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Sleep is vital. We know that, because we all, at one point or another, will have failed to have enough and suffered as a result. Lack of sleep causes physical effects like grey eyes, dull skin and headaches, but the importance of sleep is also key to understanding mental health. Put simply, too little sleep will negatively impact our mental wellbeing. Deficits in daytime performance due to sleep loss are experienced universally and associated with a significant social, financial, and human cost. Sleep deprivation studies repeatedly show a variable (negative) impact on mood, cognitive performance, and motor function.1
Sleep is not a constant, linear process, even if it feels like it. You might be one of the lucky ones whose head hits the pillow and then you wake up 8 hours later in the same position having ‘slept straight through’ but there are actually a number of different sleep stages that you have to go through in order to truly achieve restful sleep.
Sleepers pass through five stages: 1, 2, 3, 4 and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. These stages progress cyclically from 1 through REM then begin again with stage 1. A complete sleep cycle takes an average of 90 to 110 minutes, with each stage lasting between 5 to 15 minutes.2
While REM sleep is generally the most talked about, as this is the stage where we dream, it’s actually stages 3 and 4, known as deep NREM sleep, which are the most restorative sleep. These are the stages when it’s the most difficult to wake up and the stages where our body and mind are recovering and preparing for the next period of wakefulness.
It is, and it isn’t. If you get a solid 8 hours that’s great, because you will have passed through the sleep cycle a number of times and experienced multiple periods of stage 3 and 4, restorative sleep. If, on the other hand, you achieve 8 hours but there are multiple periods of waking up in between, you may fail to reach the third sleep stage, or might not spend long enough in it. In which case you would technically have been asleep for the desired time, but would likely still be groggy and tired. The real key is getting to sleep, and staying asleep, so that you pass through all of the required stages.
We all have an inbuilt body clock and if it gets out of sync, it will be harder to fall asleep, stay asleep, and wake up feeling refreshed. By sticking to a regular routine, our body gets used to ‘asleep’ and ‘awake’ times, making it easier to enter these when we need to. Bedtime should be a pleasant routine, so make your room as comfortable as possible and ensure there is fresh air and a steady temperature.
Your eating habits play a role in how well you sleep, especially in the hours before bedtime. Avoiding stimulants such as coffee and chocolate will help you achieve a better quality of sleep, as caffeine keeps your mind active and makes it harder to switch off. It’s also wise to avoid heavy meals before bedtime, which can sit on your stomach, causing discomfort, prevent you from falling asleep and make it more likely that you will wake up whilst trying to get comfortable.
Regular exercise also improves the symptoms of insomnia and increases the amount of time you spend in the deep, restorative stages of sleep. The more vigorously you exercise, the stronger the sleep benefits. But don’t let this put you off, even light exercise such as walking every day can improve sleep quality.
Finally, try to stay away from your phone! The blue light emitted by screens on mobile phones, computers, tablets, and televisions restrain the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls your sleep/wake cycle, making it harder to fall and stay asleep.3
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