Whenever I speak to any health professional and ask what is probably the single most important thing to fix for general health,well over half of them say you must have proper sleep habits. Sorting out your sleep will help improve your memory,lower stress,help you recover faster,reduce inflammation,and help you live longer. The best part is there is no magic pill needed. Just sleep better and you can stop looking for the magic supplement and the newest and greatest workout regimen. Those things of coarse are important tools and we need proper supplementation and exercise,but sleep truly is probably the single most important thing to help sort a variety of health issues.
Our sleep breaks down to two categories. REM(Rapid Eye Movement) and NREM(Non Rapid Eye Movement). This consists of four stages of sleep with one deeper than the last. REM sleep is when you are in the dream state and your eyes actually do move back and forth. Hence the 'rapid eye movement'.
Four Stages Of Sleep
-Stage N1(Transition to sleep)-Lasts approximately 5 minutes. Eyes move slowly and muscles relax. Easily awakened.
-Stage N2(Light sleep)-First stage of true sleep. Lasts 10-25 minutes. Eyes stop moving,heart rate slows,and body temperature decreases.
-Stage N3(Deep sleep)-Deepest stage of sleep. Difficult to awaken. Brain waves are extremely slow. Blood flow is directed away from brain and toward your muscles to restore physical energy.
-REM Sleep(Dream sleep)-Cycles in about 70-90 minutes after falling asleep. REM sleep is where dreaming occurs. Your eyes move rapidly. Breathing shallows. Heart rate and blood pressure increase. During this stage your arm and leg muscles are paralyzed.
Our sleep cycles are brought on by melatonin which is hormone that makes you sleepy. At night our bodies respond to a loss of light by producing melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland which is a small gland in the brain. Melatonin is responsible for controlling our sleep cycles. There are very small amounts of melatonin found in certain food and of coarse it is sold as a supplement.
Melatonin is an internal clock of sorts. During the night hours your body responds to a loss of light by producing melatonin to make you sleepy. During the day,sunlight triggers the brain to cut back melatonin production so you wake up and feel alert. Melatonin production is disturbed by bad sleep patterns,working nights,and traveling through time zones to name a few. A bigger problem is the disruption of melatonin production from not getting enough sunlight during the day and being exposed to too much artificial light at night. This is especially true of light from electronic devices which we are almost all exposed to daily. TV's,computers,tablets,and cell phones are a normal evening pastime for most of us in the technological age. I think the scariest thing is that a recent documentary from the UK showed scientist prove that radio waves completely disrupt melatonin production in the brain and we are all consistently exposed to them since we can't do without a cell phone nowadays and towers are literally everywhere!
In the last decade or so research has shown why melatonin is so important and how it does a lot more than just regulate sleep cycles. It has been shown to guard the nervous system against degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and stroke. It is a very powerful antioxidant that protects both lipids and proteins from damage and is a potent free radical fighter. Melatonin also crosses the blood-brain barrier to protect the brain. Others studies have shown everything from fighting certain cancers,preventing debilitating migraines,to reducing oxidative stress.
Now that we have covered melatonin,lets get back to the whole architecture of sleep. Our sleep follows a predictable pattern that moves back and forth between deep restorative sleep(deep sleep) and more alert stages of dreaming(REM sleep). Together,the stages of REM and NREM sleep form a complete cycle. Each cycle lasts approximately 90 minutes and repeats 4-6 time a night. The time spent in each stage changes as the night progresses and most of the deep sleep occurs in the first half of the night. That is why we rarely wake up right after we fall asleep and if we do wake early it is in early hours of morning. Later your REM sleep stages become longer and alternate between light stage 2 sleep.
Many of us have accumulated a 'sleep debt'. Sleep debt is a result of not sleeping enough for an extended period of time. You are going into debt every time you skip out on proper sleep. You cannot get out of debt by just sleeping in for a couple of weekends. To get back on track you need to put a few things into practice.
-Sleep 7.5-9 hours a night regularly
-Settle short term sleep debt with extra 1-2 hours sleep a night
-Keep track of your sleep habits in your daily log or keep a sleep diary
-MAKE SLEEP A PRIORITY!
Obviously proper and quality sleep which goes hand in hand with healthy melatonin production is very important. I have unfortunately experienced severe sleep debt from working night shifts or just not sleeping well. I felt absolutely horrible. Completely inflamed with joint pain and aches plus a constant disoriented feeling and my brain just felt like it was running on 20% capacity. Slow reactions and couldn't think right with no chance in hell at coming up with anything creative. Again like I opened up this article,whenever I ask health professionals what the single most important thing that should be fixed for proper health and quality of life,the majority always say "FIX YOUR SLEEP PATTERNS!".