By Professor Marc Cohen, RMIT Professor and spokesperson for Flordis
In our 24/7 always ‘on’ world, a full night of good quality sleep can be rare. We all seem to cut corners, reach for sugary foods, and consume coffee to fend off tiredness, all while often messing with the important and complex sleep journey that our bodies and minds are designed to take to remain healthy and function optimally.
So what actually happens during a quality night’s sleep? On a good night, we cycle four or five times through different stages of sleep.
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There are five stages of sleep: 1, 2, 3 and 4 – collectively called non-REM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep – and then the fifth stage, called REM sleep.
Usually a complete sleep cycle that moves from stage 1 to REM takes an average of 90 to 110 minutes, and each stage generally causes distinct changes in the body.
Stage 1 – this is light sleep where you can be easily awakened. Eyes move slowly and muscle activity slows.
Stage 2 – eye movement stops and brain waves become slower. The body begins to prepare for deep sleep. Body temperature drops and the heart rate slows.
Stage 3 – this is deep sleep. At this stage, extremely slow brain waves called delta waves are interspersed with smaller, faster waves. It is during this stage that a person may experience sleepwalking.
Stage 4 – deep sleep continues as the brain produces delta waves almost exclusively. People roused from this state can feel disoriented for a few minutes.
REM Sleep – this is the stage when dreams occur. During this time brain waves mimic activity in the waking state. The eyes remain closed but move rapidly from side-to-side, perhaps related to the intense dream and brain activity that is occurring.
People experiencing sleeplessness – difficulty falling asleep or maintaining sleep – can be robbed of restorative sleep. This can result in daytime tiredness, poor attention, irritability, and feelings of lethargy.
As most people who suffer sleeplessness will tell you, getting a good night’s sleep is at the top of their list, but like most difficult tasks, it’s not an overnight fix.
Tap into your circadian rhythm
Understanding how your internal body clock – or circadian rhythm – works, is a good place to start when looking for ways to beat sleepless nights.
We all have an internal master clock—a group of 20,000 neurons in our brain just above the point where the two optic nerves from the eyes meet. This master clock controls our circadian rhythms, responding to light and regulating when we sleep and wake.
Circadian rhythms vary from person to person, meaning that those who claim to be night owls and like to sleep in, aren’t necessarily lazy, but are actually may be subject to different circadian rhythms than those who rise early.
Listening to your body and working in sync with your circadian rhythm can make for a more productive day and also help optimise quality sleep. If your workday allows for some flexibility, it’s worth altering your day accordingly. Failing that, there are still some changes you can make to help improve sleep quality.
Practice good sleep habits
- Stick to a consistent sleep schedule – Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day sets the body’s internal clock to expect sleep at a certain time every night. Try to stick as closely as possible to your routine on weekends to avoid a Monday morning sleep hangover.
- Limit your tech use before bed – Computers, phones and televisions all emit blue light, which promotes wakefulness, even more so than natural light. Try to put devices down at least one hour before bedtime.
- Reach for the right sleep aid – If your health professional has ruled out any underlying medical conditions for sleeplessness, a herbal supplement could help.
- Pay attention to lighting – Light plays a key role in controlling your circadian rhythm. In the morning, with exposure to light, our body’s internal master clock sends a signal to raise body temperature and produce hormones like cortisol to help wake you up.Try to get plenty of natural light within two hours of waking and keep yourself exposed to bright lights or sunlight throughout the day. At night, try to decrease the amount of light you expose yourself to so your body can naturally release the hormone melatonin, which promotes sleep.
- Avoid stimulating activities close to bedtime – Doing work, discussing difficult issues and exercising can cause a rise in the hormone cortisol, which can keep you awake.
By following these steps, you will be able to reset your body clock to improve your sleep cycle, stress levels and overall health by ensuring a quality night’s sleep.