The Importance of Sleep

Sleep – The one thing we all need or want but never seem to have time for.

More and more studies prove that a good night’s sleep is not a luxury, it is a necessity— and one we are not allowing ourselves. We are constantly trying new fads, diets, workout, spa sessions etc. to make us feel good and better about ourselves but, yet none of us ever question the quality and length of sleep we get. The Importance of Sleep for growth, recovery and mental agility is nothing new to us. There have been many studies proving the benefits of sleep and how lack of sleep impacts the body.

However, we still seem to prioritize work/studies/Netflix, above the need to achieve adequate sleep (Myself very much being one of these Individuals) and I believe this is due to a lack of understanding as to just how important sleep is and how our sleep cycles work and how we can harness our sleep to improve our health and mental wellbeing. I have never been the greatest at maintaining or even having a good sleep cycle and sleep routine. Insomnia often being my greatest enemy along with early mornings for dance training and late nights working away.

However, since having covid in the December of 2020, I started to realise just how deprived my body was from sleep and how I believed I was thriving in health due to the amount of training and nutrition knowledge I had; But, in fact I had been starving my body of the most essential mineral/nutrient for good and productive health the last 6 years and that Is - SLEEP! So let us take a closer look into what sleep is, what a sleep cycle is and how we can harness the power of sleep to power us through our days better!

What is Sleep?

Sleep is an essential function that allows your body and mind to recharge, leaving you refreshed and alert when you wake up. Healthy sleep also helps the body remain healthy and stave off diseases. Without enough sleep, the brain cannot function properly.

During sleep, the body goes through multiple sleep cycles. Each cycle consists of four stages: three stages of non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep and one stage of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

What is the Sleep – Wake Cycle?

The sleep cycle is a physiological process that occurs during sleep.

It allows the brain and body to perform “housekeeping” functions, such as repairing or growing tissues, removing toxins, and processing memories.

Each sleep cycle consists of four stages, with each having varying effects on the body. On average, adults go through 4–6 sleep cycles per night and spend 90 minutes in each sleep cycle stage.

An internal “body clock” regulates your sleep cycle. This internal clock operates on a 24-hour cycle known as the circadian rhythm (which is explained in a later section).

This sleep cycle is also known as sleep-wake homeostasis and may be linked to adenosine which is an organic compound produced in the brain and increases throughout the day as you become more tired, and then the body breaks down this compound during sleep.

This internal clock is what controls when you feel tired and ready for bed or refreshed and alert, to which can all be impacted by Work schedules, day-to-day stressors, a disruptive bedroom environment, and medical conditions. This can prevent us from receiving enough sleep.

Factors affecting the Sleep – Wake Cycle:

Stress - Stress and anxiety can cause sleep fragmentation. This may be the body’s way of preparing for danger, making it easier for a person to wake up.

Studies show that stress is the number one cause of short-term sleeping difficulties, according to sleep experts. Common triggers include school- or job-related pressures, a family or marriage problem and a serious illness or death in the family. Usually, the sleep problem disappears when the stressful situation passes.

Light - Light is one of the most important external factors that can affect sleep. It does so both directly, by making it difficult for people to fall asleep, and indirectly, by influencing the timing of our internal clock and thereby affecting our preferred time to sleep.

As natural light disappears in the evening, the body will release melatonin, a hormone that induces drowsiness. When the sun rises in the morning, the body will release the hormone known as cortisol that promotes energy and alertness.

The brain contains a special region of nerve cells known as the hypothalamus, and a cluster of cells in the hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which processes signals when the eyes are exposed to natural or artificial light. These signals help the brain determine whether it is day or night.

Diet - It is well-known that foods and substances, such as caffeine, can affect the onset of sleep in a negative way. However, there are some studies that show cherries, kiwi, fatty fish (like salmon and tuna), and malted milk may have beneficial effects on sleep. More recently, studies have shown that healthy dietary patterns overall—not just specific foods—could be associated with longer sleep duration and shorter time to fall asleep. Alcohol has also been shown to cause fragments in sleep even though it initially induces sleep. Due to this Alcohol can be reduce sleep quality.

Interestingly, caffeine, the world’s most widely used stimulant, works by temporarily blocking the adenosine (referenced in the section above) receptors in these specific parts of the brain. Because these nerve cells cannot sense adenosine in the presence of caffeine, they maintain their activity and we stay alert.

