The science of sleep is one of the most fascinating and constantly changing health topics, playing an extremely important role as it does in our day to day lives.
Everybody sleeps differently and, as we age, the amount of sleep that we need for good health changes.
A number of studies suggest that humans, as a species, are chronically sleep-deprived. The current popular school of thought is that adults require around 7 – 9 hours of sleep a night, but most adults aren’t even nearly reaching it. And while we could stand to sleep a little more, it is just as important that we are getting the best quality sleep we can. This can become an issue for those who suffer from sleep difficulties such as nightmares, insomnia, disturbed sleep and snoring.
Too little sleep is thought to have serious negative repercussions for our bodies, including slowed motor skills, affected cognitive performance and diminished mood. A little extra sleep, on the other hand, can be very beneficial.
Surprisingly, many adults can only achieve REM sleep during the night. REM sleep is when our brain is most active, almost as active as it is when we are awake. Here we dream the most vividly, our pulse increases and our eyes move around rapidly behind the eyelids. The other side of sleep is NREM sleep where our muscles are extremely relaxed, our brain has shut down and the supply of blood to the muscles increases. In this state, hormones are released and our energy stores are replenished. So the question might not be how much sleep is enough, but how do we achieve the best kind of sleep?
It is unrealistic to expect NREM sleep for an entire night; most adults will achieve NREM sleep for between 30 minutes and 2 hours a night, depending on age. However, a combination of REM and NREM sleep is important for optimum concentration and brain activity.
There are a number of simple things that we can do to ensure we get a well-balanced nights sleep for a marked increase in energy, mood and overall good health.
Setting a schedule
Schedules are generally good for humans – we thrive on structure and planning, both of which can reduce stress. By going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, you’ll train your body for routine and a regular sleep cycle. Another appealing aspect of established sleep patterns is that it can help fast-track the process of both getting to sleep easily, as well as waking without the need for an alarm.
One of the most common causes of excess energy at night is simply not using it up during the day. By exercising for 20 – 30 minutes a day, you can use up some of that extra energy, making your body ready for bedtime. However, you should exercise no later than two hours before bed, warn the experts. While you may be physically tired from a workout, mentally you may be on a high and the increased amounts of cortisol or adrenaline in your body may inhibit sleep.
Relax before bed
This may seem obvious, but so many of us lead such hectic lives that there is often not the time to relax before getting to bed. It is vital that you take just half an hour before bed to shut down, meditate, read or have a bath. Anything that signals to your mind and body that it’s almost time for the day to be over.
Create a conducive sleep space
This means ensuring that your bedroom is just a space to sleep and relax in, rather than being a place of mental stimulation, aided by laptops, phones, and TV. As well as stopping your subconscious from recognising the bedroom as a place for sleep, the light from these electronics is associated with wakefulness and also decreases melatonin – a hormone that promotes sleep. Make your room sleep-ready by keeping it quiet, as dark as possible, and at a comfortable cool temperature.
Don’t just lie there
If you are lying in bed struggling to slip off to sleep, don’t just lie there. The harder you try to nod off, the further from sleep you will get. Get out of bed, have a cup of soothing tea, maybe read for a while, or do a calming activity before trying to sleep again.
If you have trouble sleeping, try to avoid stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine and alcohol. Even if these are not consumed right before bed, they can still affect your ability to get to sleep.
If none of these strategies works and you still have trouble sleeping at night, but feel tired in the day, visit your doctor. Most sleeping disorders can be easily and effectively treated.
Editor’s note: snoring and sleep apnoea are not just annoying sleep disturbances – they can pose serious hazards to your health – mentally and physically. It is important you get help from a sleep specialist, a sleep study centre or your doctor.
Image Credit – Sleeping with the Enemy / Instagram – @sleepingw.theenemy
About the Author – Natasha Porritt is a Studio Pilates Instructor.