How does sleep work? Does everything just stop? Well, sort of. When we are unconscious, the body still functions, and the brain is active. Biologically, it’s a complex process, but it helps to feel rested, process new information and stay healthy.
As we sleep, the brain goes through a five-stage cycle where something different occurs in each. In addition to the first four stages, we also experience REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. As technology improves, we learn more about each stage and that they can be very different for breathing, heart patterns, brain waves, and even body temperature.
While some stages of sleep will help us to feel full of energy the next morning, others will process information and form memories. Meanwhile, we have stages that give our heart and the vascular system a rest, release growth hormones, repair tissues and cells, and increase muscle mass.
Finally, we should also note that the sleep cycle will release sex hormones, which contributes to fertility (puberty for teens). By going through this cycle, we can stay healthy, prevent sickness, and create the hormones designed to boost the immune system; cytokines.
All sleep stages are essential for a healthy night’s sleep.
This is one of the most common questions you’ll find on the internet; how much sleep do we need? In truth, there’s no universal answer. Instead, it depends on our health, age, and lifestyle; we also have to consider our sleeping pattern as of late. General guidelines suggest;
- Adults - Between 7-8 hours
- Teens - Between 9-10 hours
- Children (School) - 10 hours minimum
- Children (Pre-School) - Between 11-12 hours
- Newborns - Between 16-18 hours
Once a teenager hits puberty, there’s a change in their biological clock and this is why they are more likely to go to bed later than both adults and children. However, teenagers still need more sleep, so they also tend to stay in bed longer in the mornings. At this stage, they still have school and are forced into waking early after a late night; this is why most teens are sleep-deprived.
Another popular question is: can adults still function as normal on less sleep? All the evidence points towards ‘no’ on this question. However, although there are no studies to suggest that older adults can operate on fewer hours than young people, it’s often the case that they’ll get less sleep or reach the deeper stages of sleep less frequently. Also, many older adults are awakened with little effort.
If you take one thing from any guide regarding sleep, it’s that the number of hours you sleep doesn’t necessarily mean anything. The quality of sleep is just as important. Even if you slept for eight hours, this might not be enough if your sleep was interrupted and you weren’t able to reach the deeper stages of sleep.
Do you get enough high-quality sleep? Answer these questions and you might find the answer;
- Do you have difficulty concentrating at work during the day?
- Do you have trouble getting up in the morning?
- Do you find yourself dozing in the early afternoon?
If it’s a ‘yes’ to these questions, you should be working on improving your sleep quality.
Side Effects of Poor Sleep
Unfortunately, there’s more to feeling tired when it comes to sleep deprivation. As we’ve just seen, it can affect concentration levels at school/work, reduce performance, and even impact your ability to form memories, react quickly, and make clear decisions. As a result, accidents are more prominent in people with sleep problems.
Additionally, poor sleep may lead to swift changes in mood and irritability causing problems with relationships. For adults, the irritability and bad decisions can lead to problems in family. For teenagers and children, it can break down relationships with parents and siblings.
Elsewhere, there are plenty of studies to suggest an impact of sleep on our physical and mental health. When we lack sleep, or high-quality sleep, our risk of the following increases;
Just to cap it off, other risks include a deficiency in the hormones that help children to grow and adults to build muscle mass, repair cells, and fight infections. Also, sleep deprivation magnifies the effect of alcohol. After drinking too much on a given evening, a person who is tired will feel the effects more than somebody who is well-rested.
Stages of the Sleep Cycle
Before we look at improving your sleep, we first need to understand how it all works. Essentially, sleep process can be broken down into two sections; non-REM and REM sleep. When we initially fall asleep, it starts with non-REM sleep before then moving to REM for a brief period. The cycle repeats itself throughout the night.
With the non-REM sleep, there are four different stages and each one aids the body in a different way. As an example, the first stage slows the brainwaves, allowing us to move into the deeper stages of sleep.
