The Science of Sleep: A Brief Guide on How to Sleep Better Every Night
Sleep is that golden chain that ties health and our bodies together. – Thomas Dekker
Sleeping to some is one of the best things you can do while others just view it as a necessary distraction from other important things.
Whatever you feel about it, you can’t escape sleep.
Could you even do without it?
Let’s examine the science of sleep and find out why we need to sleep, what happens when we sleep and figure out what are some ways that would help us sleep better every night.
WHY WE NEED SLEEP?
If you’ve been following the news and social media chatter recently, you have probably noticed the increasing focus on sleep.
So, what’s behind this focus on sleep?
Does it really matter how much you sleep and how you sleep?
Three key purposes of sleep
The answer to those questions lies in the purpose of sleep.
Essentially, sleep has three main functions and each of these purposes hold a key to understanding why you definitely want to focus on sleeping better.
The core key purposes of sleep are:
- Restoration. When you go about your day, your brain is hard at work. All those neurological reactions and actions accumulate metabolic waste in your brain. This might sound alarming – waste in my brain?! – but it is completely normal. However, too much of the waste could lead to neurological problems.
According to research, the brain can get rid of metabolic waste and sleep is an important component in this. Although your brain does flush out some of the waste when you are awake, the clearance speeds up almost two-fold when you sleep.
It’s no wonder we tend to feel so much fresher in the morning – your brain just dumped some garbage!
- Memory consolidation. Sleep is also essential for memory consolidation, which refers to your ability to maintain long-term memories. If you don’t sleep enough, your brain won’t be able to form concrete memories and emotional stories.
- Metabolic health. Studies have also pointed out that sleep plays a key role in maintaining a healthy metabolic rhythm. When you get adequate sleep, your body is able to burn more fat and build muscle. When you don’t sleep, you increase your chances of insulin insensitivity and metabolic syndrome.
The problem of not sleeping enough
Another way of looking at the importance of sleep is by examining the effects of not sleeping.
If your body and mind are able to benefit when you sleep, does improper sleep do damage?
Lack of sleep is frankly harmful and by sacrificing your sleep, you’re not just giving up on having a proper rest, but you’re actually putting your physical and mental health at risk.
To put it bluntly, lack of sleep hinders your brain ability to function. If you go on without sleeping for long periods, you’ll probably start suffering from symptoms like:
Indeed, by skipping sleep for one night, you will lower your ability to concentrate.
Your attention span shortens and you find yourself unable to focus.
According to one study, by staying awake for 17 hours, you decrease your performance by the equivalent of having an alcohol blood level of 0.05%.
Essentially, staying up for too long is the same as downing two glasses of wine!
More alarmingly, continuous lack of sufficient sleep will deepen these problems and you’ll soon start doing more damage to your brain.
Just as I mentioned sleeping has the function to improve your memory consolidating, lack of sleep will mean the parts responsible for memories are hindered.
Your brain will have lowered its ability to control language, memories, planning and even sense of time is affected.
Studies have pointed out that sleep loss is a major factor in the following problems and diseases:
Quite frankly, lack of sleep can cause serious damage to your physical health, but also influence your mood.
The less you sleep, the more you might suffer from anxiety and other such problems.
So, the purpose of sleep is to keep as healthier and happier.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE SLEEP?
With all that in minds, sleep sounds like a magical journey – all the restoration and repair!
What exactly is sleep and what does the body do to enjoy all of these benefits?
Sleeping is a cycle
Sleeping is essentially a cycle – when you sleep you are performing the sleep-wake cycle. This cycle has two crucial parts:
- Slow wave sleep. The slow wave sleep is also known as deep sleep. During this wave, your body relaxes and goes to a renovating and repairing mode. Your brain is not as responsive to external stimuli any longer, making waking up difficult. You will have a regular breathing rhythm, your blood pressure drops and your pituitary glands start releasing growth hormone. The hormone stimulates tissue growth and helps muscles repair. There’s also some indication that your body’s immune system repairs itself during this stage.
- REM sleep. REM, which stands for Rapid Eye Movement, is another part of the sleep-wake cycle. The cycle has similar effects to the above, but instead of repairing your body, you are repairing your mind. The brain becomes quiet during REM sleep. It clears irrelevant information, boosts your memory by creating neural connections and you even enhance your sleeping. The phase occurs in short bursts a few times during the night, during which your blood pressure goes up, your heart speeds up and your body temperature increases.
