It feels ridiculous to me how much people underestimate the importance of sleep nowadays.
I have experimented with sleeping patterns quite extensively and I have come to the following conclusion:
Sleep is the best cure for any problem you might encounter.
I just can’t recall the countless times I have been in the midst of a creative block or I was facing an emotional rollercoaster and decided to stop whatever I was doing, take a good 7-8 hour sleep and the moment I woke up I was ready to face my challenge from a fresh perspective.
What most people fail to understand is that sleep works as a tool to clear the brain’s short memory storage.
In a study conducted at UC Berkeley in 2007, the researchers found that fact-based memories are temporarily stored in the hippocampus before being sent to the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which may have more storage space.
The brain has a limited amount of energy at its disposal, and it appears that it must choose between two different functional states — awake and aware, or asleep and cleaning up. You can think of it like having a house party. You can either entertain the guests, or clean up the house, but you can't really do both at the same time.
There is nothing worst for your brain than underestimating its capacity and processing power. The way you would reboot your computer, when you experience lagging, the same way you should reboot your brain when you see that it fails you.
Needless to say that sleep is in my top 5 activities along with reading, writing, speaking and meditation that have had a huge impact in enhancing my cognitive performance.
In this article I will delve into the science of sleep and share some great insight on what affects our sleeping patterns and also offer concrete advice on how to improve your sleeping practices and elevate your energy levels.
Let’s get started.
Understanding the sleep stages
To be honest, one of the reasons I decided to write this article was because I wanted to finally understand properly what all those weird terms related to sleep stages mean. I was reading here and there about Theta brain waves and Beta sensory moto rhythms and I had no idea what was going on.
Highly influenced by my procrastination when it comes to complicated terms I usually closed the source I was reading and continued my day with something more interesting.
Today however I managed to get serious about these terms and I will try and explain to you what they mean in simple words.
So, when it comes to sleep, the first thing we need to understand is that it is strongly associated with our brain and how it works.
You can think of our brain as a huge network of interconnected cells called neurons. The way neurons communicate with each other is by sending synchronized electrical pulses, which in return produce what we usually refer to as brain waves.
Now, the frequency of each brain wave depends on the activity that is going on inside our brains. We don’t need to get into much detail here, but the following table can give you a good idea of what different frequencies mean for the activity of the brain:
Source: Sleep, Rock Thy Brain
Simply put, the higher the frequency of the brainwave, the higher the activity in our brains.
Now, when it comes to sleep, sleepers pass through five stages: 1, 2, 3, 4 and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.
Each stage is associated with different brain waves and when we successfully pass through all the stages we eventually achieve a sleep cycle, which happens usually within 90 minutes but I will come back to this.
Firstly, let’s explain each stage briefly:
Stage 1: This is a light sleep stage where you drift in and out of sleep and can be awakened easily. During this stage we go through Alpha and Theta brain waves, and have periods of dreaminess, almost like daydreaming, except we are beginning to fall asleep.
Stage 2: The second stage of sleep lasts about 20 minutes. Our brain begins to produce very short periods of rapid, rhythmic brain waves. Body temperature begins dropping and heart rate starts slowing down.
Stage 3: The deep, slow brain waves known as Delta Waves, as explained above, begin to emerge during this stage. It is a transitional period between light sleep and a very deep sleep.
Stage 4: In stage 4, the brain produces delta waves almost exclusively. Stage Four is a deep sleep that lasts for about 30 minutes. Sleepwalking and bed-wetting typically happen at the end of Stage 4 sleep.
Stage 5 – REM: This is where most dreaming occurs. During this stage people experience rapid eye movement and increased brain activity. The frequency increases to around 15-30 Hz, hence generating Beta waves, which are brain waves produced when we are focused in a mental activity. This is probably the reason why the dream feels so real.
Here is a table that explains everything clearly:
Source: Sleep, Rock Thy Brain
According to the research psychcentral has done on the topic:
“Sleep does not progress through all of these stages in sequence, however. Sleep begins in Stage One and progresses into stages 2, 3, and 4. Then, after Stage 4 sleep, Stages 3, then 2 are repeated before going into REM sleep. Once REM is over, we usually return to Stage 2 sleep. Sleep cycles through these stages approximately 4 or 5 times throughout the night.”
Usually 4-5 sleep cycles are enough to get a good night sleep but since each sleep cycle takes around 90 minutes to complete, you need to be careful not to wake up during the deep sleep stage because the wake up will be an awful experience.
I will suggest a great way to prevent that in the hacks below.
The Circadian Rhythm – What dictates our sleep-wake cycle?
If you ask a neuroscientist why do we actually need sleep, most probably you will get a vague answer. Scientists simply don’t know for sure. And that’s because asking this type of question is like asking what is the meaning of life?
Simply put, sleeping is a recovery process essential for our survival.
During the day, brain cells build connections with other parts of the brain as a result of new experiences. During sleep, it seems that important connections are strengthened and unimportant ones are pruned.
Additionally, as I stated at the beginning of the article, sleep is also an opportunity for the brain to be cleared of waste and help you continue your life in a rebooted state.
