The science behind the best sleep ever

By September 28, 2017Sleep

Sleep is essential to your health and wellbeing. There’s a reason why you spend almost one-third of your day doing it. But many of us don’t get the sleep we need. In fact, 40% of South Africans aren’t sleeping enough, new research shows.

And who wouldn’t want to get a bit more shut-eye?! Not only do you look and feel better, but it’s as important to your basic survival as food and water water war. Sleep affects almost every type of tissue and system in the body, from the brain, heart, and lungs to metabolism, immune function, and mood.

How sleep works

Sleep is a complex and dynamic process. Healthy sleep is made up of two states: non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. You cycle through all stages of NREM and REM sleep several times during the night.

NREM sleep consists of four stages:

  • Stage I is a time of drowsiness or transition from being awake to falling asleep. Your brainwaves and muscles begin to relax. Your pulse slows and your eyes move from corner to corner. You may feel sudden muscle jerks and a sensation of falling. This stage lasts for just a few minutes, and makes up about 10% of total sleep time.
  • Stage II is a period of light sleep during which eye movements stop. Your brainwaves become slower, and your heartbeat and breathing slow down. Your body temperature also decreases. This stage lasts for about 20 minutes. You spend almost half of your total sleep time in this phase.
  • Stage III is the start of deep sleep. You’re now thoroughly relaxed. Huge, slow brainwaves called delta waves begin to occur. Your blood pressure, breathing and body temperature drop even lower, with your body becoming immobile.
  • Stage IV. Sleep is at its deepest, with no eye movement and decreased muscle activity. Your brain produces almost only delta waves and it’s difficult to wake you. If you’re disturbed, you’ll struggle to adjust to being awake and will feel disoriented and groggy. In this phase, some children experience bedwetting, night terrors or sleepwalking. It’s also the phase when testosterone and growth hormones are secreted. Growth hormones ensure your cells, skin, bone tissue, and muscles remain healthy. In babies and children, they facilitate growth and trigger puberty. This stage represents up to 20% of total sleep time.

REM follows NREM sleep. It’s the last phase of the sleep cycle and starts about 70 to 90 minutes after you’ve fallen asleep. It happens four to five times during a normal eight to nine-hour sleep period, and makes up 20% of total sleep time.

REM sleep is an active period, and your brain is intensely active during this time. Your brainwaves are fast and look similar to when you’re awake. Your eyes move rapidly in various directions, breathing becomes faster, irregular and shallow; your heart rate increases and blood pressure rises. Your muscles become temporarily paralysed.

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This is the sleep stage when most dreams occur. Some experts say dreams are the brain’s way of sorting and deleting unimportant information, so it doesn’t become overwhelming. REM sleep is also thought to play a role in memory consolidation and mood regulation.

After REM sleep, the entire sleep cycle starts again.

Sweet dreams are made of these

  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day – even over the weekends. This will make it easier for you to fall asleep and get good shut eye every night.
  • Exercise for 20 to 30 minutes daily, preferably in the morning. Regular exercise can improve restful sleep. Avoid exercising three to four hours before you go to bed as this can raise your body temperature, adrenalin levels, heart rate, and brain activity.
  • Get a good dose of sunshine. Sunlight boosts your energy levels in the day, which can make it easier for you to fall asleep at night.
  • Relax before you hit the sack. Have a warm bath, do some stretching exercises, or read a book.
  • Keep the temperature in your bedroom cool and comfortable, around 18°C. A bedroom that’s too hot or cold can make it difficult to fall and stay asleep.
  • Keep your bedroom as dark as possible. Exposure to light during the night can suppress production of melatonin, the hormone that helps you sleep. Get heavy curtains in blackout shades. If this doesn’t help, try an eye mask to block out filters of light.
  • Use your bedroom for sleep only. This will strengthen your mental association between your bedroom and sleep.
  • Keep your bedroom quiet. Your brain still processes sounds while you’re sleeping. Even the slightest noise can interrupt you and cause your heart rate and blood pressure to increase. Remove the TV from your room. Put your phone on silent. If there’s a noise beyond your control like a busy street, mask it with the sound of a bedside fan or air purifier to help you sleep easy.
  • Eat sleep-inducing foods. Have a slice of turkey, a handful of almonds, or a cup of warm milk and honey before bedtime. These foods contain tryptophan, an amino acid that helps your body produce melatonin.
  • Keep your hands and feet warm. Wear socks or gloves to bed. You should fall asleep in no time.

If you lie awake for more than 30 minutes, get up and do a quiet, non-excitable activity like reading or listening to music. Then go back to bed when you feel tired. Do this as many times during the night as needed. If nothing helps, see your doctor, or speak to one of ours. There may be a medical reason for your sleeping problems.

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