The Science of Sleep

“Sleep is the golden chain that binds health and our bodies together” – Thomas Dekker.

How much do you value a good night’s sleep? Chances are the majority of you would say something like “more than anything” to this. In fact, most people deem sleep to be an essential part of their daily routine. You’d hope so, given we spend approximately one-third of our time doing it! This intense yearning for sleep however goes much deeper than just enjoying dreams and resting our legs, with scientists agreeing that sleep is as important to our survival as food and water. Those precious hours that transition our days are what forms and maintains pathways in our brain, allowing us to learn, construct memories and make sense of problems. Without sleep, we are unable to concentrate and our reaction times become sluggish, leaving us in a fatigued state of inactivity. Ironically, despite our understanding of the importance of sleep, society continues to develop distractions. Whether it’s late night TV, the pull of video games or a frequent night-shift at work, we all live in a world of conflicting demands that threaten our quality of sleep. By better understanding the science behind your sleep however,  you will realise the impact this has on your mind and body, helping you to regain control over those late night hours.  

Put briefly, our sleep patterns are dictated by Circadian rhythms. This rather complicated word is used to describe physical, mental and behavioural changes that follow a 24-hour cycle. All you need to know is that our body has an internal biological clock that determines when we feel tired at night and when we wake up again in the morning. The time between this is what we call our sleep period! Delving deeper, our sleep can be divided into two types: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. The important distinction to make is the activity in the brain that occurs throughout these phases. When you first close your eyes and drift off into sleep, your brain goes on a structured journey of activity; cycling each and every 90 minutes throughout the night. In the first half of the night, you usually experience more non-REM sleep, progressing through increasingly deep levels of rest. In the early stages your heart rate and temperature begins to drop and your brain activity gradually lessens. Then, as you drift into deeper levels of non-REM sleep, your brain erupts into powerful brain waves. It’s at these stages of the night that memories become constructed and our neural pathways begin to build in the brain. As your night continues, you will then shift into phases of REM sleep; the home of our most vivid, hallucinogenic dreams! In these states your brain becomes highly active, stitching complex pieces of information together. It’s here that our most creative thoughts begin to surface, enabling us to wake up with new solutions to problems we took with us to bed.

Throughout the night, it’s helpful to consider your sleep as a continuous cycling battle for brain domination that switches between stages of REM and non-REM sleep. At times your brain will be barely active, whilst at others it fires almost as strong as when you’re awake. What’s important however is that every stage happens for a reason, providing different biological benefits to our brain. So when you stay up one night or rush out early the next morning, you do far more than just make yourself feel tired. Whether it’s disrupting the construction of memories or stunting our creative growth, failure to achieve 7-8 hours of sleep at night, impacts the development of the human mind!

Sleep should never be taken for granted as it’s a vital tool for re-charging resources, supporting learning and shaping the inner-workings of our brain. Next time you look to skip a few hours at night, think about what you might be throwing away…

THE SLEEP SERIES

To help you optimise the quality of sleep you get each night we’ve gathered together some useful exercises to monitor and improve your nightly routine. By implementing just a few of these activities into your evening, you’ll begin to benefit from a deeper night's sleep.

To optimize the quality of your sleep at night, it’s important to ensure our sleeping pattern aligns with are body clock. Both our mind and body are regulated by some pretty complicated mechanisms that tell us when we ought to be tired, and control our tendency to wake in the morning. If the time we actually allow ourselves to sleep is out of sync with our body clock, we will likely suffer the effects of a “bad sleep”. Try making a sustainable sleep schedule that will help you to drift off more easily and feel rested throughout the week.

Did you know that issues with your sleep can be caused by the stress you’ve experienced in the day? Stress hormones in the brain cause our breathing to quicken and our heart rate to rapidly increase; placing us in a state not suited for a relaxed night’s sleep. Whether it’s reading a book, practicing mediation, finishing with a warm shower or evening stretch, there are many relaxing rituals you can complete that will better prepare you for sleep. Spend some time finding out which activity suits your routine best and make a habit of completing it before bed.

When you’re tired in the evening and ready to put up your feet, what substance is your go-to evening beverage? From teas to coffees, hot chocolates to wine, people tend to indulge more as the day closes. Research has shown that several ingredients including sugar, caffeine, alcohol and Niacin actually hinder the quality of your sleep. Try to cut back on these unhelpful beverages and swap in some new sleep-enhancing substances such as warm milk, hot cocoa, decaf green teas and even cherry juice.

With research suggesting we spend around a third of our lives in bed, it’s vital that our bedroom setting is well equipped for getting us to sleep. Before you go to bed at night it’s important to set your ‘sleep scene’. It may be as simple as turning off electronic devices or purchasing black-out blinds, investing in a quality mattress or ensuring the room is between 18-24 degrees. If you notice there are frequent frustrations that keep you from drifting away, consider making some changes to your room to help you sleep at the end of the day!

Whilst we can do our best to improve the conditions we try to sleep in, it’s often very difficult to identify what specific things are impacting how we sleep. That’s why it can be helpful to monitor things more closely using a tried and tested Sleep Diary from the NHS. A sleep diary is a valuable tool for tracking sleep, monitoring sleep habits, and documenting any persistent sleeping problems. There is no harm in showing more interest in your sleep and learning about any patterns that emerge throughout the week.

We must remember to treasure our sleep as it is a vital and valuable aspect of our daily routine. Sleep enables us to function at our best, remaining happy and healthy throughout the day!

Blog Author: Ben Oliver - Feb 8th 2021

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