Perfecting your Wellness: Sleep

by Matt Chow

sleepSleep. You spend almost a third of your day doing it. Depriving yourself of it decreases your threshold for handling stress, productivity during the day, and can increase your risks of developing a plethora of preventable illness (ie. hypertension and stroke are just a few to mention) in the long run. Our cultural environment constantly bombards us with unavoidable stress— do you see the importance for your mind and body to have some offline time for recharge and repair?

Our unconscious mind during sleep is purposely active, much like a backstage production crew preparing for an upcoming performance, the brain and body take this downtime to repair itself from the stresses incurred during the day and prepare itself for tomorrow. It does this in stages (5 that have been identified so far by sleep laboratory research) that repeat several times while you sleep. Let’s break these stages down:

Non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep

Stage 1 and 2 (“Light sleeping” similar to napping): The first stage of sleep quickly transitions to the second stage of sleep. Our brain activity shifts down a gear—when monitored by an EEG (Electro-encephalogram), the slower brainwave pattern monitored can be characterized as an “alpha” wave. During this phase our muscles relax to a point of almost flaccid paralysis. After a day of strenuous stretching and contracting, your muscles need rest, don’t you think? We can be woken up easily during these light stages of sleep.

Stage 3 and 4 (“Deep sleeping”): Roughly around 1-3 hours later, our brain activity shifts down further and the EEG displays to us a brainwave characterized as a “delta” wave. This phase of NREM sleep is known as the “restorative” stages of sleep—many of your valuable hormones and body chemicals are produced en masse during this time compared to any other time of the day. Growth hormone is an example, which is useful for stimulating tissue growth and repair—think this is important after a hard session at the gym earlier in the day?

Deep sleeping is extremely valuable to your body—however, deprive your body of it, and it is immediately more sensitive to stress, experiencing an increased secretion of cortisol (a stress hormone secreted by the adrenal glands) throughout the day. Cortisol, in small intermittent doses, is useful in the fight or flight response. It raises blood sugars when the body perceives levels are low, lowers the inflammatory immune response, increases blood pressure to allow more blood volume to be pumped out to muscles and vital organs, it can also help in consolidating memory, and the list goes on. By reading the previous sentence, you can probably already predict that long-term constant secretion of high levels of cortisol isn’t ideal. You can probably guess this is also why people who are chronically stressed are more prone to getting sick by infection, hypertension, and diabetes compared to individuals with better management of stress. It’s also worth mentioning, the effects of chronic cortisol exposure, in regards to memory: long term secretion can actually damage brain cells residing in the hippocampus (a crucial site of memory formation in the brain).

Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep

Happening roughly every 90 minutes, this is the period in our sleep cycle where we dream and alot of offline brain activity occurs. Although not fully understood, neurologists theorize this is where aspects of memory consolidation occur, in particular our declarative memory (ie. speaking a foreign language you are learning, or remembering facts). When deprived of time spent in this stage the brain goes into REM rebound—vivid dreaming and usually a less restful sleep occurs as a result (an attempt by your brain to concentrate as much REM sleep into that 6-9 hour window). Polyphasic sleep (Longer awake hours divided by shorter hours asleep) attempts to maximize REM by exploiting this rebound effect.

So what does this all mean?

As interesting as hacking our sleeping may be to spend more hours awake to be more productive, we can now have some perception of the value of what the different stages of sleep have on our overall well-being. You may lose a couple of hours of your day to sleep–but I think the years of life you gain free of preventable illness and with a higher tolerance to everyday stress a fair trade off, don’t you?
Start disciplining yourself today. Most of us usually require a scheduled 6-9 hours of sleep a day, with a consistent time set for getting to bed and getting up.

Don’t know how much? Try this sometime: Note the time you get to sleep and see what time you wake up–without an alarm clock—it should give you a rough estimate of the amount of sleep your mind and body needs to function to think clearly and feel refreshed. Build your own sleep hygiene routine that works for you—a life of better productivity, stronger immune system, and a clear and focused mind sounds worth the effort.

