Our lives are so bound by time, by order. We are subconsciously measured by time, living minute by minute, working hour by hour. It may seem like we don’t have enough time in the day to be the perfect mom, finish the last load of laundry, start the dishes, or work on the next promotion; ultimately ending the phrase “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” This causes a vicious cycle allowing an individual only 4-5 hours of sleep a night. Dr. William Dement quoted, “You’re not healthy, unless your sleep is healthy.” If you are an individual living the life that was explained above you will begin to realize being the perfect mom is becoming exhausting, resulting in an extra cup of coffee added to the day or requiring the use of medication to help your brain focus on the new promotion. In reality all that is needed to fix these problems is more sleep. Being a healthcare professional I rehab patients who have recently undergone surgery or an injury that is limiting them from performing at 100%, exactly what happens to our function when we don’t get the adequate amount of sleep per night.
First let’s discuss the cycles we progress through as we sleep. There are two cycles Rapid Eye Movement and Non-Rapid Eye Movement, I’m sure you have heard these phrases during your lifetime but weren’t quite sure what they meant. NREM has four different stages involved in the process, for the sake of this article I am going to focus on stage 3 and 4 or otherwise considered “deep sleep”. In this stage of the NREM cycle our blood pressure drops and our breathing becomes deeper and slower allowing our brain to experience little activity; ultimately resulting in an increased blood supply to the muscles. This phase is essential for restoring the body, hence why our muscles feel weak or fatigue sets in sooner when the proper amount of sleep is not accomplished.
The REM phase is the stage where we are able to remember our dreams; this is the most important phase of sleeping, as well as the shortest phase. During REM the body is able to restore organs, bones, and tissue as well as replenish our immune cells and circulate the human growth hormone. A lack of the REM cycle is particularly problematic for recovery as well as our physical well-being. If the human growth hormone is unable to be secreted due to difficulty progressing through the REM cycle we are more likely to catch a cold or wake up feeling groggy and ill. For example, secretion of the human growth hormone is critical to my patients’ rehabilitation process when recovering from post surgical work or even a minor strain to their hamstring muscle. It is during NREM “deep sleep” that the brain is resting with very little activity resulting in increased blood supply available to our muscles; which in response will deliver extra amounts of oxygen and nutrients assisting in healing and growth. Muscles and tissues are then rejuvenated and new cells are regenerated during this phase of sleep.
Not only is the proper amount of sleep necessary for muscle and tissue recovery, but also for fundamental brain health. There was a recent study done on high school students that compared standardized test scores of students who began their school day at 8:00 a.m. and those students who began at 9:00 a.m. The results revealed those students who got one extra hour of sleep scored higher on the standardized tests compared to those students who began at 8:00 a.m. How is this? Getting longer hours of sleep allows for an individual to spend more time in the REM phase where memory consolidation takes place. In other words the brain is constantly making memories from our day whether it was a new task learned in school or even the emotional response to the way an individual treated you.
We are always making memories. In order to make the memories stick in the brain there are three stages that need to take place. The first is acquisition. This is where we learn or experience something new. Next, is consolidation. Here, the memory becomes stable in the brain. Lastly is recall. This is the ability to access the memory in the future. Both acquisition and recall occur during our awakened hours, where consolidation occurs during the REM cycle of sleep. This should be clear as to why the students who got an extra hour of sleep received higher test scores. Without adequate sleep the brain has a harder time absorbing and recalling new information or a learned task.
Not only is the suggested eight to ten hours of sleep crucial for muscle, tissue and brain health but also for weight control. Researchers have found that sleep and metabolism are controlled by the same sector in the brain. The hormone Leptin plays a key role in making us feel full; when we don’t get enough sleep our Leptin levels will drop, resulting in a hunger spike or an increased level of the hormone Ghrelin. The Ghrelin hormone has a main purpose to make us feel hungry. This can be a vicious cycle inevitably ending in weight gain. This would explain why crispy fries, a greasy cheeseburger, or a large pizza sounds indulging after a long night of finishing paperwork for the new job or a shortened night of sleep due to a crying baby. I just want to throw this major hint out there, if you are having trouble focusing, constantly experiencing fatigue and have difficulty controlling your weight; set an alarm on your phone to go to bed an hour earlier. Make it a goal to get eight to ten hours of sleep a night. I promise you will be functioning better at work, school, soccer game, and even through parenting.
Of course like anything in life there are a few components that can influence the cycles of sleep I had described above. No I am not talking about the crying baby or the dog that needs to go outside every hour. Every 21 year old has probably experienced this once or twice; alcohol is actually one of the biggest contributors to lack of sleep. Have you ever had a few drinks and felt like it was your cure to insomnia? Alcohol can actually help an individual fall asleep, but once asleep the REM cycle is interrupted or completely skipped when alcohol is in the blood stream. It’s no wonder why we wake up and feel groggy, have difficulty focusing, and feel like greasy food is the answer to feeling human again after a night of drinking. Not only does alcohol affect sleeping, but in obvious manners so do caffeine or stimulants such as nicotine, cocaine, and amphetamines. These cause hyperactivity in the brain not allowing for a full “deep sleep” in stage 3 and 4 of the NREM cycle. Like caffeine having our eyes stimulated by our smart phones right before bed can also be detrimental to dozing off into a deep sleep.
Simple Ways to Improve Sleep Hygiene:
- Try to go to sleep at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning.
- Choose a bed time when you typically feel tired and a time where you naturally wake up without the use of an alarm. If you still feel groggy when awaking you should consider going to sleep earlier an hour or two earlier.
- Control your exposure to light. Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone controlled by light exposure in order to regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Our brain will secrete more melatonin when it’s dark (making you more sleepy) and less when it is light (making you more alert).
- Regular exercise will help reduce anxiety and symptoms of insomnia as well as increase the amount our bodies spend in the deep (restorative) phase of sleep.
- Avoid drinking alcohol, caffeine, or inhaling nicotine prior to bed time. All of these substances will interrupt the REM phase of sleep or even completely skip the phase, resulting in symptoms such as difficulty focusing and increased hunger throughout the day.
- Try to perform deep breathing along with visualizing a peaceful and restful place to help reduce late night stress and over thinking.
- Lastly, keep your room cool, dark, and quiet.