These Changes Will Help You Achieve A More Restorative Sleep Cycle
You ever wonder why we need sleep? This is a topic that has been heavily researched for decades. The general consensus from experts is that a sufficient amount of sleep is essential for optimal physical, mental and immunological health. Research also indicates that sleep aids in consolidating long-term memories, and plays a significant role in learning. When we acquire new memories (i.e., a formula in physics class, your to-do list for tomorrow or the first time you rode a bike), sleep helps lock this into learning. Its importance is further evidenced by understanding the risks of sleep deprivation which include increased weight gain, developing common illnesses such as the cold/flu, heart/lung/kidney disease, diabetes, inattention, poor cognition, memory impairment, depression, anxiety and premature death to name a few.
Before we explore the function of sleep, it’s imperative that we explore what sleep truly is. By definition, it is a naturally recurring state of relaxation characterized by an altered level of consciousness, impaired interaction with the surrounding environment, loss of voluntary muscle tone and relatively inhibited sensory activity.
There are four stages of sleep (Stage 1, 2, 3, and REM sleep). Studies show that when people are deprived of REM sleep (the restorative phase) it can affect a whole gamut of brain functions including execution of simple and complex tasks. During sleep, your body undergoes an array of changes, including cell regeneration, cognitive restoration, memory allocation, and memory retention. REM sleep is also the phase in which dreams occur most vividly, just think about all the amazing dreams you’ve missed out on due to a bad night’s rest.
So how much sleep is actually necessary? Experts generally recommend that adults sleep for 7 to 8 hours per night; although genetic variations and sleep tolerance may affect this average. As far as the ever so infamous “nap” goes, there’s actually a science to its madness. Contrary to what you may think, sleeping in itself is quite the exhausting process at a cellular level. Just think back to all the changes the body undergoes when you’re asleep as I’ve highlighted above, so much is going on at once! Being awakened at an odd interval during your sleep cycle can actually make you feel more unrested and fatigued; as I’m sure many of us have felt after a 3 hour long “nap.” This is why experts say the ideal nap length is around 20 to 30 minutes because this is a sufficient amount of time to get a quick boost of energy, gain a mental edge and ultimately increase productivity.
Sleep disorders are a common finding in medical practice and something I deal with on a daily basis. More often than not, most sleep disorders are a result of poor sleep hygiene and simple behavioral modifications can make a world of difference. One of the first things I recommend to all of my patients is maintaining a Sleep Diary. This is a record of ones sleep patterns and habits around bedtime. This journal can be a major help to the physician in making a diagnosis of a sleep disorder vs. poor sleep hygiene (which is far more common).
Below I’ve listed tips on how to establish healthy sleep habits:
Keep your circadian rhythm (internal clock) set by maintaining a regular sleep schedule
→ Your 24-hour internal clock, is regulated by the hypothalamus (a portion of your brain) and outside factors like light and darkness have a large impact on it. When it’s night time, your eyes send signals to the hypothalamus telling it that it’s time for you to feel tired. In turn, your brain releases melatonin, which makes your body tired. This is why maintaining a normal sleep/awake schedule is so important to allow your body to find its comfort zone. In contrast, as you can imagine, this is also why its’ so difficult for nightshift workers to obtain restorative sleep because their light cues are opposite to day shift workers but they have the same physiology as them.
Nap early or don’t nap at all
→ As mentioned previously, napping is restorative and a restored you likely won’t be tired enough when its actually time to fall asleep. This throws off your circadian clock and falling asleep at an appropriate time becomes difficult.
Avoid night time caffeine and stimulants
→ These chemicals increase your body’s metabolism and consequently flood your body with endorphins; all of these changes are essentially counterproductive to what your body is preparing you for prior to falling asleep.
Limit exposure to bright lights in the evening such as TVs and Cellphones
→ As per our discussion about the body’s circadian rhythm that responds to light cues, you want to avoid bright lights and other distractions during the evening time to allow your body to begin entering a more calm and relaxed state prior to dozing off.
Don’t get into bed unless you are actually sleepy and use your bed only for sleep and sex
→ This one may not seem that obvious, but humans are creatures of habit. There is a reason why we are able to adapt to things so quickly, whether that is conscious or subconscious. Doing homework, reading, watching TV, eating, etc. from your bed changes your body’s perception of what your bedroom is really used for. It no longer becomes a place of restoration and intimacy and takes on a bevy of other roles such as becoming your office, dining room or media center.
Turn your bedroom in to a sleep-inducing environment
→ You ever go to a spa? Ever wonder why the minute you walk in, your senses are flooded with an array of soothing aromas, intoxicating sounds of water running ever so gently, dim lighting putting you at ease and the soft touch of linens? Your body is bombarded with an abundance of stimuli on a daily basis, ranging from loud noises, to noxious odors and coarse fabrics; all of which are the least of pleasing. This is why making attempts to turn your bedroom in to a spa-like environment will make a world of difference. Humans spend 25-30 years of their life sleeping in total (that’s nearly 1/3 of the average human lifespan), so you owe it to yourself to spring a little extra cash for that 500 thread count bedsheet, curtains that will actually block light out and aromas that will aid in relaxation.
Avoid consuming alcohol before bed
→ We’ve all heard of the infamous “night cap” to help with falling asleep. There is some science to this but it can be misleading. Multiple studies have shown that alcohol does in fact allow healthy people to fall asleep quicker and deeper. However, alcohol actually reduces the amount of REM sleep you can achieve and as we’ve discussed previously, REM sleep is the restorative and dreaming phase…so the tradeoff may not really be worth it.
Exercise regularly and maintain a healthy diet
→ Exercise and diet play a large role in your quality and duration of sleep. Exercise expends energy and makes you feel tired which should theoretically make you want to fall asleep earlier. And remember, regular exercise is a natural and easy way to reduce stress which is a common cause of many sleep disorders. Furthermore, diet is also an important player in a good night’s rest. Strive to eat a well-balanced diet that consists of fruits, vegetable, whole grains, low-fat proteins that are rich in B Vitamins. Some healthy and nourishing foods are things like fish, poultry, meat, eggs and dairy. In addition, B Vitamins have been shown to regulate your melatonin levels, as mentioned before, this is a hormone that plays a vital role in sleep cycle regulation.
Most importantly, follow through with the plan. Stay consistent.
→ Like any form of change that one is trying to make in their life, it’s not going to happen overnight - no pun intended. You have to stay consistent, and find a routine that works for you! No two people have the same sleep pattern and for you to find the one routine that works for you will take trial and error. But trust me, once you find it, you will be glad you stuck with it and reap the benefits of a full night’s rest!
Ultimately, these are common fixes that everyone should try as they are simple and results can be seen almost instantly for some. Whether or not you suffer from a sleep disorder, these changes will certainly help you with achieving a more restorative sleep and help you tackle the challenges of your day to day.
At your next health checkup, tell your doctor how long and how well you sleep. Be sure to be honest: Sleep duration and quality can be as important to your health as your blood pressure or cholesterol levels.