We all know it feels great to have a restful night sleep, but is sleep really that important? The simple answer is YES! Yes, it is. There is no process in the mind or body that isn’t either wonderfully enhanced by sleep or obviously impaired by the lack of it.
In this article I will share with you;
Why is sleep so important? Why didn’t mother nature do away with-it thousands of years ago? Surely it is wasting time when we could be hunting for food, caring for our young or fighting off dangerous predators?
These questions have puzzled scientist for many years but recent studies have found that sleep is fundamental throughout the animal kingdom, from worms to mammals, and all life in between, we need to sleep.
Sleep is essentially our life support system, when our sleep is impaired, we can expect to see a decrease in our cognitive abilities, physiology and even life span.
Shockingly two thirds of adults in developed nations are not getting enough sleep, something which revered sleep scientist Dr Matthew Walker considers to be a global healthcare epidemic.
Sleep is categorised into two types, Non-Rapid Eye Movement (non-REM) and Rapid Eye Movement (REM). The categories are then divided into four stages:
Stage 1 non-REM sleep is the changeover from wakefulness to sleep. During this short period of light sleep, your heartbeat, breathing, and eye movements slow, and your muscles relax. From there our brain waves begin to slow down from their daytime wakefulness patterns.
Stage 2 non-REM sleep is a period of light sleep before you enter deeper sleep. Your heartbeat and breathing slow down, and muscles relax even further than stage 1. Your body temperature drops and eye movements stop. Brain wave activity slows but is interrupted by brief bursts of electrical activity. We spend more of our repeated sleep cycles in stage 2 sleep than in other sleep stages.
Stage 3 non-REM sleep is the period of deep sleep that you need to feel refreshed in the morning. It occurs in longer periods during the first half of the night, bringing your brain waves, breathing and heart rate down to their lowest levels. Your muscles are relaxed and it becomes more difficult to wake you up.
REM sleep first occurs about 90 minutes after falling asleep. Our eyes move rapidly from side to side behind closed eyelids. Mixed frequency brain wave activity are similar to when we are awake. Our breathing becomes faster and irregular, and your heart rate and blood pressure increase to near waking levels. Most of our dreaming occurs during REM sleep, although some can also occur in non-REM sleep. Our arm and leg muscles become temporarily paralysed, which prevents you from acting out your dreams. It is thought that as we age, we spend less time in REM sleep.
When we sleep our blood pressures starts to decrease. Those of us getting seven hours of sleep, or less, a night are at a higher risk of getting high blood pressure, which can lead to strokes and heart attacks.
Astoundingly this theory is being tested on billions of people every year through the process of daylight saving. Nobody likes the thought of losing an hour of sleep every spring time, but for some, losing that sleep has dangerous consequences. Studies have found that heart attacks increase by 24% every time the clocks go forward. In contrast, every winter when we gain an hour of sleep, heart attack numbers fall by around 21%.
When we go into dream sleep, the brain goes through a cleaning process in which many of the toxic chemicals that have built up during the day are removed.
One of the key proteins that are removed during the cleaning process is beta amyloid, a protein that scientist consider to be instrumental in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Natural Killer Cells (NKC) are immune cells in our body which identify and eliminate unwanted cells, such as cancer cells.
Every day the body is producing cancer cells but what stops these cells progressing into the disease are these NKC.
A recent study found that by reducing a group of individuals sleep to four hours for only one night, led to a 70% decrease in the number of NKC and resulted in a dramatically reduced immune system.
Another study found that after just seven nights of interrupted sleep, over 711 genes were distorted. Some of the genes were reduced and others were increased. The genes that were reduced were those relating to immunity and those that were increased were relating to tumour proliferation.
Every major disease that is killing us in the modern world has a significant causal link to a lack of sleep.
During sleep our body releases hormones into the blood stream which help to regulate our moods, affect how our tissue repairs and even our appetites.
When we get enough sleep our hunger hormones ghrelin and leptin are balanced and we do not have the urge to overeat.
On the other hand, sleep deprivation stimulates the brain to increase overeating of sweet and fatty foods, which often turns into binge eating.
The recommendation is that we need 7-9 hours per night. The need for sleep can vary somewhat but researchers have consistently found that we lose our cognitive abilities at seven hours or below.
Can we split our sleep or do we need it all at once?
Most of us are programmed to sleep for one single bout throughout the night.
However, there are some nomadic tribes who have what is known as biphasic sleep. Interestingly they have 6-7 hours of sleep during their first phase of sleep but then catch up on the remaining sleep during an afternoon nap.
The brain and body need the temperature to drop by 2-3 degrees to fall to sleep, as evening approaches this starts to naturally occur.
However, during the searing heat of the summer season, that drop in temperature may feel almost impossible.
To get a great night sleep try to keep your room well ventilated or even take a cold shower before bed.
Since the invention of the light bulb our sleep patterns have been taking a hit and over time, we have become a dark deprived society.
For us to time our sleep effectively, a hormone known as melatonin, or the vampire hormone, needs to be released. Melatonin works by encouraging your body to sleep – organising the assortment of different chemicals in our body which work together to prepare us for sleep.
Blue lights are especially damaging to preventing sleep. Studies have shown that reading from an ipad or phone in bed can disrupt your sleep by up to three hours and prevent your REM sleep from occurring, leaving you feeling exhausted the next day.
Darkness is fundamental to the release of melatonin. For a good night sleep, stop looking at blue lights on your phone or tablet well before bed and gradually start to turn off the lights around the house, mimicking the natural onset of darkness.
Everybody knows that caffeine makes us more alert, some of us may even feel that we function more effectively after our cup of coffee, but the problem with caffeine is the duration that it stays within the body.
Caffeine has a half-life of six hours, meaning that if you were to consume a cup of coffee at 6pm you will still feel half of the effects of drinking that coffee at midnight. Worse still, coffee has a quarter life of twelve hours, meaning that cup of coffee could be preventing you from sleeping well into the early hours of the morning.
If this is part of your afternoon routine, you could be reducing the amount of deep sleep you get by 25% each night. This small dent in sleep quality per night could be ageing you by around 20 years over your entire life.
If you feel you need caffeine to wake you up in the morning, then you are likely not getting good quality sleep in the first place. If coffee is an absolute must, the best time to consume caffeine is in the morning, cutting off your caffeine consumption after around three hours of waking.
During our busy modern lives, we can be cranked up into fight or flight mode on a daily basis.
Many of us may even get into bed and start thinking about work, or a problem that we need to solve and it can have a devastating effect on the mind’s ability to fall peacefully to sleep.
Meditation has been shown to calm the mind, bringing on the parasympathetic nervous system, which is known to allow the body to ‘rest and digest’.
Meditation involves focusing on your breathing and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future.
By maintaining a regular sleep pattern, you will naturally fall asleep easier when you get into bed and wake up easier in the morning, tuning in to your natural body clock.