What if you could have more energy throughout the day? The demands of our modern world, the expectations of longer workdays as well as poor diet and exercise come at the costs of our biological clock. Our body is attuned to rising and sleeping at different hours, depending on our state of biological development. Disturbances in this natural rhythm put our sleep – and ultimately our quality of life – in danger. Poor sleep is linked to many diseases, including Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular issues, stroke and diabetes. This makes sleep vital to every aspect of our mental and physical well-being.
Sleep and our body
Our sleep quality also has a huge impact on our body. When we do not get enough deep sleep, our bodies cannot heal; our cells and tissues do not repair properly or get enough nutrients to function well. The body does not eliminate waste, fight infections or deal with inflammations.
While we are in bed, our conscious mind shuts down, but our brain keeps working intensely – like a cleaner that comes overnight to the office, when no one is around. If the cleaner does a bad job or does not show up to work, pretty soon there will be chaos and dirt everywhere, which affects the health and performance of the employees.
Sleep and our mind
The brain (which uses up a quarter of our body’s energy) is deeply affected by poor sleep performance, resulting in a significant drop in our will-power, creativity, cognitive capabilities (IQ) – i.e. memorization, learning skills and decision-making. Sleep is also critical to problem-solving (directly related to the REM phase of sleep). We become less contentious and more lazy, more likely to procrastinate, more distracted and day-dreamy.
Sleep and our emotions
Our emotional well-being also pays a heavy price. Mood swings happen more often. Poor sleep makes us highly neurotic – sensitive, self-conscious, ruminative (more vulnerable to the little voices inside our heads). These factors make us vulnerable to stressors, a victim of our own self-sabotage and ultimately lead to failure in our relationships, loneliness and depression.
How I learned – the hard way
I have been interested in the quality of sleep and its impact on the health of the physical, mental and emotional bodies ever since I experience a major episode of depression. While at university, I had long nights of studying during the week and worked night shifts on the weekend. I wanted to push hard, study hard, work hard and train hard – not allowing myself any time for rest. Living in denial, I failed to recognize the patterns in my body and my emotions. I wanted to have the highest performance in my exams, my work, and during my Jiu-Jitsu training. It is easy to see where this lifestyle led me: I was unfocused and suffering for chronic sleep deprivation. I was constantly sick, my sensitivity was affecting the quality of my relationships, I was postponing my way out of bed by hitting the snooze button as many times as I could. My life had no structure and I relied heavily on caffeine as a stimulant.
When everything was falling apart, I had a wake-up call and learned about deep sleep.
The stages of sleep
There are many ways of categorizing the stages of sleep. I divide them in two main phases: REM, and NON-REM; the latter is subdivided into light (two sub-stages) and deep sleep (two stages):
1: In light sleep, we begin to fall asleep, drifting in and out. We experience muscle relaxations and contractions.
2: Our eye movement stops and our brainwave activity and heart rate slow down. An occasional burst of brain waves happen during this stage. Body temperature begins to drop as it is prepares to enter the deep sleep.
When we enter stage 3, slow delta brain waves emerge among other smaller and faster brain waves, and in stage N3, deep sleep continues as the brain produces delta waves almost exclusively. In deep sleep, we convert all the experiences we’ve had during the day in long-term memory and associations to our property. Deep sleep in delta waves is a marker for biological youth; our ability to trigger these waves decays as we age.
Much less is known about deep sleep than REM sleep.
In the REM sleep stage, our eyes move from side to side, our breath becomes faster and more shallow, our brain activity gets intense and vivid dreams occur. Brainwaves oscillate between different frequencies, mostly simulating the awakened state. Our muscles get paralyzed – probably to prevent injuries or avoiding sleepwalking while we dream.
We normally experience three to five REM cycles during the night. REM sleep normally begins 90 minutes after we enter the first stage of light sleep, with the first REM cycle lasting for 10 minutes. Each consecutive cycle in the REM stage lasts longer, with the final stage lasting approximately 1 hour.
Problem-solving is also related to the REM stage. We form connections between pieces of knowledge, “connecting the dots” during REM. Our ideas solidify and recombine into new and creative thoughts.
A Sleep Cycle
A sleep cycle is a period needed for us to pass through all the stages of sleep. We progress from non-REM sleep, from light to deep sleep, then the other way around until we enter REM. After finishing the REM phase, we start the cycle all over again.
As the sleep progresses, we spend more time in REM sleep and less time in deep sleep. The first cycle normally takes 90 minutes; after that, they will take about 100-120 minutes. In a single night, we go through between four to six cycles.
Getting a Good Night’s Sleep
By researching and trying out different methods over the years, I figured out which are the important factors for a good night’s sleep. Below I list seven points that will help you normalize your sleep pattern, based on my experience:
- First of all, find out how many hours do you really need (normally five to eight hours)
- Make adjustments to your eating habits. Avoid eating sugar (and other carbs) during the evening (avoid them also during the day as much as you can). Have a light meal, protein-based, and at least two hours before you go to bed. (This is a crucial point!)
- Use your bed only for sleep (and sex). Do not use laptops or smartphones in your bed (avoid them in the final hours before to bed anyway); never eat on the bed. Make your bed a sacred place – this will program your brain to shut down at the moment your lay down. (This really works!)
- Adjust the lights in your room. I use curtains that filter city lights but are thin enough to allow the sunlight to enter. I think it is very important allow the night to be as dark as it can be and the day as bright as it can be.
- Avoid a hard workout late in the evening. I suggest you to do your intense exercise during the day and have a more relaxed practice in the evening. Some yoga asanas will contribute to a good night of sleep, as well.
- Control the smells in your room. There are certain smells that disturb your sleep, while others calm you down.
- Regulate the sounds in your room – take advantage of sound patterns that resemble delta waves, as it makes the mind reproduce them. I like to listen to a calm speech, brown noise, water sounds – or just pure silence.
- Focussing on the quality – not quantity – of sleep is extremely important. The consistency of our sleep patterns, particularly the deep-sleep state, are fundamental to our health, healing and learning.
I wish you all a good night!