Welcome to my new wellness series! This week, we’re taking a brief detour from discussing the many benefits of emotional intelligence and instead we’re going to focus on a different, but not unrelated subject: Wellness. Included in the aspiration for stronger emotional intelligence is a journey of self-care, especially in working to improve how we feel physically, mentally and emotionally. Part one of this wellness series is going to be on the science of sleep. Better sleep is closely tied into overall health and wellness in some fascinating ways. How we think, how we function, and how we feel are all affected by our sleeping choices.
Sleep is also one of the most difficult things to keep consistent and can sometimes not only feel completely out of our control but actually be out of our control. Anyone who has cared for a baby has experienced the reality of being out of control over how much sleep is possible. But also, how often have we spent the night tossing and turning, our worries exacerbating our difficulty falling asleep? When we let our sleep get away from us and fall out of our priority list, the results can be disastrous, sometimes even deadly. Let’s dive into the science of sleep and how to improve your wellness with better sleep. We’ll also explore many of the issues some of us may be facing.
Stages of Sleep
Sleep is one of the most fascinating things we do. I’m serious! It consumes a large portion of our lives. On average, people spend a third of their lives sleeping. Our brains are in a state of unconscious activity while our bodies continue to function. Perhaps the most fascinating part of sleeping is dreaming. Our minds create imaginative scenarios that can feel so real they can affect us deeply and stay with us while we’re awake. There’s a lot to say about sleep, but before we do, it’s important to understand the science of sleep.
When we fall asleep, we go through cycles of different levels of sleep several times in any given night. The first part of the sleep cycle is REM or rapid eye movement sleep. I’m sure many of you have heard this term before, but may not fully understand what it means. Contrary to the deep sleep stage, in REM sleep the heart rate increases, breathing quickens, and temperature regulation no longer functions. This is the stage where dreams are most likely to occur and this stage can benefit memory, learning, and problem solving. In a general sense, the brain has a chance to do inventory over the things it experienced the previous day and to learn from them.
The next stage is light sleep, sometimes called non-REM sleep. This is when our mind begins to proverbially shut down and our body begins to react accordingly. Muscles relax, breathing slows down, body temperature decreases, and heart rate decreases. This is the point when our brain has given the “all clear report” for the rest of the body to prepare for even deeper, better sleep.
What follows is the stage of deep sleep, also considered part of the non-REM sleep. This is the critical stage of sleep where the muscles repair themselves, the brain flushes waste products from its system, and blood pressure drops. All these signs are indicative of meaningful, restorative, better sleep and contribute to improvements in overall health. When awoken from this stage of sleep, it is common to feel disoriented and groggy because the brain has to rapidly adjust all at once, rather than move through the different stages of the sleep cycle naturally. And this is not the final stage of the sleep cycle.
In an ideal night of sleep, the body cycles through all these stages 4-5 times for about 90 minutes each time. The first few cycles will go all the way through every stage, but by the 3rd to 5th cycles, the final stage of the sleep cycle, the brain may forgo deep sleep in favor of more REM sleep. In general, we spend most of our sleep time in the light sleep stage, followed closely by the REM stage. While it is impossible to control how long you spend in each stage, it is important to understand exactly what’s happening when you sleep and what your priorities should be for achieving restful and invigorating sleep.
The Forces of Sleep
To understand how our bodies respond to sleep, it’s important to dive into the forces behind our natural sleep cycles and the importance of maintaining them. There are two main processes that regulate sleep, the circadian rhythms and sleep drive. Both are essential to understanding what can happen to both body and mind when we disrupt or neglect our sleep schedules.
The circadian rhythm is the natural process that regulates our daily cycle between being asleep and being awake. It’s the force that causes you to be asleep at night and awake during the day, mostly responding to light cues with chemical and hormonal signals. Its defining characteristic is that the circadian rhythm controls the release of the sleep-inducing chemical melatonin in the human body when it senses that it is nighttime and there are no light sources present.
This is different from the sleep drive, which is the process the body goes through to put itself to sleep when it is deficient in restful sleep. When we pull an all-nighter, the reason we start falling asleep in class the next day is because of our sleep drive chemically inducing sleep. It does this by triggering the release of a chemical called adenosine, which causes us to feel tired and is gradually reduced while we sleep making us feel less tired when we awake. Interestingly, caffeine has been shown to block the release of adenosine, which could explain part of why it makes us feel more awake.
Sleep Problems and Better Sleep
These natural forces govern our ability to stay awake and dictate when our body shuts down due to lack of sleep, but if the body can manage this on its own, then what’s the need for a regular sleep schedule? Why go against our body’s natural sleeping schedule in favor of a more structured one? This next section will go into detail about what can happen when we ignore the science of sleep and don’t maintain a healthy sleep schedule.
Sleep deprivation is no joke. The record for being awake is around 11½ days and scientists won’t push test subjects much further than that. People suffering from Fatal Familial Insomnia (FFI), a genetic condition where you can’t fall asleep, usually can only last a few months before the condition kills them. But these are obviously the most extreme cases and as we all know, one night of bad sleep every now and then isn’t a huge health risk; the bigger risk comes from consistent lack of sleep. And this is something scientists are continually learning more about.
Research suggests that sleeping less than 7 hours on average can lead to memory issues, mood changes, risk of accidents, weakened immunity, high blood pressure, risk for diabetes, weight gain, risk of heart disease, and poor balance, just to name a few. Inability to sleep can have many different origins and root causes. Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, insomnia, night terrors, sleepwalking, circadian rhythm disorders, and narcolepsy are all notable conditions that can make sleeping difficult. If you suspect you may have any of these disorders as the root cause of your sleep disruption, then seeking professional help is the best way to go. These are things that can’t be cured on their own and require a professional’s guidance.
Next week, I’m going to go over the many wellness benefits of getting better sleep and a whole host of ideas for achieving that goal. For now, it’s a good idea to simply consider how your sleep routine is and what might be causing any disruptions. By identifying the problem, we may be able to better address it in the long run. We spend a third of our lives sleeping, so let’s do what we can to make sure that time is used as best as possible! Let me know in the comments if you’d like to share anything about what your sleeping issues have been and what has worked for you to overcome them!