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The science behind a good nights sleep

women sleeping on side in bed

Sleep is more than just a time for rest, the importance of sleep extends to almost every area of human physiology, physical processes of the body undertaken mostly during sleep range from areas such as the healing of muscle and organ tissue, the regulation of blood pressure, the ability of the body to regulate and respond to blood sugar levels along with the balance and delivery of specific hormones and chemical messengers. Mentally, sleep allows the brain to process thoughts, thought processes, store new experiences / memories, enhance emotional responses, along with optimising the connections between brain and body functions.

Ongoing sleep deficiency is a great risk to society, and in the modern day where a good nights sleep is becoming an elusive luxury, we are seeing an ever increasing prevalence of disorders such as heart and kidney disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and stroke.

Mentally, the effects of lack of sleep affect almost every aspect of the mind, from the ability to make clear decisions to attention span deficits, increased stress, anxiety and irritability, poor emotional responses, to more serious aspects such as depression, generalised anxiety disorder and even psychosis.

Some studies have shown that obtaining less than 4 hours sleep per night provides almost no benefit to our health, and with prolonged sleep within this range, negative effects begin to take hold.

The preferred level of sleep is between an absolute minimum of 5 and a maximum of 9 hours. This is because of the brain while asleep performs a variety of tasks under different brain wave states, and each of these states needs to be present for a specific amount of time each night for our bodies functions to be able to repair and recover.

Sleep and the effects of various brain wave stages

You may have heard of REM stage sleep before, this stands for Rapid Eye Movement and is a phase of somewhat chaotic and high-frequency brain waves which are most noticeable due to visible, rapid eye movements while asleep. REM is a sign that an individual is in a deep sleep state. However there are other areas of sleep associated with different brain wave patterns.

Beta brain waves are most commonly present while completely awake, and are associated with the ability to perform basic wakeful tasks, too much time spent in the beta state is known to create symptoms of stress and anxiety, while too little is commonly associated with symptoms of depression and poor cognition.

A stronger frequency of brain waves is known as Gamma waves, which are prevalent at times while awake when memory, learning and information processing is taking priority. Too long or too little amount of time the brain spends in a Gamma wave state is associated with similar negative effects as that of Beta waves.

Upon heading to bed, your brain moves from Gamma and Beta states, into a more uniform wave pattern known as Alpha waves, this brain wave state begins to bridge the gap between conscious thinking and the subconscious mind, it also induces a feeling of deep relaxation, and is the bridge between wakefulness and sleep.

Following the experience of the Alpha brain wave state, the brain then proceeds further into what is known as the Theta state, which produces an effect on the body of deep relaxation and hypnosis. The individual experiencing Theta waves can still be awake, and this state is known to produce enhanced creativity, intuition and a natural feeling of euphoria / well-being. The theta state is one of the most important for healthy daily function, too little provokes poor emotional awareness, both in self-awareness and in the observation of others, along with increased stress and anxiety.

The final sleep phase before REM is known as the Delta state. As we age, along with during the prevalence of psychological problems such as stress and anxiety, the brain becomes less accustomed to entering this stage. However, it is one of the most important sleep stages for regaining energy exerted during the day. Mentally a complete lack of Delta brain wave stage results in the inability to recover from stress and anxiety symptoms, leading to their continuation from day to day.

Throughout sleep, the brain normally fluctuates between Alpha, Theta and Delta stages, before entering REM, which is a combination of Gamma and Beta waves, each stage lasts around 5 minutes, and cycles continually throughout the night.

It is this continuation of various patterns which allow our bodies to both physically and mentally recover for the following day, and is vital to our overall health.

Health conditions such as sleep apnoea, continually interrupt this cycle throughout the night, causing problems for everyday health if not corrected.

Also important to note is the use of sedative drugs, although they can be important sometimes in the short-term, are known to alter sleep brain wave patterns significantly, especially the time spent throughout each sleep stage, there is also evidence they may even block entirely the Delta state in some people.

Sleep Hygiene

The awareness of correct sleep hygiene is becoming more common as the modern stresses of life begin to take hold and produce negative effects upon our health. Sleep hygiene involves a few common practices to ensure you obtain the best sleep possible and can assist you to avoid the health complications of poor sleep.