As you can make out, both cycles are crucial for you. During one, your body is repairing while during the other you are improving your mental health.
The five stages of sleep
The above is a great way to describe what happens during sleep and the restorative effect sleep has on your body and mind.
But you can look deeper into the act of sleeping.
If you do, you’ll find out that there are five stages of sleep, each with their unique purposes and functions.
Doctor Diana L. Walcutt has outlined the five stages of sleep. The stages are determined by the brain waves that are active during each phase. This refers to the waves you’d see in an EEG or electro encephala graph. The five stages are:
- Stage One. The brain goes through the Alpha and Theta waves. These waves can happen even during the day, during a period we often refer to as ‘day-dreaming’. You can even practice the alpha waves during meditation. Slowly, you’ll start drifting towards theta, which is just a short period before we fall asleep.
- Stage Two. The second stage sees our brains produce rapid, short waves called sleep spindles. The body temperature drops and heart rate slows down.
- Stage Three. During stage three, your brain is creating deep and slow waves called delta waves. This is the transitional period of moving from light sleep to deep sleep.
- Stage Four. In the fourth sleep, you enter delta sleep. This is deep sleep and referred to as the slow wave sleep.
- Stage Five: REM. Finally, you have our friend REM sleep. Your voluntary muscles are actually paralyzed during this time, yet your brain is busy producing dreams.
According to Dr Walcutt, the stages don’t always occur in the particular sequence and you might go through different stages more than once a night.
But knowing these cycles can be important in enhancing your sleep – you want to ensure your body goes through enough stages to gain the benefits of the rejuvenating and recovering stages of REM and slow wave sleep.
Circadian rhythm to dictate it all
So, how does this cycling happen?
It’s actually something normal and our sleep cycles are determined by our individual biological cycles called circadian rhythm.
The circadian rhythm essentially dictates when different biological events take place in your body during a day. You can see some example timings from the image below:
The pattern of circadian rhythm is not set in stone and individuals have some differences in terms of when they are in their deepest sleep or reducing the most cortisol.
However, some elements of the rhythm can be influenced by factors – some of which you can control.
Three main factors impact the biological rhythm:
- Light, which is perhaps the most influential of all three factors. If you stare at a bright light for 30-minuts, you will reset the circadian rhythm, even if you do this in the middle of the night. This is, generally, why the rising of the sun triggers the transition to a new biological function.
- Time, in terms of your daily schedule and routines. The tasks you do during the day and the specific time of day in which you do them has consequences on your sleep-wake cycle.
- Melatonin, which is the hormone that causes you to feel drowse. The normal production of it is very predictable – it increases after dark and decreases right before dawn.
HOW TO SLEEP BETTER?
How do you sleep better?
What does the above science of knowing how we sleep and what happens during sleep tell us about improving our sleep?
Here are four categories for improving your sleep, with different tips on how to achieve just that.
Improve how and when you fall asleep
Since your sleep is dictated by your body’s biological rhythm, you need to ensure your tuned with the schedule.
You essentially need to improve how and when you fall asleep.
Finding the right time for sleeping is essentially about figuring your inner circadian clock. Now you should do this by listening to your body for a few weeks and keeping track of the signals it’s giving you.
In the evening, monitor when you start feeling sleepy and test different bed times to figure out at what point do you seem the fall asleep the easiest.
Do the same in the morning (as much as you can).
Spend the weekend by going to sleep as soon as you feel like it and allowing your body to wake up naturally. Test different times and find the hours that seem most refreshing to your body.
Although different people might find different sleeping times better, research does suggest we should be getting close to eight hours of sleep each night.
If you find falling asleep problematic, seek out rituals that help you fall asleep.
You don’t want to toss and turn in bed – you should fall into deep sleep within seven to ten minutes from going to bed.
Some popular ways to fall asleep quicker include:
- Stop using electronics an hour before bedtime.
- Dim the lights.
- Have a warm bath, with added bath salts like Epsom salt.
- Drink warm milk.
- Meditate before falling asleep
- Read a book or listen to relaxing music.
