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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 that mean the brain is active and engaged but, as the brain begins to relax and slow down, it lights up with alpha waves. During this transition into deep sleep, you may experience what is known as hypnagogic hallucinations. E.g., the sensation of falling or of hearing someone call your name.

Stage 1 – NREM

Stage 1 begins when a person shifts from wakefulness to sleep. It is a period of light non-REM sleep that slows down a person’s heart rate, breathing, eye movements, and brain waves. The muscles also relax, although they may twitch occasionally. This stage is short and lasts for around 1–5 minutes.

Stage 2 – NREM

This is a period of deeper non-REM sleep, where the muscles relax further, eye movements stop, and body temperature drops. During the first sleep cycle of the night, this stage lasts for around 25 minutes, lengthening with each new sleep cycle (as the sleep cycle can repeat 4-6 times a night). Overall, it accounts for more than 50% of sleep, in adults.

Stage 3 - NREM

Non-REM sleep is the deepest stage of sleep and the hardest to awaken from. During this stage, heart rate, breathing, and brain waves become regular. A person will experience the deepest sleep during the first half of the night. With each sleep cycle, the amount of deep sleep decreases. This is the stage people typically find most difficult to wake from. If a person wakes during deep sleep, they may feel mentally foggy for around 30–60 minutes. The overall percentage of deep sleep tends to decrease with age.

Stage 4 - REM

The last stage of the sleep cycle is REM sleep. The term “REM” refers to a person’s eye movements. During this stage, the eyes move quickly and rapidly from side to side. During REM sleep, breathing quickens and becomes more erratic. Other vital signs, such as blood pressure and heart rate, become less regular. REM is the sleep stage most associated with dreaming, although dreaming can also occur in other stages. During this time, most people experience muscle atonia, or temporary muscle paralysis, which occurs naturally during REM sleep and prevents a person from acting out their dreams. REM sleep lasts for approximately 10 minutes during the first sleep cycle, increasing in length as the night progresses. In the final cycle of sleep, REM can last up to 1 hour. Numerous studies have also linked REM sleep to memory consolidation, the process of converting recently learned experiences into long-term memories.

Sleep – Wake Cycle Pattern:

Interestingly the sleep-wake cycle does not progress through the four stages in perfect sequence. It follows as such:

  • Sleep begins with NREM stage 1 sleep.

  • NREM stage 1 progresses into NREM stage 2

  • NREM stage 2 is followed by NREM stage 3.

  • NREM stage 2 is then repeated.

  • Finally, REM sleep takes hold.

Once REM sleep is over, the body usually returns to NREM stage 2 before beginning the cycle all over again.

Amount of Sleep Individuals need:

· New-born (0-3 Months):14 – 17 Hours

· Infant (4-11 Months):12-15 Hours

· Toddler (1-2 Years): 11-14 Hours

· Preschool (3-5 Years): 10-13 Hours

· School-age (6-13 Years): 9-11 Hours

· Teen (14-17 Years): 8-10 Hours

· Young Adult (18-25 Years): 7-9 Hours

· Adult (26-64 Years): 7-9 Hours

· Older Adult (65 Years or Older): 7-8 Hours

Benefits of Sleep for the body and effects of Sleep Deprivation:

For those of you who have ever spent a night tossing and turning, you already know how you will feel the next day - tired, moody, and out of sorts. But missing out on the recommended 7 to 9 hours of shut eye nightly does more than make you feel groggy and grumpy.

The long-term effects of sleep deprivation are real. It drains your mental abilities and puts your physical health at real risk. Without enough sleep, your brain struggles to perform basic functions as well as making you more susceptible to illnesses.

Noticeable signs of sleep deprivation include: excessive sleepiness, frequent yawning, irritability and daytime fatigue

Central nervous system:

Your central nervous system is the main information highway of your body. Sleep is necessary to keep it functioning properly, but chronic insomnia can disrupt how your body usually sends and processes information.

During sleep, pathways form between nerve cells (neurons) in your brain that help you remember new information you have learned. Sleep deprivation leaves your brain exhausted, so it cannot perform its duties as well.