Sleep hygiene involves 6 equal levels of importance when it comes to maximising the benefits and ability to obtain a good night’s sleep, by following these steps, health problems related to sleep, both short and long term, can usually be avoided entirely.

For individuals where some of these stages pose a problem, addressing some of the other areas can also help to bring your sleep more in-line with a healthy sleep process.

1: Maintain a regular sleep schedule.

Ensuring you head to sleep, and also wake up, at the same time each day ensures the body produces a regular sleep pattern. By sleeping at the same time each night, the body begins to produce sleep hormones at the same time, roughly beginning around 6 hours before sleep occurs.

Sleeping at a different time each day often upsets this rhythm, and the beginning of the production of melatonin can be affected. While most of us only think of sleep as occurring at the end of a day, the body sees it as a continual and recurring pattern over 24 hours, of which the production of melatonin begins a long entrance into the preparation for sleep, and enables the sleep process to become one of a deep and restorative phase.

2: Prepare for sleep for around 30 minutes to 1 hour before heading to bed

Lowering the sensory input of your surroundings for 30 minutes to 1 hour before heading to bed is a great method for signalling to the body that sleep should begin. To achieve this, you should dim lights around you, lower any sources of noise, and do not partake in, or at minimum lower your exposure to, any situation or activity which may provoke excitement, stress or anxiety. By doing this for 30 minutes to 1 hour before sleep each night, the body can use this experience to signal the onset of your sleep phase and will provide a much more relaxing, lasting and restorative sleep.

3: Avoid naps during the day, especially in the afternoon.

If you regularly feel tired throughout the day, unless in a situation where a short nap is required, such as driving on a long journey to maintain concentration, try to keep yourself awake throughout the day until bed time. Morning naps or rests involving laying back and closing the eyes for 15 minutes or more may be fine. However, if this is conducted in the afternoon, it can often lead to the inability to enter into the sleep phase easily that night.

4: Exercise assists sleep

Lack of exercise not only produces unspent energy levels throughout the day, which lingers at night time but also affect the bodies signal for requiring a good amount of sleep. By exercising daily, even for as little as a short 30 minute walk, the body releases endorphins, which promote relaxation and euphoria, along with also providing a signal to the body that a good night’s rest is required at the end of the day.

5: Restrict sensory input as much as possible within your room overnight

When it’s time for lights out and sleep, your body requires as little noise as possible to reliably initiate the sleep phase and to obtain the ability to keep you asleep for the full night. Ensuring your room is light free, and free from distracting sounds, such as clocks ticking, or something such as having the tv on in the background, even in another room while you are sleeping is very important.

Where this is not possible, such as when a partner has an issue with snoring, some preparation may be required, ear putty is normally the best method as it seals the ear shut completely, and should eliminate the majority of the noise. If you live in an apartment and there are street lights outside, upgrading to buying some high-quality blinds, or even wearing eye shades can help a lot.

Some people, however, prefer some noise to get them to sleep, in these cases, it is important to understand that a constant and stable sensory input can be just as helpful as no sensory input, regarding noise; this is commonly this is referred to as white noise. White noise is a constant, stable noise and can promote sleep in some people just as well as no noise at all. Devices which commonly emit a constant white noise are items such as humidifiers, fans and air purifiers, and can assist people who struggle with no noise environments to get to sleep and maintain sleep quality.

6: Sleep on a high-quality mattress and use quality pillows

Many people overlook the importance of a good quality mattress and pillows or invest in such things without realising when it has come time to replace them. Most high-quality mattresses will last for up to 10 years before needing to be replaced. However, lower quality ones may expire in as little as 2 to 3. Mattresses should not only be comfortable, but support your body correctly when laying down. You should not sink into the mattress at a central point, but rather the shape of your body should sink evenly, so your back is straight when laying down either on your side, back or stomach.

In the same way, neck support from high-quality pillows are very important, many people who use low quality pillows often double or triple up on them, however it is often worth spending a good amount of money on one to two pillows which allow your head to rest comfortably, but also support your neck evenly.

In the case of a quality mattress and pillows, the investment is one of your overall health, and sleeping with an either of low quality or past their lifespan, will degrade your sleep quality considerably.

Just as buying an ergonomic office chair is shown to prevent back and muscle injuries to office workers, a high-quality mattress, and pillows will improve your overall health and well-being.

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