have experienced this. The loud shrill of the alarm suddenly jolts you from you sleep and your first thought is to smash it against the bedroom wall. You feel groggy and more tired than you were when you went to bed.
You hit the snooze alarm a couple times before you finally drag yourself out of bed. You spend the entire day feeling exhausted, irritable and your mind can’t seem to focus on anything. It takes copious amounts of coffee for you to get through the day.
For many people, getting quality sleep is a really challenge.
Every morning, they wake up feeling like they did not get enough rest.
According to a study conducted in 2016 by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in every three adults in the United States does not get adequate sleep on a regular basis. According to the Great British Bedtime Report published by the Sleep Council, 74% of British citizens sleep for less than seven hours a night, while 12% of Brits get less than five hours of sleep.
While sleep is quite a popular topic, most of us only have some basic knowledge about sleep and how it affects us.
We all know that we need enough sleep, but do you know what happens when you fall asleep?
Do you know the role of sleep in your life?
In this article, we take an in-depth look at sleep, the role it plays in our bodies, the processes that take place when we fall asleep, and how you can use this knowledge to ensure you get quality sleep every night.
THE IMPORTANCE OF GETTING QUALITY SLEEP
Getting quality sleep is as important for your health as exercising regularly and eating healthy.
Unfortunately, the world we live in today is full of obligations, responsibilities and endless distractions, all of which keep us from getting adequate sleep every night.
Below are seven reasons why getting quality sleep is important.
Poor Sleep Is Linked To Weight Gain
Most people trying to lose weight do not often consider the effect of sleep on their weight loss efforts.
However, various studies have shown that there is a link between poor sleep and weight gain.
According to a research carried out in 2017 by the European Society of Endocrinology, poor sleep has a number of effects that contribute to obesity.
First, poor sleep lowers your metabolic rate. Metabolism is the process by which consumed calories are converted into energy. Poor sleep slows down your metabolic rate, which means that less calories are being converted into energy. The excess calories are converted into fat for storage.
Poor sleep also leads to production of more insulin and cortisol. High levels of these two hormones prompt the body to convert more calories into fat, leading to weight gain.
Finally, poor sleep leads to increased production of ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates hunger, while decreasing the production of leptin, a hormone that makes us feel satiated.
As such, people who get poor sleep tend to have higher appetites, and are thus more likely to gain weight.
Good Sleep Improves Your Concentration and Productivity
A night of restlessness and inadequate sleep not only leaves you feeling exhausted when you wake up, it also affects your cognitive abilities, concentration, productivity and performance.
According to a study, lack of sleep leads to slower and weaker firing of the neurons within the cells in your temporal lobe.
In other words, lack of adequate sleep makes your brain activity much slower, which can have huge effects on your ability to perform tasks that require concentration and cognitive skills.
This explains why you find yourself struggling to complete even simple tasks after a sleepless night – the neurons in your brain cells are as exhausted as you are.
Sleeplessness makes it increasingly difficult for your body to perform simple tasks like taking visual data and converting it into actual thoughts for analysis.
According to the study, the researchers found that after a night of inadequate sleep, some of our brain activity shows patterns associated with sleep.
In other words, after a restless night, some regions of your brain seem to ‘doze off’, which causes the mental lapses that make it difficult to concentrate and perform at your usual capacity.
Sleep Can Lead To Enhanced Athletic Performance
Not only does quality sleep improve your cognitive abilities, it can also improve your performance in sports and athletic activities.
This is why elite athletes and sportsmen often hire sleep coaches as part of their training regime. Sleep affects athletic performance in a number of ways.
First, quality sleep leads to improved reaction times. As an elite athlete, you need to react to different situations within a fraction of a second.
According to a study, lack of sleep impairs your cognitive and motor performance in the same way being intoxicated does. A single night without sleep can reduce an athlete’s reaction times by over 300%.
According to another study, young athletes who do not get enough sleep are more likely to suffer injuries in the field. Aside from the risk of injuries, another study by the National Sleep Foundation found that sleep related fatigue can lead to shorter playing careers for elite athletes.
Better sleep also leads to better accuracy and faster sprint times, as well as fewer mental errors.
