We need three things to live. Food, water, sleep. Without one of these three things our body begins to break down in various ways, and if we deprive ourselves long enough, we risk permanent damage or death. Yet when it comes to sleep, we tend to de-prioritize how important it is.
It doesn’t help that we’ve created cultural mythologies surrounding limited sleep. Saying we only need five hours of sleep, or being so busy that we don’t have time to sleep, have become points of admiration rather than the health concerns that they should be.
That’s not to say there’s a magic number when it comes to sleep. After all, sleep is all about the quality, not the quantity. But when we cram our days so full we deliberately limit the amount of time we schedule for sleep, the odds that we are achieving the level of sleep we need to restore and repair our bodies and brains is monumentally low.
The Cycles Of Sleep
During the course of the night, we move through several sleep cycles. They last around ninety minutes and consist of four stages of sleep. Stages 1–3 is when we move from light sleep to deep sleep. Stage 1 is when we experience the lightest sleep. Our breathing is regular, our muscles are active but relaxing, and our brainwaves are slighter lower than when we’re awake.
In Stage 2, we move into a deeper sleep, making it harder to wake us up. Our heartbeat slows, breathing deepens, and body temperature drops. Our brain activity is lowered but still have spikes of activity, known as sleep spindles.
Stage 3 is our deepest sleep. Our breathing and heartbeats are at their lowest, and we are difficult to wake. This is the restorative sleep our body needs to feel refreshed the next day. We need this stage of sleep so much, that when we experience any level of sleep deprivation, this is the stage of sleep our body will spend the most time in when recovering.
Finally we reach the REM — Rapid Eye Movement — stage, named because of our eye movements from side to side while we sleep. This is the stage where we sleep, and though we’re unconscious, our brain activity is similar to when we’re awake. Our muscles become paralyzed, preventing us from acting our what we dream and our breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure rise to our wake levels.
The amount of time we spend in each stage varies as we age. Typically, as we get older, we spend less time in REM and more time in Stage 2. Interestingly, we don’t move through the stages of sleep in order. We will move from stage 3 to stage 2 at least once before moving into REM and will usually move back into stage 2 after our REM stage is complete. We repeat our sleep cycles anywhere from 3–5 times a night.
Another common misconception when it comes to sleep is that our bodies shut down while we’re asleep. But the opposite is true.
Sleep is when our cells repair, energy is restored, hormones and proteins are released. Nerve cells reorganize and communicate throughout the body, which supports better brain and body health. We grow muscles and repair tissue damage. Our memories are shifted from short-term to long-term storage. And our brain is able to flush neurotoxin build-up from the day, specifically amyloid-beta, which has been linked to Alzheimer’s developing.
When we deprive ourselves of sleep, we are risking our health. Sleep deprivation has been tied to multiple physical and mental problems, including anxiety, depression, and heart disease. Lack of sleep increases the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and a weaker immune system. It throws our system off balance, causing weight gain, learning and concentration issues, poor balance, and reduced reaction times, which can lead to accidents.
Get through the night
Simply scheduling a certain number of hours isn’t the answer either. The goal is to get the right amount of quality sleep every night. In fact, a 2018 study out of the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania found that 25% of Americans experience some level of insomnia every year. And while that’s a large percentage of the population, the reasons behind insomnia can vary wildly between people.
Paying attention to our lifestyle is important if we’re having trouble sleeping through the night. Excessive caffeine throughout the day makes it difficult to go to sleep, and stay asleep. Drinking alcohol before bed can also disrupt our sleep. It may make us drowsy, but we’re likely to wake up from dehydration or other discomfort later in the night.
Depending on our day, we may be eating right before bed. Going to sleep with a full stomach can increase the risk of heartburn, which can wake us up or disrupt the sleep cycle enough to prevent feeling rested when we wake up. Even the type of medication we’re on could be impacting our ability to get a good night’s sleep. Talking to our health care professional could help find a better time to take medication or try a different variety that may not impact our sleep.
Blue light is also one of the things that disrupts our natural sleep cycle, and it’s in most of the screens we look at all the time. If we’re on our computer, scrolling on our phone, or even watching television, we’re letting in enough blue light to prevent our brain from releasing melatonin, a hormone necessary to fall asleep and stay asleep. In addition to disrupting melatonin, it produces cortisol, which wakes us up and keeps us awake. Limiting our screen time before we fall asleep can help fall into a deep, restful sleep faster.
Most importantly, getting exercise every day has enormous benefits on our sleep cycle. A study out of Northwestern University showed that steady exercise over a sixteen week period improved sleep time by a little over an hour a night. The key here is consistency. Random exercise won’t impact our sleep much, but if we dedicate at least two and a half hours of moderate aerobic exercise combined with mild resistance training, over time we will see noticeable changes to our sleeping patterns.
Give your mind a break
Stress happens to all of us. We go to bed thinking of tomorrow’s meeting, our kid’s little league schedule, upcoming bills, conversations that made us unhappy or uncomfortable. It’s impossible to simply turn our brain off, like a switch, and go to sleep. And when we try, we end up tossing and turning, which usually creates more anxiety as we then begin to think about how tired we’ll be the next day.
The good news is, there’s a powerful technique that can quiet our mind: meditation.
Meditation may seem intimidating, more so when less than 15% of Americans consistently practice it. But there are numerous apps and programs available to make it easy and accessible for anyone. And the benefits are incredible.
When we meditate we learn to control our wandering thoughts, focusing on the present. The primary benefit is lower stress levels, as meditation lowers cortisol levels. This is the hormone responsible for keeping us awake, so lowering the amount in our bodies helps us relax, allowing us to fall asleep.
But stress management is only one benefit to meditation. Studies have shown meditation is beneficial to our physical health, lowering blood pressure, anxiety, and even reducing chronic pain. It has even been shown to physically change the brain, increasing activity in the left prefrontal cortex — where positive emotions are associated, strengthening neural connections, and thickening the cerebral cortex.
Not getting enough sleep can lead to a number of health problems including increased blood pressure, heart disease, weight gain, anxiety, depression, and more. It can cause us to lose focus and lack concentration, leading to difficulties in our work and personal lives. Paying attention to the quantity and quality of our sleep is essential in not only maintaining our physical health but is vital in our mental health as well.