You may also find it more difficult to concentrate or learn new things. The signals your body sends may also be delayed, decreasing your coordination, and increasing your risk for accidents.

You may also end up experiencing microsleep during the day. During these episodes, you will fall asleep for a few to several seconds without realizing it. To which can be extremely dangerous if you are driving or operating heavy machinery.

Effects on the Brain:

When you fall asleep, brain cells shrink. This allows cerebrospinal fluid to flow through your brain and remove toxins. The cerebrospinal fluid cannot pass through your brain easily while awake, as there is not enough room between the cells. This brain-cleaning system is known as the glymphatic system.

Several studies performed in the early 2000s have linked several brain functions directly to sleep including:

  • concentration

  • productivity

  • cognition

A more recent 2015 study also showed that children’s sleep patterns can have a direct impact on their behaviour and academic performance.

Memory consolidation is also a huge part of the Brain and Sleep connection. Researchers have found that sleep plays an important role in a process called memory consolidation. During sleep, your body may be resting, but your brain is busy processing your day, making connections between events, sensory input, feelings, and memories.

Deep sleep is an especially important time for your brain to make memories and links and getting more quality sleep will help you remember and process things better.

Mental Health and Socio-Emotional Responses:

Another thing that your brain does while you sleep is process your emotions. Your mind needs this time to recognize and react the right way. When you cut that short, you tend to have more negative emotional reactions and fewer positive ones. Sleep has links to people’s emotional and social intelligence and canmake you more likely to have issues with recognizing other people’s emotions and expressions. Sleep deprivation can bring on mood and anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The Immune System:

Although there is still research being done on the link between Sleep and the body’s immune system, it is well known that during sleep body repairs, regenerates, and recovers. The immune system is no exception to this relationship, and it has been proven that better sleep quality can help the body fight off infection. This is due to your immune system producing protective, infection-fighting substances like antibodies and cytokines while you sleep. It uses these substances to combat foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses. Sleep deprivation prevents your immune system from building up its forces. If you do not get enough sleep, your body may not be able to fend off invaders, and it may also take you longer to recover from illness and becoming more susceptible to flu’s and cold’s.

Digestive system:

Along with eating too much and not exercising, sleep deprivation is another risk factor for becoming overweight and obese. The link between weight gain and obesity and short sleep patterns is not completely clear but some studies have shown that there is evidence to suggest that getting a good night’s sleep can assist with weight management. This is due to Sleep affecting the hormone levels of leptin and ghrelin, which control feelings of hunger and fullness.

Leptin is what tells your brain that you have had enough to eat but, without enough sleep your brain reduces the level of leptin and raises ghrelin, which is an appetite stimulant. The flux of these hormones could explain night-time snacking or why someone may overeat later in the night.

It also result in you craving high sugar and fatty foods the following day as a source of energy as well as reduced your self-control from lack of Activity in the frontal lobe of the brain(due to lack of sleep), to which can result in blood sugar spikes and can be am issue as Sleep deprivation also causes your body to release less insulin after you eat, to which helps to reduce your blood sugar (glucose) level. Hence it can result in a lower glucose tolerance and form insulin resistance and additionally a slower metabolism as this tends to slow down under sleep deprivation and therefore can lead to weight gain and diabetes mellitus. A lack of sleep can also make you feel too tired to exercise. Over time, reduced physical activity can make you gain weight because you are not burning enough calories and not building muscle mass.

Lowering Stress:

One of the most significant benefits of sleep is lower stress. Lack of sleep causes an increase in the hormone cortisol which is known as the stress hormone and is associated with weight gain as well as other problems. The more cortisol you have, the more your body wants to put on fat and prepares you to fight as your body produces cortisol when it thinks you are in danger and will have to do something intense and risky soon. Cortisol sharpens your senses and may help you win an argument, but it takes its toll on you. Chronically high cortisol keeps your body in fight-or-flight mode too often and it will ruin your health and lower you immune system if levels are kept high for a long duration.

