“Sleep: the natural state of rest during which your eyes are closed and you become unconscious.” – Sleep. Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
These definitions give us a basic idea of what sleep is. However, if we are going to learn how to get better sleep, we need to do more than shut our eyes and go unconscious.
“Until the 1950s, most people thought of sleep as a passive, dormant part of our daily lives. We now know that our brains are very active during sleep.” – “What is Sleep?” American Sleep Association (ASA).
A good place to start is to see what sleep isn’t. As the ASA points out, it’s not just the time of day where we do nothing. They thought it was just a period to give the brain a break. However, advances in neuroscience have shown that our brains aren’t taking breaks at all.
How Much Sleep Is Necessary
Although it varies from person to person, “most healthy adults need between seven and a half to nine hours of sleep per night to work at their best. Children and teens need even more.” – “How Much Sleep Do You Need?” HelpGuide.org.
Children need 12-18 hours of sleep and the numbers drop to 7.5-9 after the age of 18. The quantity of sleep that teenagers and preteens get has decreased because of the impact of technology.
Later in the book, we will discuss the consequences.
Stages of Sleep
We are going to look under the hood of how sleep works. We will need to understand that there are different types of sleep. By understanding the stages of sleep, you will see how your choices impact these stages.
As you sleep, you pass through 5 stages. These include stages 1, 2, 3, 4 and Rapid Eye Movement (REM). You will move through the 5 stages in anywhere from 90-110 minutes. Once you have finished REM, you will then return for another cycle of sleep and repeat the 5 stages.
This is the stage when you are falling asleep. It is the border between being awake and being asleep. It is characterized by a light form of sleep. Your eyes will move slowly.
During this stage some people sense their muscles tighten and experience the sensation of falling. I experience this several times a year. You experience the sense of your body falling when you are partly awake and then become fully awake.
This is the stage where you start falling asleep and disconnect with the outside world. Your breathing rate and heart rhythm take on regular patterns and your body temperature drops. Your heart rate also slows down.
Another sign of this stage is that your eye movement stops. In addition, your brain waves slow down except for now and then when they spike. This stage accounts for 50% of your total sleep time.
This is where deep sleep kicks in. Both Stages 3 and 4 are called deep sleep. During this stage, it is difficult to wake a person. When you wake a person in Stage 3, they are disconnected from reality and it takes time for the world to become clear and for them to feel connected again.
It is during this deep sleep that the “body repairs and regrows tissues, builds bone and muscle tissue, and strengthens the immune system.” – Jennifer Robinson, MD. – “What Are REM and Non-REM Sleep? ” Webmd.
You should pay close attention to what is happening here. This is where lack of sleep prevents vital maintenance of the body.
In the United States, stages 3 and 4 are called Stage 3. However, elsewhere in the world, Stage 4 is known for being the stage where the brain produces mostly delta waves. These are the waves seen in the brain as the electrical activity in the brain oscillates between 1-8 Hz during sleep.
Sleep walking, nightmares, and even bed wetting for children occur during Stages 3 and 4.
This stage of sleep is characterized by eye movement and dreaming.
This stage of sleep kicks in around 90 minutes after falling asleep. The first time you go into REM sleep, it will last 10 minutes. For each additional cycle, you will see an increase in REM sleep. It may reach as long as an hour and unlike the other stages, you will breathe faster and have an increased heart rate.
During REM sleep, your body loses the ability to regulate its temperature. That means that if your body is cold or hot based upon the external environment, you can be pulled out of REM sleep. However, your body will then allow you to slip back into REM sleep to ensure that you complete that part of the cycle. This stage of sleep accounts for 20% of your total sleep time.
REM sleep is important for learning since it stimulates the areas of the brain used in learning. Experiments have shown the effect when people are taught a skill and then deprived of REM sleep. They lose the ability to recall the skill when compared to people who are allowed to have REM sleep. Thus, of all the stages of sleep, REM is the most important for learning.
Circadian rhythms are the physical and mental changes that happen throughout the day. Try to think about them as a biological clock. This clock governs when a person is awake and when a person is tired. The natural cycle for a person deprived of light is 25 hours, during which a person moves between sleeping and being awake.
A blind person often has permanent sleep problems because lack of light confuses their schedule. This condition is similar to what people experience from jet lag. They go on a trip across multiple time zones, but their bodies are still stuck in the previous time zone. Shift workers also face this challenge. They are working and sleeping on cycles that differ from the normal daily rotation.
Several therapies can help. Melatonin supplements help stabilize the daily circadian rhythm. Another option is using bright lights–much brighter than normal lights–when trying to train oneself to wake up.
Technology for Tracking Sleep Cycles
The market is now filled with apps for the iPhone and Android that can track sleep cycles. Based upon your movement, sounds, and breathing, it is possible to deduce where you are in the sleep cycle. A graph will show how long the cycles are lasting and the app will make recommendations for improvement.
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Photo by: Flood G.