Poor Sleep Increases the Risk of Stroke and Heart Disease
For most people, the effects of inadequate sleep can be brushed away with some caffeine.
However, you should think again about sacrificing your sleep.
Lack of adequate sleep has been linked to increased chances of suffering from stroke and heart diseases, regardless of your age, weight or lifestyle habits.
According to a review of 15 medical studies, lack of adequate sleep increases your chances of suffering stroke by 15%. It also increases the risk of suffering from coronary heart disease by 48%.
However, this does not imply that getting long hours of sleep is the solution.
According to the studies, oversleeping also increases your risk of suffering from stroke and heart diseases by 65% and 38% respectively.
Therefore, the secret is to ensure that you get just enough sleep, not too little and not too much.
Sleep Affects the Risk of Suffering from Diabetes
Most people consider their weight, their diet and their family medical history when assessing the risk of developing diabetes.
However, your sleeping habits also influence your chances of developing Diabetes. Sleep deprivation has been linked to higher chances of suffering from type 2 Diabetes, a disease that is characterized by high blood sugar levels and an increased risk of heart disease.
One of the effects of sleep deprivation is that it throws your endocrine system off balance. More specifically, lack of sleep increases the production of insulin, the hormone that controls blood sugar levels.
If this increased production of insulin is sustained, your body develops insulin resistance, which means that the effectiveness of insulin within your body is reduced. Since insulin can no longer regulate blood sugar effectively, the levels of glucose in your blood increase, leading to higher chances of developing type 2 diabetes.
Sleep deprivation also increases your appetite, leading to increased craving of sugary foods and carbohydrates and higher chances of indulging in overeating.
Over time, the increased intake of sugary foods and carbs can mess up with your blood sugar levels and lead to obesity, both of which increase the risk of suffering from type 2 diabetes.
Poor Sleep Can Lead to Depression
A night of restless sleep can make you less enthusiastic and more irritable during the day.
However, sustained lack of sleep can lead to full blown depression, a condition that is characterized by constant feelings of hopelessness, emptiness, anxiety, sadness and loss of interest in activities that you once enjoyed.
According to a study, people suffering from insomnia have an increased risk of suffering from depression compared those who get enough sleep every night within their age bracket. According to another study, 90% of people suffering from depression also complain about lack of quality sleep.
According to another study published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, lack of sleep leads to increased stimulation of the amygdala, a part of the brain that is linked to emotionally negative stimuli. In other words, lack of sleep decreases your ability to suppress negative stimuli.
On the other hand, getting adequate sleep can improve your outlook on life and lower your chances of suffering from depression.
Good Sleep Can Enhance Your Immune Function
According to a research by the University of Washington, sleep is closely linked with our immune response.
Specifically, lack of sleep has a negative impact on the ability of your immune system to fight off infections.
The link between sleep and your immune system comes from the fact that sleep is closely tied to certain disease-fighting compounds that our bodies produce while we are asleep.
Therefore, lack of sleep means that there is reduced production of these compounds, which in turn means that our bodies are less equipped to fight off infections. Therefore, people who do not get enough sleep are more susceptible to illnesses.
In addition, these people tend to remain sick for longer periods compared to those who get adequate sleep every night.
UNDERSTANDING YOUR SLEEP CYCLE
We have seen that sleep plays a very important role in our health and wellbeing.
However, while we emphasize the need for getting enough sleep, it is also important to acknowledge the importance of the quality of sleep we get.
Perhaps you have gone to bed early one night and slept for 8 to 9 hours, only to wake up feeling tired. On yet another night, you might go to bed late, sleep for about 6 hours and wake up feeling refreshed.
Why this difference?
The secret lies in something known as the sleep cycle.
Once you understand your sleep cycle, it becomes easier to fall asleep and wake up feeling well rested and refreshed, whether you sleep for 6 hours or 9.
So, what is the sleep cycle?
Most people think that when we fall asleep, your brain and body simply logs off into a passive state until we wake up again.
However, this is not what actually happens. When you fall asleep, your brain still remains active and exhibits certain patterns of activity in a predictable cycle.
