Sleep is a fundamental part of human life – so much so, that we spend roughly one third of our lives asleep. Yet for a long time, it remained a mysterious phenomenon that puzzled even researchers and scientists.
In recent years though, there have been significant breakthroughs in our understanding of what sleep is, what it is affected by, and how we can get the best out of it.
In this article, we’ll take a look at some interesting facts and recent discoveries about sleep – some of them might open your eyes.
What Happens When You Sleep?
What is sleep? It is a state of mind and body characterized by altered consciousness, reduced sensory activity, and inhibited voluntary muscle movements. While we have been long aware of the importance of sleep when it comes to getting rest, the exact mechanisms behind it have been the subject of research.
One of the recent discoveries is the importance of glymphatic system in sleep. We can look at it as a brain’s waste management system. Toxins are flushed from our brain as we sleep thanks to the glymphatic system, a series of tubes carrying fresh fluid into the brain and getting rid of the waste-filled fluid surrounding the brain cells. This process takes place primarily during the deep sleep NREM stage.
Sleep, although seemingly monolithic, is actually divided into four to six sleep cycles each night. Each of these cycles consists of light sleep, deep sleep – these fall under NREM sleep – and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.
The REM phase is where dreaming happens and makes approximately 20% of the whole amount of sleep. Your consciousness nears the awake state, but your body still experiences muscle paralysis, apart from eyes and muscles that control breathing.
Sleep cycles aren’t to be confused with circadian rhythms. For humans, these follow a 24-hour cycle. The most obvious circadian rhythm is the sleep-wake cycle – simply said, our body naturally wants to sleep at night and be awake during the day.
But there’s more that’s being affected by the hour of the day: for example, our appetite, body temperature or hormones. Synchronizing your lifestyle with your circadian rhythms can improve wellbeing on multiple levels – from avoiding drowsiness at work or reaching your exercise goal with ease, to achieving better mood throughout the day.
What Can We Do to Improve Our Sleep?
Is not getting enough sleep in the long term really that much of a problem? Even high-powered, successful people often have terrible sleeping habits, and still manage to perform. In reality, research shows poor sleep or lack thereof damages our body more significantly than one would think.
Not only do insomniacs become more prone to high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, and obesity, but insufficient sleep damages the brain. The cognitive functions like memory, judgement, and creativity become impaired, and symptoms of mental health issues worsen.
But what can we do if we simply cannot reach the desired quality of sleep no matter how much we want to (at least without taking addictive sleeping pills)?
The right sleep hygiene can be the answer. Some lucky individuals can fall asleep virtually anywhere and within a couple of minutes. If this is not your case, try to incorporate these changes into your nightly routine.
Limit your blue light exposure
Majority of people use their mobile phone right before going to bed. It doesn’t matter whether you use it to play online casino games or read an e-book – the blue light from the screen still affects you and leads to a lowered quality of sleep.
Let’s circle back to circadian rhythms. Our bodies are attuned to sunlight, and naturally we’d get blue light from the sun. Therefore, blue spectrum makes us feel alert and awake – exactly what we don’t want after bedtime. Try warm-toned light instead, as it doesn’t inhibit melatonin.
Reroute your train of thought
When you struggle to fall asleep, checking the clock to count how many hours there are until your morning alarm rings, is probably the worst idea. Make effort to turn racing thoughts to calming ones or, even better, none. Meditation can seem forced at first, but your brain will adapt to it in time, resulting in fewer intrusive thoughts and improved sleep.
And even if you don’t fall asleep, you’ll at least get a few hours of deep rest – the second-best option after quality sleep.
The right food supplements
Let’s go back to melatonin, the sleep hormone. Its production naturally increases in the evening hours but can also be supplemented in the form of tablets in case of sleep difficulties or misaligned circadian rhythms, for example in shift workers.
Other supplements promoted to help with sleep are for example magnesium bisglycinate, valerian extract, ashwagandha or tryptophan.