It is well known that a combination of a good diet, low stress and exercise enables us to sleep better. However, in the busy world we now live in, where we find ourselves having to deal with the stresses of every day life, snoring partners and restless children, it is no surprise that getting a good nights rest is something of a struggle for most of us.
According to Sleep-Science, scientists before the 1950’s believed that as people drifted off to sleep their brains and bodies would go into a “shut down” mode, entering a passive state which would enable them to recuperate from the days events.
What we have since learned is that sleep is a lot more complicated and active than we think.
Many fitness trackers have a built in sleep monitor that enable us to understand how well we are resting and in turn offer tips to help us improve our sleep. For many years I have tried not to focus heavily on the sleep tracker itself, as at times the constant monitoring of my own sleep cycle caused further stress.
So what are the five stages of sleep?
Within Stage One of the sleep cycle our brains produce alpha and theta waves, and eye movement slows down – usually within minutes of nodding off. Here we are in light sleep, are somewhat alert and can easily be awoken. This stage of sleep is rather brief – usually lasting only several minutes.
Stage Two of our sleep cycle is also light, where our brain produces a sudden increase in brain wave frequency known as sleep spindles. The brain waves then slow down. If you were to have a power nap this would be the optimum time to awake.
Stages three and four is the stage whereby we enter into deep sleep, as the brain starts to produce slower delta waves. No eye or muscle movement is experienced during these stages and it becomes a little harder for someone to wake us due to the fact that our body becomes less responsive. As the brain starts to produce more delta waves, we will then move into a deeper, more restorative stage of sleep, and it is most difficult to wake up at this stage. This is the optimum time for our bodies to repair muscles and tissues – especially important for those of us who spend a great deal of time training. This stage is also important for stimulation, growth, boosting immune function and building up energy for the next day ahead.
We then enter Rapid Eye Movement Sleep (REM) about 90 minutes after falling asleep, with each REM cycle lasting up to an hour. On average, an adult has five to six REM cycles each night and during this stage our brains become more active. This is where our dreaming will occur, our eyes will jerk in different directions, our heart rate and blood pressure increases and our breathing becomes fast and irregular. The REM stage of sleep is important for the learning and memory function – this is where our brains processes information from the day before – storing it in our long term memory.
As adults we spend half of our sleep time in stage two, 20% in the REM stage and a further 30% is usually divided between the other three stages. As we get older the time we spend in the REM stage will become progressively less.
My own cycle follows a similar pattern, with the vast majority of my sleep in the lighter stages – it’s no wonder I am easily awoken my snoring or our mischievous cats. I used to spend a lot of time worrying about my limited time in the deeper stages of sleep but as I get older and understand how sleep cycles change, this has become less of a worry.
The important factor for me is ensuring that I improve my sleep cycle as much as possible. Ensuring I keep to a regular schedule for both going to bed and waking up is extremely important – even at the weekend (though sometimes life even gets in the way of that bed time). Keeping a TV out of the bedroom is a must for me; though I am guilty of focusing on gadgets (i.e. my phone) before I drift off, falling asleep with the lights and sounds of a television will only have a negative impact on my sleep.
Other great ways to improve sleep is exercise – I never have an issue falling asleep due to high levels of activity, it is just the staying that way that’s the problem. So, at times I like to add Floatation Therapy sessions and massages to help relax my mind and body.
As our personal and professional lives become increasingly busy and stressful it is imperative that get the rest we need to keep our bodies functioning to their full potential.
Over the coming months, as my training for the London Marathon starts to take on a new level, my sleep will be most important and something I will keeping a close eye on.