After around 90 minutes, we finally fall into the REM sleep (the fifth stage). As our eyes move rapidly from one side to the other (hence the name), this is where we experience dreams, paralysis in the limbs, and somewhat of a normal heart rate. As we keep going through the sleep cycle, the REM stages last for a longer period of time. Though starting short, they can eventually reach an hour at a time. On an average night, an adult will experience five to six REM stages.
Deep sleep and REM sleep are probably the most critical out of all sleep stages (though all of them are important). During these stages, the restorative functions take place and they allow us to wake up feeling energized in the morning.
Sleep Hormone - Melatonin
Often called the ‘sleep hormone’, melatonin is produced naturally by the body. It allows the body to slow right down in preparation for sleep. If we can get technical for a moment, the body has a circadian rhythm that controls when we wake, sleep, and even eat. Things other than melatonin will affect sleep, but it does have a huge impact on our circadian rhythm.
If you wonder why we feel tired much earlier in the winter, it happens because our bodies sense the darkness outside and start to produce more melatonin. As soon as the body senses light, melatonin production shuts down and we wake up to take on the day ahead.
For people experiencing sleep problems, there are some effective melatonin supplements that can be bought over the counter. By encouraging the production of melatonin, these supplements will attempt to get your sleep-wake cycle back into a normal position.
Of course, there might be side effects to these supplements so a discussion with your doctor is highly advised. If your doctor agrees with its use, the melatonin supplement can also reduce tinnitus symptoms as well as the heartburn, so it has an added benefit.
Achieving Better Sleep
Although it may sound simple, one of the most effective methods of improving sleep is by giving yourself more time to sleep. By going to bed earlier, and establishing a routine for the morning and night, you’re more likely to improve your sleep habits.
If you want to boost productivity from sleeping more, you might also want to avoid caffeine once it reaches mid-afternoon. In terms of exercise, this is a great way to tire the body (as long as you aren’t exercising too late in the day!).
Other tips include;
- Stop drinking alcohol before bed
- Stop napping after 3pm
- Avoid nicotine
- Remove all technology and distractions from your bedroom
- Avoid large meals late at night
- Find a way to relax before bed (this could be a bath, listening to music, meditation, or reading)
- Increase your sunlight exposure during the day (important for people who work from home)
- Keep the room cool
- If you can’t sleep after 20 minutes, get up and do something else to relax
If you’ve tried all of the tips above and still encounter problems, we recommend making an appointment with your doctor. If you have sleep apnea or insomnia, these conditions need to be treated. In serious cases, you might get a prescription for sleep aids or even take part in a sleep study to help diagnose the problem.
For people who do shift work, we understand that achieving good sleep is even more difficult. We recommend;
- Limiting caffeine intake to the first part of your shift
- Limiting the shift changes to help the body clock adjust to one or the other
- Increasing the available time for sleep (and taking nap)
- Removing all light and sound distractions from your room during daytime sleep
- Investing in light-blocking curtains
- Keeping the lights bright at work
Treating Sleep Problems
With short-term sleep problems, they can normally find a resolution with OTC (over the counter) treatments and changes to lifestyle. On the other hand, professional help will be necessary for chronic sleep issues. Ultimately, the treatment you receive will depend on the type of disturbances you are experiencing, the underlying problem, and whether this condition is old or new.
As well as lifestyle changes, the doctor will consider medical treatments. In the most severe cases, surgery may be required. Let’s look at some of the most common treatment options;
Natural Sleep Aids
For people who want to avoid medication, there are some natural alternatives you might like.
- Valerian - Firstly, valerian is actually sold as a dietary supplement. This plant extract has helped many people with their insomnia; however, this hasn’t been proven through research just yet.
- Melatonin - As a hormone designed to assist the sleep-wake cycle in the body, melatonin is another dietary supplement that has a history of helping the sleep deprived.
