Lady sleeping on bed with alarm clock

How do we know if we’re sleeping enough, and how is my body communicating this to me? If by the end of this first paragraph you’ve caught yourself yawning, found your mind wandering, or re-reading the previous sentence because you didn’t absorb it the first time, it’s either because you’re bored already with what I’ve written (let’s hope not) or you could be suffering from a lack of quality sleep.

Today most of us face very busy and often stressful lifestyles. It has become a 24/7 society, where we are often on the go for longer, work longer hours, spend more and more time online, and modern life has contributed to many higher levels of stress and anxiety across all ages than ever before. Overthinking our days, not having good sleep habits, poor dietary choices, and circumstances such as becoming a new parent and needing to tend to the needs of your baby over your own sleep, as well as those facing chronic pain, all lead to challenges for us to get the best and most sleep that we need.

Sleep, and getting an adequate amount, is vital to our overall wellbeing and health. While we sleep, our body and brain not only rest but also undertake important functions which contribute to us being healthier and performing better.

Stages of Sleep and Its Functions

Within a normal sleep period, your body undertakes 4-5 sleep cycles, and each of these cycles consists of 4 individual sleep stages. If we expand these stages further, we can break them down into 2 categories, REM (rapid eye movement) sleep (yes, like the band pumping out 90s chart toppers!) and non-REM sleep ( 1 ). The first three stages of sleep are non-REM.

Non- REM Sleep

The first stage is the “dozing off” stage when we first start falling asleep. The body has not yet fully relaxed, though the body and brain activities start to slow with periods of brief twitches. Our eyes are closed but you can wake up easily- this could last for about 10 minutes

The second stage is when you have entered a light Sleep. During light sleep, the body temperature decreases, muscles are more relaxed, and breathing, brain activity and heart rate start to slow. Your body is preparing itself for deep sleep, and this phase could last from between 10-20 minutes or slighter longer. A person typically spends half their sleep time in this stage.

The third stage is known as the deep sleep stage. It isn’t easy to be woken during deep sleep, but if you were to be abruptly woken at this stage, you would need a bit of time to adjust as you would feel somewhat disorientated for a few minutes following.

The deep sleep stages of non-REM sleep are very important, as this stage allows our body time to regrow and repair tissues, strengthen our immune system, and build up our bones and muscles- so in a sense, it's a full-body workout happening while we rest. How’s that for inactive recovery? There is evidence that deep sleep also contributes to insightful thinking, creativity, and memory ( 2, 3).

REM Sleep

REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement and is a type of sleep that happens at night during intervals and, as the name suggests, our eyes undertake rapid movements during this cycle. During REM sleep, brain activity picks up, nearing levels seen when you’re awake. At the same time, the body experiences atonia, which is a temporary paralysis of the muscles, with two exceptions: the eyes and the muscles that control breathing.

During the REM stages of our sleep, we dream more and these dreams tend to be more vivid. Dreams can occur in any sleep stage, but they are less common and intense in the non-REM periods. There is also an increase to our pulse and breathing and more bodily movements occur. REM sleep is a time when our brain activity increases, and it is an important element because it stimulates areas of our brain associated with learning, creativity, and memory, and also this stage has an association with our bodies increasing its production of proteins ( 4 , 5). This type of sleep normally happens within about 90 minutes of you falling asleep. An interesting comparison is that adults spend around 20 % of their sleep within the REM stage, where for babies this is about 50%.

Getting an adequate amount of good quality sleep is vital to our overall health and wellbeing and in supporting important functions in the body.

How Much Sleep Should I Be Getting?

The golden number and general consensus are that 8 hours of good-quality sleep a night is what we need to function properly – but some may need more and some less ( 6 ). What's important is that we find out how much sleep we need and aim for that.

Recommendations suggest that healthy adults should be getting around 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Young children, teens and babies require even more because of the significant growth and development that is occurring during these life stages ( 7).

Older adults aged 65 and over should be aiming to get around 7-8 hours per night ( 8 ).

As a general rule, if you wake up tired and are tempted by a nap during the day, it's likely that you're not getting enough sleep.

Signs of Sleep Deprivation

  • Feeling clumsy and sleepy
  • Waking up feeling not refreshed and unmotivated
  • Craving pick-me-up and junk food
  • Struggling to concentrate and having a poor memory
  • Feeling moody or depressed
  • Eyes that look puffy and red and what we call ‘bags under our eyes’
  • Slowed thinking
  • Reduced attention span
  • Poor or risky decision making
  • Lack of energy

In severe cases of bad sleep hygiene, lack of sleep can affect your overall health and make you prone to serious medical conditions, such as obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

The Dangers of Bad Sleep Hygiene

Having the occasional night of bad sleep in its self is not uncommon and not cause for alarm, however, the concern develops when this becomes an increasingly common issue for you and the days of poor sleep become common and all too normalised- this is often referred to as ‘sleep debt’. Sleep debt is a continuous build-up of poor sleep which eventually leads to your body responding with a ‘pay now notice’, in the form of physical signs and illness! ( 9)

The longer-term dangers of inadequate sleep are quite widespread and concerning. This feeling of sluggishness and concentration problems can be a dangerous situation in the workplace, especially for those who rely on high levels of alertness and concentration such as those in the transport industry needing to drive or fly for long periods; those needing to make life and death and decisions in the medical fields; and those who need to be extra vigilant in their care of others who are vulnerable such as parents of babies and young children.