Room Temperature and Environment – The bedroom environment can have a significant influence on sleep quality and quantity. Several variables combine to make up the sleep environment, including light, noise, and temperature. By being attuned to factors in your sleep environment that put you at ease, and eliminating those that may cause stress or distraction, you can set yourself up for the best possible sleep. Research shows that the ideal temperature range for sleeping varies widely among individuals, so much so that there is no prescribed best room temperature to produce optimal sleep patterns. People simply sleep best at the temperature that feels most comfortable. That said, extreme temperatures in sleeping environments tend to disrupt sleep. REM sleep is commonly more sensitive to temperature-related disruption. For example, in very cold temperatures, we may be deprived entirely of REM sleep. Noise levels can also impact sleep, although background sounds may relax some people, the volume level must be low. Otherwise, increased frequency of awakenings may prevent transitions to the deeper stages of sleep.

Electronics - There is evidence to show that screen use right before bed could impact sleep through the blue light emitted from these devices which can affect the secretion of melatonin (the hormone that helps signal to the body that it is time to fall asleep) as well as through watching or reading content on your screen that can cause anxiety e.g. scary movie.

Sleep clinicians recommend putting away all screens at least one hour before bed and to instead do some light reading or other relaxing activity.

Age - The percentage of deep sleep is higher in children than in adults, and it decreases with age. Adults typically fall asleep through non-REM sleep, while infants fall asleep through REM. Infants spend a much greater part of the night in REM sleep compared with adults. Most sleepwalking episodes arise out of deep sleep, which is why sleepwalking is more common in children.

Medical conditions - A wide range of medical and psychological conditions can have an impact on the structure and distribution of sleep. These conditions include chronic pain from arthritis and other medical conditions, discomfort caused by gastroesophageal reflux disease, pre-menstrual syndrome, and many others. Like many other sleep disruptions, pain and discomfort tend to limit the depth of sleep and allow only brief episodes of sleep between awakenings. There are also some medicines that can disrupt sleep such as beta blockers, alpha blockers, and antidepressants.

Circadian Rhythm:

Circadian rhythms are 24-hour cycles that are part of the body’s internal clock, running in the background to carry out essential functions and processes. One of the most important and well-known circadian rhythms is the sleep-wake cycle. Our circadian rhythms are controlled by multiple genes and are responsible for a variety of important functions, including daily fluctuations in wakefulness, body temperature, metabolism, digestion, and hunger. Circadian rhythm also controls memory consolidation (the formation of long-term memories occurs during sleep); the timing of hormone secretion (for example, the hormones controlling body growth work mostly at night); and body healing. While the circadian sleep phase typically occurs at night, there are a range of times during which the sleep phase can occur, with some people programmed to sleep from early evening to early morning (known as morning larks), while others stay up late and sleep late (known as night owls). In addition to determining the timing of their sleep, a person’s circadian tendency can also affect their choice of emotional coping skills, such as assertiveness or rationalization, and their predisposition to psychological disorders.

Its Effect on Sleep:

During the day, light exposure causes the master clock to send signals that generate alertness and help keep us awake and active. As night falls, the master clock initiates the production of melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep, and then keeps transmitting signals that help us stay asleep through the night. In this way, our circadian rhythm aligns our sleep and wakefulness with day and night to create a stable cycle of restorative rest that enables increased daytime activity.

Here are some ways to maintain it:

  • Seek out sun: Exposure to natural light, especially early in the day, helps reinforce the strongest circadian cue.

  • Get daily exercise: Activity during the day can support your internal clock and help make it easier to fall asleep at night.

  • Follow a consistent sleep schedule.

  • Avoid caffeine.

  • Limit light before bed: Artificial light exposure at night can interfere with circadian rhythm. Experts advise dimming the lights and putting down electronic devices in the lead-up to bedtime.

  • Keep naps short and early in the afternoon.

Stages of the Sleep- Wake Cycle:

There are two main types of sleep:

  • Non-rapid eye movement (NREM), also known as quiet sleep.

  • Rapid eye movement (REM), also known as active sleep or paradoxical sleep.

Entering Sleep

During the earliest phases of sleep, you are still relatively awake and alert. At this time, the brain produces what are known as beta waves which are small and fast brainwaves t