Tips for better sleep

The effect of sleep deprivation on mood has been well documented.   Getting enough sleep is important for our mental and emotional well being.   On average, we need to have about seven to eight hours of sleep per night.  There is a lot of research that suggests that when we don’t get enough sleep it can impair our decision making and affect our emotions.  Tests on intelligence, creativity, attention, and memory all show lower performance with sleep deprivation.

There are several stages to our sleep.  Stage 1 is a light sleep that begins when you fall asleep.  During stage 2 the heart rate slows and the body temperature drops.  Stages 3 and 4 are a deep sleep where the body is able to repair itself.  The final stage, called REM or rapid eye movement, is the stage where we dream.  It takes about ninety minutes for your body to go through one complete sleep cycle and we go through several of these cycles each night.

The sleep phases go in order like this: 1, 2, 3, 4, 3, 2, 1, REM, 1, 2, 3, 4, 3, 2, 1, REM and so on.  That would represent two complete sleep cycles.  According to the National Sleep Foundation, If you add up all the time of REM sleep during a typical 8 hour night, it averages between 90 minutes to 2 hours, but it’s not continuous.  Those 90-120 minutes are divided among the multiple sleep cycles.  It’s interesting to note that the REM time in each cycle is not equally distributed during each sleep cycle.  The length of time changes, but it follows a pattern.  During the first sleep cycle, the REM time is very short, just a few minutes.  It gets a little longer during the second cycle and then significantly longer during the third and fourth cycles.  So almost all of the night’s REM sleep time takes place during those last 2 sleep cycles.  

This is very important to understand because if you reduce your sleep by a couple hours.  Let’s say you slept for 6 hours rather than 8 hours.  You might think that you’ve still gotten most of a good night’s sleep.  In terms of total hours that is certainly true.  You may have missed out on only about 25 percent of your sleep time, but by missing that last sleep cycle which typically has a long REM stage, you may have lost 40 percent of your REM sleep time.

REM sleep

Your brain needs REM sleep like it needs nutritious food.  Research shows that your brain doesn’t turn off when you go to sleep, rather, it’s shifting into a different mode of activity that we need in order to support regular brain function.

Scientists have done some fascinating studies to learn about the purpose and function of REM sleep.  In one study, they interfered with the participants’ sleep cycles, to deprive them of REM sleep.  The scientists monitored the participants, and  As soon as they entered the REM phase the researchers woke them up, talked for a few minutes and let them go back to sleep.  Unfortunately, a person can’t just re-enter the sleep cycle at the REM stage, they have to start over again at phase 1.  So their sleep pattern was 1,2, 3, 4, 3, 2, 1,  1, 2, 3, 4, 3, 2, 1 and so on with no REM sleep cycles.  

In the study, The participants got 8 hours of sleep, but none of that time was REM sleep.  and then they observed the participants to see if there were any changes in their cognitions and behavior.  They found that depriving them of REM sleep impaired creativity and problem solving abilities.  It also reduced their ability to control and regulate their emotions.  There was an increase in angry outbursts and mood swings.  Their brains just didn’t function well without experiencing those REM phases.   

So REM sleep is very important, and we still don’t know all of the reasons why.  But We do know that  part of that REM function is the process of dreaming.  And the way we dream changes during the night.  During the first REM phase, early in the evening, our dreams may be about recent events and they may be very literal, however as the night progresses, the dreams tend to become more abstract.  For some reason, this replay and abstraction process is critical to optimal memory, high-level creativity, problem solving ability, and cognitive function even though we rarely remember those dreams.  

So I’m just going to mention a few things that can affect the quality of our sleep, including things that may affect our REM sleep.  

Napping may decrease REM time

Most people aren’t aware that napping can be destructive to REM sleep, and I’ll explain why.  First of all, Most naps are shorter than 90 minutes which is the time required for a full sleep cycle that includes REM sleep.  And even if a nap is 90 minutes remember that the REM sleep stage is very short for the first cycle.  Taking a nap often reduces the amount of sleep you get the following night, which may significantly reduce the amount of REM time.  Our bodies perform better when we get 7-8 hours of continuous sleep in order to optimize the amount of REM sleep. 

What about power napping?  For a while “power napping” was considered to be the magic bullet that was the best solution for productivity.  Research shows that power napping will indeed benefit a person who is sleep deprived.  It boosts cognitive functioning and improves performance, however, some sources suggest the data is a little bit skewed, because most of the data about power napping includes participants who were sleep deprived so power napping is indeed better than trying to function when you’re sleep deprived, but it’s not as good as getting a full night’s sleep.

Insomnia

Insomnia is the condition of having trouble falling or staying asleep and affects millions of people.  Many turn to prescription sleep medication, and while any sleep is better than no sleep, there is a problem with medicated sleep.  Standard sleep medications may disrupt REM sleep.

There are natural supplements such as melatonin which may provide a good short term benefit, but our bodies tend to develop a tolerance to these sleep medications over time and they become less effective.  Research shows that the best way to combat insomnia is to work in harmony with the body’s natural systems.  