Indeed, there are different relaxation techniques you should use to improve your sleep cycle.
Interestingly, research suggests that nearly half of all cases of insomnia are caused by stress.
Therefore, you should consider figuring out a way to relax your body and mind before sleep to ensure you’re not filled with anxious thoughts.
As mentioned already, meditation can work well. But you should also consider journaling, deep breathing or exercising a bit before your bedtime.
Increase your sleep duration
You should also focus on improving the amount of time you sleep and ensuring you are able to go through the sleep-wake cycle without harmful interruptions.
The first thing to do is to find the natural time for you to wake up. Now, this is not as easy in the modern world where you might have work and other such obligations to stop you from sleeping until you are happy.
However, you can wake up at a set time, feeling better, if you just increase the amount of time you sleep.
To do this, go to bed earlier, rather than change the time when you wake up. Furthermore, test your wakeup time as much as you can. It is possible even changing the clock by 15-minutes, you feel better.
So, start sleeping earlier rather than just focusing on sleeping longer in the morning. You can find the best sleeping cycle by testing different durations and timings. You might require 9-hours of sleep between 10pm and 7am or you might feel the best when you sleep –hours from 12am to 9am.
You might even feel happy with just 7-hours of sleep – no matter what time of night. Mix your sleeping around as much as possible and find the right amount of sleep for your body.
You could also use an app that calculates your natural sleep cycle.
Check out, for example, the review of one such app here:
Enhance the quality of sleep
But sleep’s benefits don’t just come from the number of hours you sleep and the closeness of following your circadian rhythm. You also need to pay attention the quality of your sleep – the effectiveness of the sleep cycle.
You should aim to boost the intensity of your sleep. The depth and quality of your sleep are directly linked to things like:
- Your diet – you need to eat healthier foods, such as vegetables and fruit. You also want to skip insulin-spiking foods like sugar and refined carbs close to your sleeping time.
- The lighting in the room – you also need to pay attention to the lighting. You need to have fewer lights when you’re trying to sleep and ensure you start your day with a dose of light to ensure circadian rhythm stays in motion.
- Your physical health – you can also improve the quality of sleep by exercising regularly. Exercise helps to add healthy doses of stress on the body and kick-starts the repair processes faster at night. You should avoid exercising at least three hours before you want to sleep, as otherwise you might find falling asleep tricky.
- The sleeping temperature – it’s also possible to improve the sleep-wake cycle with the room’s temperature. According to studies, the perfect room temperature for sleep is 18 to 24 Celsius (65 to 75 Fahrenheit).
Implement healthy and sleep-boosting habits
Overall, you should adopt a few healthy and sleep-boosting habits.
These can improve your ability to fall asleep and make it easier to stay asleep, guaranteeing your quality of sleep is good.
The most effective sleep-boosting habits are:
- Spending enough time outdoors. Exposure to sunlight is important for sleep because it guarantees your circadian rhythm works properly and helps boost your mood.
- Avoiding caffeine, alcohol and tobacco. Caffeine can cause problems in the sleep cycle, along with alcohol and tobacco. You should consider avoiding tobacco altogether as it has been linked with sleep disorders in studies. With caffeine, you could still enjoy some; just make sure you leave enough time between having to sleep and drinking it. Alcohol – like many things in life – should be enjoyed only in moderation.
- Proper hydration. Your body needs water to repair itself overnight and you should drink enough water during the day to enjoy the refreshing benefits at night. If you find yourself waking up at night feeling thirsty or you are thirsty first thing in the morning, it might be a sign that you’re not hydrated enough. Increase your water intake (just don’t leave it all right before bedtime!).
- Use bedroom just for sleeping and having sex. You should use your bedroom only for sleeping or having fun with your partner – working or doing many other things in the room can cause it to feel depressing and stressful. In addition, you should make your bed a smartphone, laptop and tablet-free zone. You definitely need to stop using the phone before you want to go to sleep.
When it comes to sleeping better, knowing the science behind your sleep can help.
It gives you the understanding of the importance of sleep and how damaging it can be to your body and mind to not sleep enough.
You’ll also understand the importance and function of the sleep cycles and you can use the information to create sleeping habits that improve your quality and the quantity of your sleep.