It’s All About Sleep
Spring has “sprung” forward and I’m still not sure I’ve recovered from losing that single hour of sleep. This seems to be a trend as the demands of life force me to prioritize time and efforts…sleep becomes the area where I often have to sacrifice. But is this healthy? Of course the answer is ‘no,’ but what are we to do in order to ensure our bodies and minds are well rested and prepared to take on the challenges of the day? It starts with knowledge, so here I’ll answer a few of the common questions regarding sleep and point out a thing or two you may not have known.
The Importance of Sleep
First, sleep is important for everyone, no matter your age, gender, or activity level. From the 12-18 hours of sleep we get as babies to the few hours we sometimes get now, sleep provides a regeneration period that recharges your body. When we don’t get enough sleep, our mental acuity and alertness are affected.
Exercise, Health and Sleep
I’ve said before that rest and recovery are vital parts of an exercise routine. While you may not think of the amount of sleep you get as a recovery period for your workouts, it absolutely is. And the longer and harder you exercise, the more sleep your body requires. The role of sleep in recovery cannot be overstated – it’s where the real gains are made, and it’s what allows you to continue training. And the beauty of it all…exercise leads to better health and the healthier you are, the better you’ll rest.
REM and Sleep Cycles
Simply put, there are two types of sleep, REM and non-REM sleep. REM stands for rapid eye movement, since it’s characterized by the eyes moving back and forth during this period. Most of your dreaming occurs during REM. The brain is much more active and dreams can be intense. In REM sleep, the muscles become inactive and somewhat paralyzed. Adults spend approximately 25% of their sleep time in REM, and babies spend up to 50%.
When we lay down to go to sleep, however, we actually go through several smaller sleep stages prior to entering REM. We cycle from light sleep to deep sleep, then REM (or dream sleep), and the cycle repeats several times throughout the course of the night depending on the amount of sleep we get.
The first period of REM occurs about 90 minutes after dozing off and only lasts for a few minutes. Subsequent cycles of REM are a bit longer with each episode. With some planning, this 90-minute sequence can actually be used to your advantage. Because you enter the light sleep period after REM (as the sleep cycles start to repeat), it’s best to awaken during this period of light sleep because you’ll feel more refreshed, alert, and less groggy.
So there are times when a little less sleep may actually be better than more sleep. Sleeping for six hours, for example, would allow an easier and more refreshed wakeup than 6.5 hours because your body would go through 4 complete 90-minute cycles (vs. beginning another cycle and being awakened from deeper sleep at 6.5 hours). Similarly, 7.5 hours could provide an easier wakeup than 8 hours.
It’s About Quality and Quantity
In the fast paced world we live in, some struggle to get six, or even four hours of sleep each night. Most sources say that adults should try to sleep for 7.5 hours per night, but sleep needs vary from one individual to the next. Optimally, you should get enough sleep that you wake up on your own (before your alarm goes off). When you wake up naturally, there’s a good chance you’ve gotten adequate rest. Of course, if you have a timeline to meet in the morning, this means you may have to go to bed earlier.
Getting just a few hours of sleep night after night with the hopes of making up for it on the weekend is not a good strategy. You can’t make up for lost rest time. And as the days progress, you’ll find your alertness drops and fatigue increases due to the affects of cumulative fatigue (multiple days with less rest than you need). There’s a difference between getting enough sleep to get by and getting optimal amounts of sleep. Chronic deprivation, as it’s called, makes you more cranky, more susceptible to illness, and less healthy overall.
The quality of your sleep is a function of several things, including lighting, noise, and the temperature of your environment. Because it’s natural for our bodies to rest during the nighttime hours, sleeping with the lights on could affect your internal clock and hamper the quality of your sleep. Similarly, noisy environments and uncomfortable temperatures make for a restless night. Opt for a dark room with a peaceful setting (or as peaceful as you can get with a house full of kids!), and set the temperature at a comfortable level.
Sleep is an important part of our lives. Although we have many family and work obligations, it’s important to remember that we must take care of ourselves in order to be able to function and live up to our obligations. Make sleep a priority over the next few weeks. You’ll feel better, more productive, and healthier. Then continue to make small changes so good rest habits become part of your daily life. Your family and co-workers will appreciate a more rested You!