As we can see getting poor amounts of quality sleep can lead to issues not only in the short term but run the risk of contributing to long term health problems- many of them dangerous to our quality of life and life expectancy- such as cardiovascular disease ( 10), diabetes (11), obesity ( 12), immunodeficiency ( 13), hormonal abnormalities ( 14), high risk of developing pain or worsened pain, and mental health disorders ( 15).

There are many reasons why we find ourselves not getting enough sleep, and it’s often more complex than just a lumpy mattress or an overly firm pillow.

7 Health Benefits of Good Sleep Hygiene

1. Sleep Boosts Immunity

As getting good amounts of deep sleep allow our immune system to be strengthened, when we are sleep deprived, we leave ourselves more at risk and prone to illness and infections. One study following over 6000 adults over 9 years showed, “mortality rates from ischemic heart disease, cancer, stroke, and all causes combined were lowest for individuals sleeping 7 or 8 hr per night ( 16).”

2. Sleep Can Help with Weight Control

Sleep has an impact on our hormones and our metabolism. One such hormone is ghrelin- a ‘hunger hormone’, and levels of this increase as we become sleep deprived, as our hunger and appetites are stimulated this can increase our risk of unhealthy weight gain and obesity. When we are receiving enough sleep, our moods are more upbeat and we feel more able to take on life and its challenges. Studies have shown that those of us who suffer from the inability to fall or maintain good amounts of sleep (insomnia) have a “tenfold higher risk of developing depression than people who get a good night’s sleep ( 17 ).”

3. Sleep Boosts Mental Wellbeing

Given that a single sleepless night can make you irritable and moody the following day, it's not surprising that chronic sleep debt may lead to long-term mood disorders like clinical depression and generalised anxiety disorder in adults.

When people with anxiety or depression were surveyed to calculate their sleeping habits, it turned out that most of them slept for less than 6 hours a night.

4. Sleep Prevents Diabetes

Studies suggest that people who usually sleep less than 5 hours a night have an increased risk of developing diabetes because it changes the way the body processes glucose, which the body uses for energy.

5. Sleep Increases Libido

Research suggests that men and women who don't get enough quality sleep experience a loss of libido (sex drive) and less interest in sex. Men who suffer from sleep apnoea – a disorder in which breathing difficulties lead to interrupted sleep – also tend to have lower testosterone levels, which can lower libido.

6. Sleep Wards Off Heart Disease

Long-standing sleep deprivation seems to be associated with increased heart rate, an increase in blood pressure and higher levels of certain chemicals linked with inflammation, which may put extra strain on your heart ( 19).

7. Sleep Increases Fertility

One of the effects of sleep deprivation is difficulty conceiving a baby- in both men and women- as regular sleep disruptions can cause infertility by reducing the secretion of reproductive hormones.

Tips for Better Sleep

  • Have a consistent sleep schedule

You should strive to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. In planning those times, make sure to budget time to get enough sleep. Once you've settled on your schedule, follow it closely, even on weekends. Stability in your sleep routine helps avoid fluctuations in your nightly sleep ( 17).

  • Avoid too much caffeine and alcohol

Caffeine and alcohol can stop you from falling asleep and prevent deep sleep. Try to cut down on alcohol and avoid caffeine close to bedtime.

  • Try relaxation techniques

Engage in activities such as a bath or reading a book before bed. For relaxation techniques, try controlled breathing, mindfulness meditation, progressive muscle relaxation.

  • Confront sleeplessness

If you are lying awake unable to sleep, do not force it. Get up and do something relaxing for a bit, and return to bed when you feel sleepier.

  • Exercise regularly

Being active can help you relax more with energy expenditure and promote better sleep ( 18 ). Try not to exercise too close to bedtime as it may hinder your ability to effectively settle down before sleep.

  • Avoid late meals

It’s harder for your body to relax and wind down when it’s digesting a big meal. Try to avoid late dinners and opt for a light and healthy snack if you are craving an evening snack. Check out our menu for some delicious meal options!

  • Disconnect from your screens

Turn off those phone and laptop screens at bedtime as they can keep your brain stimulated and wired. Disconnect from your screens for 30 minutes or more before bedtime.

  • Create a restful environment

Dark, quiet and cool environments generally make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep.

  • Write down your worries

If you often lie awake worrying about tomorrow, set aside time before bed to make a list for the next day. This can help put your mind at rest.

  • Be careful with naps!

If you nap for too long or too late in the day, it can throw off your sleep schedule and make it harder to get to sleep when you want to. If you do need a nap, try not to nap for more than 20 minutes.

  • Create a dark room

Excess light exposure can throw off your sleep! Blackout curtains over your windows or use a sleep mask to block out light.

  • Keep noise to a minimum

Peace and quiet is an important part of building a good sleeping environment. Earplugs or headphones are a good option for blocking out sounds when you're trying to sleep.

  • Have a bedtime routine

Get yourself ready each night with the same steps such as quietly reading or stretching, and brushing your teeth. A steady bedtime routine can put you in the right frame of mind to sleep well each night.

Final Note

It’s time to get woke on sleeping. Creating good sleep habits and improving our sleep will benefit us in both the short and long term. Sleep is as important as breathing, so we must get it right! So, now is the time to climb into bed, turn your phone to sleep mode, your mini-series viewing to BE CONTINUED, shut the curtains, punch the pillow a few times and close your eyes... tomorrow is another day!

Author - Paulo Vaa

Writer & Podcaster

Posted in Health on