The Science of Sleep: Part 1
The Science of Sleep: Part 1
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We spend a third of our life doing it, we have rooms and furniture dedicated to it, it is essential for good health and optimal physical and mental performance, yet few of us understand it. We are, of course, talking about Sleep. Therefore, in this article we are going to explore the phenomenon of Sleep, explain why it is important for health and performance, and tell you how you can improve it.
What happens when we Sleep?
Essentially, we are unconscious, as we are not aware of what is happening around us. During this time, we pass through different stages of Sleep. The two main ones are referred to as Rapid Eye Movement, (REM) Sleep, and Non-Rem Sleep.
Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep
REM Sleep accounts for approximately one fifth of our total Sleep and comes and goes throughout the night. During this time, our muscles are relaxed but our brain is very active; we dream and our eyes move rapidly from side to side.
The majority of the time we spend asleep is in Non-REM Sleep. Although our brain is quiet during this stage, our body tends to move around more. It is during Non-REM Sleep that a number of hormones are released and the body repairs and recuperates. We will look at this in greater detail a little later.
Non-REM Sleep consists of three stages:
- Pre-Sleep: This stage is characterised by a drop in body temperature accompanied by a reduction in heart rate and relaxation of our muscles
- Light Sleep: During light sleep we can wake easily without feeling confused
- Slow wave or deep Sleep: During slow wave Sleep our blood pressure falls, and we may talk or Sleep walk. It’s difficult to wake from this this stage of Sleep. If somebody does wake us, we tend to feel confused
Typically, we move between REM and Non-REM Sleep about 5 times during the night. Although we may feel that we dream throughout the night, this tends to happen more towards the morning.
Although we might not be aware of it, it is quite normal to wake up for approximately one or two minutes every couple of hours throughout the night.
Why do we need to Sleep?
Sleep is essential for good health and performance. For example, getting sufficient Sleep helps to reduce the risk of developing a number of serious medical conditions including obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It also helps to enhance the function of the immune system, making us less susceptible to illness.
Getting a good night’s Sleep is even more important for those engaged in strenuous exercise, as it is during this time that the body recovers from the exertions of the day and adapts to the exercise that it has been subjected to, making us fitter, stronger and leaner. For example, testosterone and growth hormone, two key hormones involved in maintaining and increasing muscle mass and helping to keep us lean, are released while we Sleep. Our speed, accuracy, and reaction time also benefit from sufficient Sleep.
It’s not just physical health and performance that benefits from Sleep, but also our mental wellbeing, memory consolidation, brain recuperation, and learning.
So, during the night when we are oblivious to the world and what is going on around us, our mind and body are busy recuperating from the exertions of the day and preparing us for the challenges of the day to come.
How much Sleep do we need?
The amount of Sleep we need is mainly dependent on our age. Babies tend to Sleep for about 17 hours each day, while older children may only need 9 or 10 hours each night.
Although some adults can get by with only 3 hours of Sleep per night, most need approximately 8 hours. However, if you’re engaged in strenuous exercise you may need 9 hours or more per night.
What happens if we don’t get enough Sleep?
Most of us will have probably had a sleepless night at some time, but other than making us feel tired the next day, it doesn’t have any significant effect on our health. However, in the long-term, insufficient Sleep can increase our risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and depression, in addition to fatigue and difficulty concentrating and decision making.
A lack of Sleep can also have a profound impact on our ability to train and adapt to exercise. For example, the decline in growth hormone levels associated with a reduction in Sleep quality and quantity can result in a loss of muscle mass, an increase in body fat and reduced exercise capacity. It may also inhibit the functioning of the immune system.
What causes poor Sleep?
Approximately one third of the population currently suffers from poor Sleep. This may be due to a variety of factors, ranging from something as simple as an uncomfortable bed to a serious medical condition.
- Lack of exercise
- Use of media devices before sleeping
- Sleep disorders
- Uncomfortable bed
- Bedroom may be too noisy, too hot or too cold
- Consumption of alcohol and drinks containing caffeine, such as tea and coffee
- Physical problems, e.g. heart disease, breathing problems, Parkinson’s disease
- Side effect of certain medication
What can we do to improve our Sleep?
There are a number of do’s and don’ts for getting a good night’s Sleep (1):
- Do make sure that your bed and bedroom are comfortable
- Do get some exercise. Late afternoon or early evening seem to be the best times as exercising later than this can disturb your Sleep
- Do try to relax before going to bed
- Do get up and do something relaxing, such as reading, watching television or listening to quiet music, if you are having trouble getting to Sleep, After, a while you should feel tired enough to go to back to bed
- Don’t go without Sleep for a long time. Always try to go to bed when you feel tired and stick to a routine of getting up at the same time every day if you can
- Don’t drink caffeinated drinks in the evening, as caffeine stays in your body for many hours after your last drink. Have your last cup of tea, coffee, or other caffeinated drink, by mid-afternoon
- Don’t drink a lot of alcohol. It may help you to fall asleep, but you are likely to wake during the night
- Don’t eat or drink a large amount late at night
- Don’t Sleep the next day if you’ve had a bad night; it will make it harder to get off to sleep the following night
- Don’t take slimming pills late in the day, as these often contain stimulants which can make it difficult to Sleep
- Don’t use drugs such as Ecstasy, cocaine and amphetamines, as they are stimulants and tend to keep you awake
Are there any natural remedies to aid Sleep?
People often turn to sleeping tablets to help them to Sleep, but they don’t work for very long, they tend to make you tired and irritable the next day, they lose their effect quite quickly, they are addictive, and their long-term effects are not fully understood (1).
However, for centuries various herbs and plants have been used to aid Sleep, which are now supported by scientific evidence.
Potent natural substances such as these are combined to create Sleep Supplements, which aid relaxation and help us to achieve good quality, uninterrupted Sleep.
Click here for The Science of Sleep: Part 2
Click here to learn more about What is a Sleep Supplement?