- Lavender - For many years, people have used lavender aromatherapy to get better sleep. Extracts of this beautiful purple flower also come as a supplement.
In truth, researchers are continually looking for natural ways to aid sleep and a simple search online will bring up many other suggestions for you to try.
Although not suited to long-term problems due to the risk of over-reliance, some people are able to relieve their short-term issues (such as stress and jet lag) with sleeping pills. Most OTC solutions are designed to regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Offering antihistamines in low doses, examples include Benadryl, diphenhydramine, Unisom (doxylamine succinate), and Aleve PM.
As well as the OTC solutions, doctors may offer a prescription for;
- Rozerem (ramelteon)
- Sonata (zaleplon)
- Restoril (temazepam)
- Ambien (zolpidem)
- Ambien CR (zolpidem extended release)
Since the risk of dependency is even higher with prescription drugs, it’s important to keep an open dialogue with your doctor.
If you’ve never tried meditation before, it’s essentially the idea of focusing on a specific objective or thought. Though it can be a little awkward at first, most people are able to relax through meditation which makes it the perfect exercise to perform before sleep.
Rather than going it alone, various tapes, podcasts, audiobooks, and YouTube videos will allow you to follow along to hypnotherapists, therapists, and other experts. These days, we can also look towards mobile apps for help. Alternatively, people who prefer human contact can team up with an instructor for a one-to-one session or class.
While on the theme of therapists, insomnia and other sleep disturbances can be resolved with CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy). By working with a specialist, you might be able to identify problems and correct invasive thoughts (or any other issues preventing your precious sleep!).
What does hypnosis offer? Well, it’s a way to get the mind and body to relax. Especially after a long, hard day full of stress, it helps in your sleep preparation. In some cases, it can even be employed to reduce the symptoms that come with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), chronic pain and other health conditions.
In order to enter this state of deep relaxation and focus, you’ll need the verbal cues of a trained hypnotherapist. From here, they can make deep sleep more accessible by training you to respond to certain suggestions.
If you’re someone who likes to play around with essential oils, we have three for you here that could help your sleeping habits.
- Clary Sage Oil - may boost relaxation and help the body to release all tenseness.
- Lavender - We’ve already mentioned Lavender, but it deserves another appearance in this guide since the essential oil may help the nervous system, encouraging more restorative sleep…this is exactly why many sleep-related products will contain lavender in some capacity.
- Sleep Blends - Finally, you’ll also find blends that combine lavender, chamomile, spruce, and other essential oils that offer relaxing properties.
Have you ever been lying in bed while your mind races with all the things you have to do the next day, week, and month? It’s perhaps not a surprise to hear that anxiety and stress are two of the biggest factors with insomnia and other sleep disorders. As well as finding it difficult to fall asleep, anxiety can also make restful sleep unattainable.
On the flip side, people with sleep problems can generate anxiety as a result. You sit all evening worrying about going to bed just in case sleep doesn’t come your way. If this is an occasional problem, we recommend trying lifestyle changes. In fact, something simple like a walk during the day can work wonders; as can limiting technology an hour before intended sleep. If your head is spinning with ideas and tasks, write a to-do list and try to empty the mind.
When the sleep problem happens every single night, this is where a chat with a doctor is required. They might suggest CBT, sleep aids, and other solutions.
At the four-month mark, people with babies may notice that their child starts to awaken in the night. Though frustrating, it is common and often called ‘four-month sleep regression’. Some babies don’t sleep through the night and nap less during the day.
To manage this issue, try to tire your baby out during the day; allow them to explore and engage with their environment. Also, ensure they’re well-fed because some babies will forget to eat while exploring their new world. A full belly can help them sleep longer. Finally, try to remove all light from their bedroom (they’ll be more likely to go back to sleep after waking!).
We wish you luck in resolving your sleep problems whether in yourself, a partner, a child, or even a baby. Try our advice and don’t hesitate to visit the doctor if it’s starting to affect your day-to-day enjoyment in life!