The cycle consists of the following stages:
This stage occurs immediately you start falling asleep. It is a transition from being conscious to being asleep. During this stage, you are in a light sleep where your brain is still somewhat alert and aware of the surroundings.
This means that being woken during this stage is easy. During this stage, the brain produces alpha and theta waves, which are slower than the waves produced during wakefulness.
Your breathing, eye movements and heartbeat slow down and your muscles relax. This stages is relatively brief, lasting anywhere between 5 to 10 minutes.
This is another light stage that drops your further into sleep. During this stage, your brain waves slow down further, but your brain starts producing brief bursts of electrical activity known as sleep spindles.
Your body temperature decreases, your heartbeat slows down even further and your eye movements stop.
Most of your repeated sleep cycles are spent in Stage Two. Each Stage Two cycle lasts about 20 minutes.
During this stage, you start falling into deep sleep. Your brain switches from producing alpha and theta waves to delta waves, which are even slower.
All eye movements and muscle activity ceases during this stage. It is during this stage that your body stimulates growth and development, repairs muscles and tissues and boosts your immune system.
Waking up during this stage is very difficult, since your body has shut down most responses to external stimuli. These stages are also known as slow wave sleep.
This stage lasts about half an hour.
Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep
This is the final phase of your sleep cycle. During this stage, your brain activity increases as well as your heart rate and blood pressure. Your breathing becomes fast and irregular and your eyes start darting rapidly in different directions. This is the stage where you usually find yourself dreaming.
It is during the REM sleep stage that your body consolidates and processes information collected during the day in readiness for storage in your long term memory. The REM sleep stage usually occurs between 90 and 110 minutes after falling asleep, and can last about one hour.
During a typical night’s sleep, the average adult experiences five to six cycles of REM sleep.
These stages occur in sequence during the night.
For you to have a refreshing sleep, it is important to experience all the stages of the sleep cycle. For instance, without getting to the deep sleep stage, you won’t feel rested even after a full night’s sleep. W
hile the stages occur in sequence, it is possible to miss out on some stages.
This occurs due to disturbances that keep you from getting into deep sleep, such as stress and anxiety, loud noises near your bedroom, an uncomfortable mattress, a snoring partner, and so on.
In addition, how you feel after waking up depends on the stage you were in just before waking up. This explains why it is possible to sleep for a few hours and wake up feeling fresh while other times you might get plenty of sleep but still wake up feeling groggy. The secret here is to try and wake up at the end of a sleep cycle.
At this point, you are usually in light sleep, and your body and brain do not have a problem transitioning to wakefulness.
Waking up during the deep sleep stage, on the other hand, will leave you feeling exhausted, since it is the hardest time for your body and brain to switch to wakefulness.
THE CIRCADIAN CYCLE AND ITS EFFECT ON SLEEP
Apart from your sleep cycle, there is something else that affects the quality of sleep you get. Have you ever found yourself feeling drowsy at about the same time each day? If yes, this happens because of your circadian cycle.
The circadian cycle is a 24 hour internal clock that runs inside your body, controlling periods of sleepiness and alertness and the energy levels within your body associated with each period.
This internal clock depends on our own activity plus different external stimuli to produce hormones that prepare our body to perform the tasks that are associated with that particular time (alertness versus sleepiness).
Your circadian cycle is controlled by an area of the brain that is sensitive to light. This explains why humans are conditioned to be most alert during the day and ready to sleep once darkness settles in.
For most people, the circadian cycle causes a dip in energy levels in two phases. The first one occurs between 2:00 am and 4:00 am while the second one occurs between 1:00 pm and 3:00 pm (this explains why you tend to feel sleepy just after having lunch).
The circadian cycle developed as an evolutionary trait to keep us alert during the day and to allow our bodies to rest at night. However, in today’s world, most of our activities are not tied to the rising and setting of the sun. We have artificial lighting which continues stimulating our brains even during the night, times when we are supposed to be asleep.
These artificial stimulants can easily confuse our internal clock, leaving it with no clue about the current time. A confused internal clock means you might feel the urge to sleep when you should be awake or find it unable to sleep when you are supposed to be asleep.
