Sleep 101: Understanding the Role of Sleep

If you think you’re managing just fine on four to six hours of sleep, but you just don’t feel up to par—you’re not sleeping as well as you used to, you’ve gained weight around your middle, you feel like your hormones are out of whack and you have no sex drive, you feel irritable, you forget things, and your body is in pain—you are probably underestimating your body’s need for sleep.

Sleep plays a far more critical role than most people realize. When you’re sleeping, your brain remains very active, regulating a number of activities and performing maintenance that helps jumpstart you the next day. The number of hours you sleep and the quality of sleep affect the amount of work the brain can accomplish. Without deep, restful sleep, you may feel like you’re dragging all of the time. Even skimping a little on sleep over time may rapidly lead to serious mental, emotional, or physical problems. The quality of your sleep is as important as the quantity and also affects how you function the next day—your mood, cravings, mental acuity, creativity, and physical strength, as well as fluctuations in weight and blood sugar.

No other activity provides as many benefits as sleep, and sacrificing sleep for anything else is simply not worth it. Ultimately, it comes down to the choice between productivity—getting just one or two more things done—and sleep.

How Much Sleep Do You Need?

According to the National Institute of Health, the average person today gets six and a half to seven hours of sleep. But given today’s hurried, jam-packed schedules, and overly complex lifestyles, it would not be surprising if the average person gets only six hours a night.

According to research and extensive sleep studies that examine optimal brain and body functioning, we need seven and a half to nine hours of sleep for rest, recovery, and rebuilding nightly, and more if we are stressed—especially emotionally. Children and teenagers require more than that, as they are still growing and developing neurologically and their brains need more time to rebuild.

How do you know if you are sleep-deprived?

If you are getting fewer than eight hours of sleep each night, chances are you’re showing signs of sleep deprivation. You may not even realize how much it’s affecting you. Here are some telltale signs that you’re not getting enough sleep:

  • You need an alarm clock in order to wake up on time
  • You rely on the snooze button
  • You get drowsy after heavy meals or when driving
  • You have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning
  • You feel sluggish in the afternoon
  • You fall asleep within five minutes of going to bed
  • You get sleepy in meetings, lectures, or in warm rooms
  • You need to nap to get through the day
  • You fall asleep while watching TV or relaxing in the evening
  • You feel the need to sleep in on weekends

The good news is that sleep is restorative. You can reverse the effects of aging by getting enough sleep over time. Contrary to what you might have heard, it is not all downhill once you hit thirty—sleep helps rebuild you every night and renews your brain and body daily.

The Effects of Sleep Deprivation

While most people don’t think twice about losing sleep or developing poor sleep habits, the effects of sleeplessness can be devastating to your personal and professional life, causing:

  • Fatigue
  • Lack of motivation
  • Weight gain and slower metabolism
  • Irritability, moodiness, and depression
  • Lack of creativity and problem solving
  • Inability to cope with stress—especially emotional stress
  • Frequent colds and sickness
  • Lack of concentration, memory, and inability to learn
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure

Common Myths about Sleep

Myth: Getting just one less hour of sleep per night won’t affect your ability to function during the day.

Truth: You may not be noticeably sleepy during the day. But even slightly less sleep can affect your ability to think properly and respond quickly and can compromise your cardiovascular health, energy balance, and ability to fight infections.

Myth: Your body adjusts quickly to different sleep schedules.

Truth: Most people can reset their biological clocks, but only with appropriately timed cues, and even then, by one to two hours each day at best. Consequently, it can take more than a week for your biological clock to adjust after traveling across several time zones or switching to the night shift. 

Myth: Extra sleep alone at night can cure your excessive daytime fatigue.

Truth: Not only is the quantity of sleep important but also the quality. Some people sleep eight or nine hours a night but don’t feel well-rested when they wake up because they aren’t sleeping well.

Myth: You can make up for lost sleep during the week by sleeping more on the weekends.

Truth: Although this sleeping pattern will help pay back part of sleep debt, it will not completely make up for the lack of it. Also, sleeping later on the weekends can affect your biological clock. You may actually have a harder going to sleep at the right time on Sunday and getting up on Monday.

Supplements to help with sleep

Stages of Sleep

All sleep is not created equally. Sleep happens in stages and reoccurs in stages. Each stage of sleep is vital to the brain and body and works to prepare and equip you for the next day.

Sleep is broken down into two main stages:

  1. NREM (Non-Rapid Eye Movement) sleep consists of four sub-stages.
  2. REM (Rapid Eye Movement) is when your most active dreaming occurs. In REM sleep, your eyes actually move rapidly back and forth.

Let’s break these two stages down further:

Stage 1—Transition to sleep

Lasts about five to ten minutes. During this stage, you may fall asleep but think you are still awake. Car accidents caused by falling asleep usually happen during this stage. The eyes move slowly, muscle activity slows down, and you easily wake up. Your muscles may twitch and you may experience the sensation of falling.

Stage 2— Light sleep

The first stage of real sleep lasts about twenty-five minutes. The heart rate slows down, and rebuilding begins to take place in the body and brain.

Stage 3—Deep sleep

It is difficult to wake up during this stage, and if you do, you will feel groggy and disoriented for several minutes. Your body secretes many hormones into the bloodstream including human growth hormone, which experts believe is related to the repair process that takes place while you sleep.

Stage 4—More intense deep sleep

This is the deepest stage of sleep. Brain waves (called Delta waves) are very slow, and blood flows to the muscles to help restore physical activity. Many sleep experts combine stages three and four.

REM sleep—Dream sleep

Seventy to ninety minutes after falling asleep, breathing becomes more rapid, eyes move rapidly, muscles feel paralyzed, and brainwaves increase to the same level as awake. Heart rate increases and blood pressure rises. Most dreams occur during the REM stage. If you are awakened from this stage, you will most likely remember your dreams. Most people experience three to five intervals of REM sleep per night.

The Ninety-Minute Rule for Optimal Sleep

If you are continually struggling to get out of bed when your alarm goes off and you feel as if you are waking from the middle of deep sleep, try this ninety-minute trick.

Resetting your wake-up time in increments of ninety minutes will make it easier for your brain to wake up. So, if you usually go to bed at 10:30 pm, set your clock to rise at 6:00 am instead of 6:30 or 7:00 am (five ninety-minute increments for a total of seven and a half hours of sleep). You will feel more refreshed as your body and brain are already close to waking up, and you are past the level of deep sleep. Adapted from Your Guide to Healthy Sleep, by the National Institutes of Health.

Try this Sleep Calculator to help you figure out what time to go to bed or what time to wake up.

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