You are now more one step closer to perfecting your wellness. Enjoy the process; Treat wellness like a marathon, not a sprint.

Matt Chow
BSc Biology, BSc Pharmacy, R.Ph

In this article, I impress upon you the value of sleep. However, if you are an individual challenged by insomnia or sleep difficulties that have affected your daytime functioning, I suggest you seek the professional opinion of your physician or pharmacist for non-pharmacologic and/or pharmacologic options.

Disclaimer: All of the information provided in my articles comes from thorough research, education, and experience. I am not a doctor; therefore, my advice should not be put above that of your doctor.

About Matt Chow
Matt is a firm believer that health and wellness can be achieved through a curious thirst for knowledge, respecting the holistic nature of the human body, and daily application of good health practice. He seeks to continue learning about the human body while inspiring others to appreciate the process of achieving good health over the temptation of a quick fix.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Mikey B February 17, 2012 at 10:21 am

Great article homie! I am going to try that natural sleep experiment and see how much sleep I actually need. Do you think that it matters If you have a set sleep time for 6 days out of the week and on the 7th you try the experiment? What if when you do this your sleep cycle is longer then your set 6 day schedule?

Matt Chow February 17, 2012 at 11:06 am

Great question Mikey! Bottom line, the body functions best on consistency. Most of us need about 6-9 hours of sleep to function (ie. productively, able to tolerate stress, getting through the day with minimal use of caffeine and stimulants)–try the experiment and see what happens.

Mikey B February 17, 2012 at 12:05 pm

Will do and I will post my results as a comment 🙂

Cam February 17, 2012 at 1:29 pm

Great post Matt.

Mike Shark February 17, 2012 at 7:57 pm

“Don’t know how much? Try this sometime: Note the time you get to sleep and see what time you wake up–without an alarm clock—it should give you a rough estimate of the amount of sleep your mind and body needs to function to think clearly and feel refreshed.”


In regards to your comment to Mikey B, I agree with your statement and would like to reinforce the importance of consistency when experimenting. If a person is trying to understand what level of sleep they need on an average week, they should be going to bed roughly around the same hours every day/night for a set period of time before recording “results” of the experiment. As both a competitive swimmer and nightclub employee, my sleep schedule is *always* shifting either later or earlier in the day, and this definitely has an impact on the quality and quantity of sleep I get per night. In addition, diet, naps, work, hitting the gym, and period of wakefulness (morning vs day…affects sunlight exposure and therefore melatonin production) also play a large role in the duration and quality of one’s sleep.

Just some things to consider for anyone considering trying this experiment 🙂

Alden February 17, 2012 at 9:02 pm

I think it goes like this for most of us, especially if we are stuck with a day job:

1) Struggle to get out of bed in the morning. Mourn that you slept so little.

2) At night, reluctant to go to bed. End up sleeping for about 4 hours.

3) Repeat steps 1 to 2 to 3.

Angelo February 29, 2012 at 4:37 pm

Yeah I agree with Alden, staying up late is one of those bad habits that gets easily overlooked and ruins the whole sleep process.

Mike Shark February 29, 2012 at 7:10 pm

In the informational processing theory of sleep (IPT from here on), it is purported that sleep (specifically REM or the dream phase) is associated with consolidating learned tasks and new information. In fact, interrupting dreams (REM) has been shown to impede the ability to remember something you’ve learned just before bed []. Longer dream cycles have also been associated with learning more stuff.

So I would ask you guys,

Would it not be better to forego an alarm altogether in favor of letting your body waking up naturally?
Should you record when you fall asleep so if you DO use an alarm, you can set it during phase 2/3 of your 90-100 minute sleep cycles (making you, in theory, remember the most stuff)?

Mikey B March 1, 2012 at 12:59 pm

I’m curious as well:)

Mike Shark March 2, 2012 at 12:55 pm

For Android users, pretty cool app (although the Iphone equivalent seems far superior)

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