Be Healthier, Sleep Better
Have you ever considered that one of the simplest things you can do to improve your health and your overall functioning throughout the day is to improve the quality and duration of your sleep?
Most of us had a bed time when we were kids. Ensuring that we received a good night’s rest was our parent’s mission. Just like eating our veggies, brushing our teeth, and washing our hands before eating, going to sleep early was one of those parental laws you simply had to abide by. As we’ve grown up, and our lives have become encumbered by the seemingly infinite amount of responsibilities that come with adulthood, many of us have come to regard long hours of sleep as a low-priority luxury with no space in our practical lives.
However, nothing can be farther from the truth. We’ve all heard about the recommended eight hour sleep period, and some of us have probably disregarded this rule as an intangible or unnecessary ideal. But it is not just a superficial recommendation. Having a complete, uninterrupted sleep cycle bestows many more vital advantages than simply feeling a little more energetic in the morning.
What can go wrong by not sleeping well?
Sleep deprivation has an evident, negative physiological impact. Chronic lack of sleep or constantly interrupted/shortened sleep cycles cause a reduction in cognitive performance— disrupting your ability to learn, form memories, and solve problems. Sleep deprivation also affects your mood and it has been linked to the development of diabetes and obesity.
Healthy sleep and the normal sleep cycle
As we sleep, our brains progress through a series of stages which comprise a sleep cycle. We go through various sleep cycles throughout the night. There are four stages of sleep that correspond to what is known as non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep and a fifth stage known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Each stage is associated with a certain type of brain activity and they each differ in how deeply asleep we are.
When we first start to doze off we enter stage 1, which is very light sleep. At this stage it is easy to wake someone up. We soon enter into stage 2 and our brain starts to exhibit different wave activity. As we fall more deeply asleep, we enter stages 3 and 4 which are known as slow-wave sleep (SWS). It is much more difficult to wake someone in these stages. These stages are thought to participate in our brain’s ability to process and consolidate newly acquired information. SWS plays an important role in the formation of what is known as declarative memory—which is our ability to recall facts and verbal knowledge (such as the definition of a word or what movie we watched last night). Furthermore, the body releases important restorative hormones, such as growth hormone at this time.
After stage four, we enter in REM sleep, in which our brain’s arousal level is very close to wakefulness. This is the stage mostly associated with dreaming. This stage has also been linked to the development of declarative memory, but it also thought to play a role in the consolidation of procedural memory, which are our unconscious skills (like riding a bike or brushing our teeth).
The Take-Home Message
Sleeping is much more than a method for restoring energy, as it is an integral part of our neurological functioning. Making the necessary accommodations to get a good-night’s rest should be our priority. Simply sleeping a few hours and then drowning yourself in coffee the next morning is simply not enough. Likewise, sleeping a few hours during the night and thinking that you may be able to squeeze in a so-called power nap at some point during the day will likewise not suffice. It is import to engage in continuous, long-duration sleep in order for your brain to successfully go through each stage.
So the next time you are deciding between going to sleep early or staying up to go over the notes for tomorrow’s presentation or for a final exam remember that you will significantly improve your cognitive performance by choosing sleep.