Our sleep is influenced by multiple sources including our circadian rhythms, but Dr. Peter Vishton, a professor at William and Mary College, suggests that the best way to combat insomnia is to strengthen your unconscious association between your bedroom and sleep.  Our sleeping patterns are regulated by subconscious programs and we can affect those programs by what we do.  

Researchers notice that a majority of people who struggle with insomnia are also using their bedrooms as a place for watching movies, working on the computer, making phone calls, and/or eating.  Doing these activities in our bedrooms, train these subconscious systems to conclude that going to bed doesn’t necessarily mean sleep, it might mean working, playing, or thinking. 

Screen time is particularly disrupting to the systems that tell your body to sleep.  The internal clock inside our brain is designed to wake up when it is light.  It has receptors that are particularly sensitive to blue light.  When this blue light strikes the receptors, it disrupts the internal clock function and it reduces your brain’s release of melatonin which is the chemical in our body that promotes sleep. 

Furthermore, blue light doesn’t always look blue.  White light contains a mix of many wavelengths of light, including blue and it has the same effect on the receptors in the brain.  Light signals the brain that it’s time to get up, not that it’s time to go to sleep.  

Tips for better night’s sleep

There are things that we can do to help create good sleep habits (sometimes referred to as “sleep hygiene”) that can help you get a good night’s sleep. Here are a few suggestions that can improve your sleep health.

  • Turn your bedroom into a sleep haven.  Make sure that it is orderly and comfortable.  Remove televisions and computers.  Strengthen your unconscious association between your bedroom and sleep.  Make your room peaceful and conducive to sleeping by keeping it quiet, cool, and dark.  
  • If you live in a noisy area, you might try using Earplugs.  If light pollution is a problem, you can try room-darkening shades.  
  • Get a good quality mattress and pillow.  You spend nearly one third of your life in bed, so this is a place that is worthy of a good investment. 
  • Exercise during the day.  There is solid evidence that regular exercise can improve the quality and duration of sleep.  But don’t do it right before bed, unless perhaps your choice of exercise is yoga.  
  • Dim or turn off the lights for at least 30 minutes before going to bed.  
  • Turn off computer screens, televisions, phone screens, etc. at least 30 minutes before going to bed.
  • Don’t take naps during the day.  But if you find that you just need a nap to make it through the day, take a quick 30-minute power nap, so that it will be less likely to interfere with sleeping at night. 
  • Follow a consistent schedule.  Going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day is crucial for setting your body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm).  Staying consistent also means that the quality of your sleep will be better. 
  • Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine for at least four hours before bedtime so you’ll have time for the effects to wear off.  Although alcohol can help you feel sleepy, it decreases the quality of sleep.  
  • Follow a consistent evening routine.  Having a repeated relaxing ritual that you do every night will signal your body that it’s time to settle down.   Reading, listening to calming music, or taking a warm bath are excellent choices.  Remember that watching TV, looking at laptops, tablets, or smartphone screens trigger your brain to stay awake so it’s best to stop doing these activities at least 30 minutes before going to bed.  

Tips to help you get back to sleep

Sometimes we find ourselves wide-awake during the night and struggle to drift back to sleep.  Here are some ideas to help you fall back to sleep. 

  • Avoid your phone.  If you find yourself wide-awake and struggling to drift back to sleep, don’t reach for your phone to scroll through Facebook, check email, or play video games.  Remember that light from screens sends a signal to your body that it’s time to be awake regardless of what time it is.  Also these activities can easily suck you in for longer than you intended.     
  • Cover the clock.  Constantly checking to see what time it is, how long you’ve been awake, or how many minutes and hours are left until morning can cause stress and anxiety to build, making it difficult to fall back asleep. Before you know it, you’re stuck in a frustrating cycle where your inability to sleep causes stress and your stress keeps you from sleeping. Turn your clock toward the wall or toss a shirt over it to keep yourself from sneaking a peek.
  • Get out of bed if you find yourself tossing and turning for long periods of time. Go to a different room and do a quiet soothing activity like reading a book or sipping a cup of herbal tea.  Keep the lights dim to remind your body that it’s still night time and when your eyelids start to droop try going back to bed.  Although getting out of bed may seem counterintuitive when you’re desperately trying to fall asleep, changing to a different location can help prevent the mind from creating a negative association between the stress of not sleeping and the space you are lying in.
  • Practice relaxing.  Progressive muscle relaxation is one way to get your mind and body to relax.  Another is to practice deep breathing.  You could even try counting backwards from 100 to interrupt racing thoughts.  The goal is to focus on the present moment and let go of ruminating thoughts or any tension that might be keeping you awake. 

How will sleep benefit you? 

Getting enough sleep is important for our mental and emotional well being.  The effect of sleep deprivation on mood has been well documented.   Are you getting enough sleep?  How would adequate sleep benefit you?  I invite you to try a 2 week sleep challenge.  Make an effort to get 8 hours of sleep each night for 2 weeks and see if you notice an improvement in the way you feel.  

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