Cardiovascular system:

Sleep affects processes that keep your heart and blood vessels healthy, including those that affect your blood sugar, blood pressure, and inflammation levels. Ensuring you are getting adequate rest each night allows the body’s blood pressure to regulate itself. This is due to your blood pressure and heart rate naturally decline at night, not getting enough sleep means your blood pressure and heart rate will not lower as they should. It also plays a vital role in your body’s ability to heal and repair the blood vessels and heart.

According to a study done at the University of Warwick, they found that getting less than 6 hours of sleep on a continuous basis makes you 48% more likely to die of heart disease and 15% more likely in developing a stroke.

Endocrine system:

Hormone production is dependent on your sleep. For testosterone production, you need at least 3 hours of uninterrupted sleep, which is about the time of your first R.E.M. episode. Waking up throughout the night could affect hormone production and effectively this can result in a depleted sex drive.

This interruption can also affect growth hormone production, especially in children and adolescents hence why children, toddlers and infants need longer sleeping periods. These hormones help the body build muscle mass and repair cells and tissues, in addition to other growth functions.

The pituitary gland releases growth hormone throughout each day, but adequate sleep and exercise also help the release of this hormone.

Greater athletic performance:

Studies shown that although an adequate night sleep for adults is between 7 and 9 hours, an athletes may benefit from as many as 10 hours. One of the reasons for this requirement is that the body heals during sleep as well as:

  • better performance intensity

  • more energy

  • better coordination

  • faster speed

  • better mental functioning

Therefore, sleep is as important to athletes as consuming enough calories and nutrients.

Tissue Repair:

Sleep is a time to relax, but it is also a time during which the body is hard at work repairing damage caused by stress, ultraviolet rays, and other harmful exposure. Your cells produce more protein while you are sleeping. These protein molecules form the building blocks for cells, allowing them to repair the damage.

Therefore, a lack of sleep can make someone appear older or give their skin a more worn-out appearance as sleep is the prime time for the body to get to work on repairing damaged cells and renewing old ones.

How to Improve Sleeping Patterns through Lifestyle Changers:

  • Developing or maintaining a regular schedule for sleeping and waking, including on weekends

  • Using the bed or bedroom only for sleep and sex, if possible

  • Reducing caffeine and alcohol consumption, particularly in the evening

· Don’t smoke, especially near bedtime or if you awake in the night.

· Avoid heavy meals before sleep.

· Get regular exercise.

· Minimize noise, light, and excessive hot and cold temperatures where you sleep.

· Try and wake up without an alarm clock.

· Getting exposure to natural light during daytime or using a light therapy device.

· Reducing exposure to blue light, such as in phones, computers, and other devices, before bed

  • Making time each evening to rest and relax, avoiding sources of stress.

  • Don’t be afraid to take a 20-30 Minute nap only in the early afternoon!

Nap Time Myth Buster:

Most exciting fact of the day – Our bodies are programmed to take a nap every day!

That post lunch time slump isn’t just in your head or just you being lazy - Scientists have discovered that tiredness peaks at 2pm and 2am as Human beings are biphasic (physically designed for two sleeps a day), with two major bodily rhythms (homeostatic sleep drive and circadian arousal) which pull us in different directions in terms of staying awake or sleeping, but they fascinatingly align in the middle of the day to create a 'nap zone’

So, the next time you feel the urge to have a nap post lunch and you can take one – do it!

Napping during the day has also been proved to be an effective, refreshing alternative to caffeine that is good for your overall health and can make you more productive.

In one study, people who did not nap experienced mental decreases four to six times greater than individuals who did nap for less than an hour.

Sleep Supplements:

I personally battle with Insomnia and some days regardless of how careful I am with my lifestyle habits to assist a better sleep – it just does not happen!

Therefore, I take a product called Advanced Sleep Plus by Life Health SA. This a product is natural and combines natural herb extracts that are known to assist in relaxing, calming and assisting with sleep quality.

Which you can read in my next article!

Disclaimer: Low sleep quality can also be a side effect of certain medications, drug or alcohol overuse, mental health conditions, hormone imbalances, and sleep disorders. If any of these is a concern, it is best to speak to a doctor.

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