We all know we need it. We fight for it, but it sometimes feels like we never get enough.
But, the questions is, why is it so important? What exactly happens when we sleep? And finally, how the heck do we get as much as we need?
Why is sleep so important?
Sleep gives our body a chance to restore the functions we need to survive. It boosts our immune function and our nervous system capability. Getting good quality sleep helps with memory, mood and our ability to solve problems. Scientists believe this has to do with the fact that, during deep sleep, the decision-making part of our brain turns off. Other healing occurs all over our body as well. Sleep is involved in the repair of heart and blood vessels, helps maintain a healthy balance of hormones (which controls your blood sugar), supports growth hormones which boost muscle mass and repair tissues. Sleep is when the construction workers inside your body come out and fix all the high traffic areas and make sure things can keep functioning while you’re awake.
What exactly happens when we sleep?
Sleep has four stages that cycle throughout the night:
1. Light Sleep
This first stage is very cool. It seems inconsequential, but many studies link this stage wtih creativity. As your body and brain transition from the outer world to the inner world, your mind makes connections. We can have hallucinations, jolt awake from hypnic myoclonia and maybe even notice colors, smells and images that aren’t really there. This is the stage that many meditators seek. It is a stage of allowing.
2. Slow Sleep
This second stage is a very slow and quiet stage. Our body temperature drops, our eye movement stops and our brain waves become slower. We disengage from the outside world and from decision-making and begin to breath more slowly.
3. Deep Sleep
The third stage is our deepest and most restorative stage. Our blood pressure drops, our breathing slows, and our muscles become relaxed. Growth hormones get released which help with the restoration of muscle tissue. Energy is restored.
About 25% of our night is spent in REM sleep. At the point that we enter REM, our breathing becomes rapid, irregular and shallow. Our eyes jerk rapidly, yet our limb muscles become temporarily paralyzed. This stage is characterized by dreams. It is thought that the limb paralysis is a built-in measure that protects us from injury while we dream. It is thought that dreaming in REM enhanced our daytime performance by enabling us to make connections and attribute meaning in ways that become difficult during wakeful times when we have sensory information taking up most of our processing.
How the heck do we get as much sleep as we need?
- Avoid chemicals that alter your brain state. This means avoiding caffeine, nicotine and other stimulant drugs six hours before bedtime. Alcohol may help you fall asleep, but after a few hours it can act as a stimulant as well.
- Make your bedroom a sleep sanctuary. Make it quiet, dark and cool. Paint it a tranquil color.
- Establish a routine. This sets your body up for going to sleep. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time, avoiding sleeping in on weekends.
- Turn off electronics. Light from devices can keep you from falling asleep. It messes with your brain’s production of melatonin
- Exercise. People who exercise more sleep better.
- Think about pleasant things. Avoid complicated events in your life and try to imagine beautiful scenes as you drift off.
Hopefully, by better understanding how sleep functions and trying out a few tips, you can work your way to a better night’s sleep. And this, in turn, will help you not only survive, but to thrive in your everyday life.