Sleep. 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.
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.