Sleep is the bedrock of wellness, and we could all do with a better-quality sleep. We all worry about how much sleep we get, but research shows that we should focus more on the quality of sleep, and not just count the hours in bed. In this article we hope to give you a better understanding of what happens to your mind and body during sleep and how you can master your routine. Whether you are a pro-napper or an anxious drifter, our guide to sleep will empower you to reap the benefits of a great night’s sleep.
Stages of sleep
There are four sleep stages: three non-REM stages, and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Each stage performs a different, but essential bodily function. The better you understand each stage, the easier it is to create an environment conducive for a great night’s sleep.
Stage 1 is the drifting off phase. During the first few minutes your heartbeat, breathing, eye movements and brain function slow, and your muscles relax with occasional twitches.
Stage 2 is the period of light sleep. Your heartbeat, brain function and breathing slow, and muscles relax further. Your body temperature drops, and eye movements stop.
Stage 3 is the period of deep sleep needed to feel refreshed in the morning. It occurs in longer periods during the first half of the night. Your heartbeat, brain activity and breathing slow to their lowest levels, your muscles are relaxed and it may be difficult to wake you.
REM sleep first occurs about 90 minutes after falling asleep, so it is important not to nap for longer than this or you will feel more tired. Brain activity becomes closer to that seen while awake. Your breathing becomes faster and irregular, and your heart rate and blood pressure increase to near waking levels. Most of your dreaming occurs during REM sleep. Your arm and leg muscles become temporarily motionless.
Here comes the science
Several parts of the brain perform key functions during sleep and understanding each of them can help you identify potential disruption triggers. During REM your body is most alert, and you are most likely to wake from this phase. The hypothalamus is sensitive to light, so it is critical to ensure complete darkness to avoid waking too early.
Your brain is a giant filing cabinet made up of millions of neuron connections containing all your memories. During sleep those connections are ordered and rationalised, organising your thoughts and reinforcing short and long-term memories. Recent studies show that sleep plays a vital role in removing toxins from your brain that build up while you are awake.
The thalamus relays information to the cerebral cortex, which controls memories. During most stages of sleep, the thalamus becomes quiet, letting you tune out the external world. But during REM sleep, the thalamus is active, sending the cortex images, sounds, and other sensations that fill our dreams.
The pineal gland produces the sleep hormone melatonin. Melatonin is produced by the body as the lights go down and when the body cools, a process promoted by bathing before bed.
The basal forebrain promotes sleep and alertness. Release of adenosine supports your sleep drive and is a by-product of exercise. Caffeine and other stimulants counteract sleepiness by blocking the actions of adenosine.
Benefits of a good night’s sleep
From a mental perspective a good night’s sleep; improves concentration, organizes your thoughts & memories, reduces anxiety which in turn helps reduce depression and minimises stress helping you maintain relationships - it has also been linked to reducing the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
There are also some unexpected benefits from a physical perspective too. Sleep helps maintain a hormonal balance that can help control your appetite and insulin levels helping you maintain a healthy weight and reducing the likelihood of contracting diabetes. It also helps with heart health and reduces the risk of stroke and building a strong immune system. It supports a healthy sex drive and increases fertility.
No more counting sheep
Sleep is a very personal thing and there is no right or wrong answer to a good night’s sleep – just try out a few different techniques and see what works for you.
Your body is not like a light switch that can be switched on and off in the blink of an eye, you need time to slowly wind down after a long, stimulating day – start to wind down around two hours before your target bedtime. Try to keep to the same bedtime & waketime each day. Ideally you want to naturally wake up in the morning, so adjust your bedtime accordingly.
A warm, soothing mineral bath helps relax you and promotes sleep by releasing endorphins & boosting magnesium levels. There really is no substitute, so invest in some me-time and we’re confident you’ll have a great night’s sleep.
Exercise 20 to 30 minutes a day but no later than a few hours before going to bed – this releases endorphins and sleep hormones.
Most of the time when we struggle to sleep it is because our minds are racing. I personally have found these techniques highly effective. When it gets to time to sleep, remember the cycles of sleep and try and replicate them – some meditation and mindfulness techniques can be helpful – focus on relaxing, slowing your breathing and heart rate, try and clear your mind and not to let it wander. Writing down a to do list before bed can help so you are not worrying about all the things you need to remember.
Eating the wrong thing can be a common cause for troubled sleep. Avoid caffeine, nicotine, sugars and alcohol before bed as these will interrupt your sleep, but it is important not to go to bed on an empty stomach. Eating complex carbohydrates & proteins three hours before bed is ideal and avoid fatty foods as they can affect your sleep – that’s why cheese gives you strange dreams.
Don’t lie in bed wide awake – if you can’t get to sleep, get up do something else like reading or listening to music or a podcast until you feel tired.
Create a relaxing environment – avoid bright lights and keep the room at a cool temperature. It is really important to unplug from screen-time, the blue LED lights in electronics trick the brain into thinking it is daytime and make it difficult to drift off.
If you don't get enough sleep, the only one way to make up for it is sleeping. Either get an early night or at the weekend don’t set your alarm and try to get an extra hour or 2 of sleep.
See a doctor if your sleeping problems persist - most sleep disorders can be treated effectively.