For instance, spending the whole Saturday night catching up on the latest TV series can disrupt your circadian cycle, making you feel sleepy during the day on Monday, a time when you should be alert and working.
Therefore, it is important to ensure that your circadian cycle is in sync with your sleeping schedule. Below are some practical tips you can use to reset your circadian cycle:
- Stick to a consistent sleep schedule: The easiest way to confuse your circadian rhythm is to have irregular sleeping and waking times. To maintain a balanced internal clock, you should have a regular sleeping and waking time. This allows your body to adapt to your schedule. You should follow this sleeping schedule even during the weekend. Do not be tempted to catch up on sleep during the weekend, since this can confuse your internal clock and mess up with your ability to fall asleep and wake up on schedule.
- Go for a morning walk: Another way to keep your circadian rhythm in check is to go for a morning walk. A morning walk exposes you to sunlight, which not only gives you a boost of energy, but also signals your brain that the day is starting. If you do not have time for a walk, simply raise the blinds in your room or office.
- Avoid using tech gadgets at night: The light emitted by tech gadgets can confuse your brain into thinking that it is still daytime, thus throwing off your internal clock. Most tech gadgets emit artificial blue light, which is wrongly perceived by your brain as natural light.
STRATEGIES FOR GETTING BETTER SLEEP
So, now that you know about the sleep cycle and the circadian rhythm and how they affect the quality of sleep you get, how can you use this knowledge to ensure that you get better sleep?
Below are some strategies to help you get better quality sleep:
Plan Your Night so as to Wake Up at the End of a Sleep Cycle
We have already seen that what matters most is not the hours of sleep you get. Instead, what matters is going through all the stages of the sleep cycle and waking up when your mind and body are most prepared for the transition to wakefulness.
Therefore, when going to bed, you should plan your night not in hours, but in sleep cycles.
For instance, if you want to wake up at 7:00 am in the morning and want to get five cycles of sleep (each lasts about an hour and half), that means you will need about seven and a half hours of sleep. Therefore, you should go plan your night such that you will be falling asleep at around 11.30 pm.
Start Winding Down About an Hour before Bed
To ensure you get quality sleep, you need to start winding down about an hour before getting into bed. Avoid eating or drinking coffee or alcohol during this time. If possible, dim your lights and avoid using tech gadgets or watching TV an hour to bed. Empty your bladder and change into your bedclothes.
All these activities signal your mind that bedtime is approaching, so it starts producing melatonin in readiness for sleep. Avoiding food, alcohol and caffeine and emptying your bladder helps prevent nighttime distractions which might keep you from reaching the deep sleep stage.
Find an Activity That Helps You Wind Down
This is related to the previous point. As part of winding down, you should have a regular activity that you do each night before going to bed.
Our minds are creatures of habit, and once a certain activity becomes your bedtime ritual, your brain will automatically start shutting things down once you start doing the activity. Such activities include things like reading a book, taking a warm bath or meditating.
Keep Your Bedroom Cool, Dark and Quiet
Keeping your bedroom cool, dark and quiet signals to the part of the brain that controls your circadian rhythm that it is time to sleep, thereby triggering the secretion of melatonin. For instance, you can buy black-out curtains for your bedroom window.
This is especially useful when you live in a city, where bright lights from outside your window can keep you from falling asleep easily.
However, ensure that you are also getting enough natural light during the day in order to keep your circadian rhythm in check.
Get a Comfortable Mattress
Sometimes, the inability to get quality sleep might be due to your mattress.
The wrong type of mattress can make you uncomfortable at night, making it hard for you to get into deep sleep, which is needed in order for your body to restore itself.
A low quality mattress can also cause back pains, making it harder for you to fall asleep. Go for mattresses that are firm and comfortable.
Quality is important, not only for your cognitive abilities and productivity, but also for your health.
Therefore, you need to ensure that you are getting enough hours of quality sleep every night. For you to get quality sleep, you need to ensure that you go through all the stages of the sleep cycle every night.
You also need to align your sleeping schedule to your circadian rhythm.
Once you do this, waking up feeling well rested and refreshed every morning will be a reality, instead of something that you can only long for.