What is interesting to notice, however, is that our sleep-wake cycle doesn’t really happen on demand, but it is somehow affected by the way we live and our external environment.
This is most commonly referred to as a “circadian rhythm.”
According to Wikipedia:
“A circadian rhythm /sɜrˈkeɪdiən/ is any biological process that displays an endogenous, entrainable oscillation of about 24 hours.”
Explanation of odd words:
Circadian: Comes from the latin circa, which means around or approximately and diēs, which means day = Around the day.
Endogenous: Built-in, self-sustained.
Entrainable: Capable of being entrained, adjusted.
Simply put, circadian rhythms are regular changes in mental and physical processes that occur in the course of a day.
Circadian rhythms are controlled by a specific part of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN or mostly known as “the biological clock.” This is a very sensitive part of the brain that contains about 20,000 neurons and it also regulates melatonin production, which happens in the brain region called Pineal Gland. It is connected to the optic nerve and when light reaches our eye’s photoreceptors, it creates signals that travel across the optic nerve, directly to SCN. Then SCN sends a signal to the Pineal Gland and melatonin production stops. Therefore, light plays such a huge role in how we sleep.
Here is an image that illustrates how a circadian rhythm affects our body:
A combination of light, temperature and melatonin levels is what actually affects our sleep patterns.
10 Sleep Hacks to get the most out of your sleep
Recently I stumbled upon this book called “Night School” by Richard Wiseman who is a very famous British psychologist. “Night School” is based on exciting new research, mass-participation experiments and the world’s largest archive of dream reports.
Dr. Wiseman shares some very interesting hacks in his book that can help you sleep easier and get the most out of your sleep. I will share here most of them along with other important pieces of advice I gathered from different sources and publications.
Check them out:
1. Get rid of electronic devices before bed
Dr. Wiseman mentions that:
“Ten minutes of a smartphone in front of your nose is about the equivalent of an hour long walk in bright daylight. Imagine going for an hour long walk in bright daylight and then thinking, “Now I’ll get some sleep.” It ain’t going to happen. In the middle of the night you wake up and think, “Aw, I’ll just check Twitter, email or Facebook,” and, of course, you’re being flooded with that blue light. You’re not going to be getting back to sleep very easily for the next hour or so.”
Bottom-line, avoid laptops, smartphones and tablets 1h before bed.
2. Use the 90-minute rule
“When you sleep, your brain cycles through different stages, each lasting 90 minutes. You will feel most refreshed when you awake at the end of a 90-minute sleep cycle because you will be closest to your normal waking state,” writes Dr. Wiseman in Night School.
So, starting from when you want to wake up, count back in 90-minute intervals to work out when you should fall asleep.
There is this cool web app called sleepyti.me, which can help you with the calculation. For example, if you want to get up at 7am, try falling asleep at either 11.30pm or 10pm.
Additionally you can use the Sleep Cycle app that monitors the movement of your body while you sleep and can estimate the sleep stage you are in, thus making sure to activate the alarm clock during the time you find yourself at light sleep.
3. Make sure your bed is facing your room door
You will feel most relaxed at night if your bed faces the door of your room and is furthest from it. Why? Because your primitive ancestors were sleeping in caves and could be attacked by wild animals any time. You are evolved to feel safe when you can spot danger early and still have time to run away.
4. Listen to sleep meditation or calming music before bed
Guided meditation can help you enter into sleep and enjoy a deep, restorative sleep. Through guided sleep meditation, your muscles will relax, your breathing will become slow and deep, and your common daily thoughts will be replaced with rich, dreamlike imagery. My favorite app for this purpose is enjoy a moment of calm.
You can also listen to this music, which, according to Dr. Wiseman, is scientifically designed to help you nod off.
5. Sleep in total darkness
As we suggested above, daylight directly inhibits the release of melatonin in your brain. Melatonin is a natural hormone released in your blood when darkness occurs and helps your body feel less alert, thus making sleep more inviting. Therefore, I would strongly recommend reinforcing your room with window blinds or really dark curtains.
Additionally a sleep mask might come handy (here is one I like) and also if you don’t want to wake up to the sounds of the city in the morning, those earplugs can help you eliminate all external noises.
6. Take a bath or shower before bed
According to Wiseman: “Lying in a warm bath artificially raises your body temperature, but when you climb out of the bath this temperature abruptly drops and sends a signal to your body that you are ready for sleep.”
As you can see in the circadian rhythm image above, your body reaches its lowest temperature around 4.30AM. The lowest the body temperature, the easier you sleep.
7. Keep your room in the right temperature
The temperature of your bedroom also affects sleep. Most people sleep best in a slightly cool room (around 65°F or 18°C) with adequate ventilation. A bedroom that is too hot or too cold can interfere with quality sleep.
8. Use melatonin supplements
If your natural melatonin levels are low and you experience trouble reaching deep sleep stage, melatonin supplements can help you improve your sleep cycles and sleep better. In most cases, melatonin supplements are safe in low doses for short-term and long-term use, but be sure to talk with your doctor about taking them.
9. A good evening routine
It is extremely important to get rid of your worries before you go to bed because unpleasant thoughts and anxieties might interfere with your sleep and in some cases also cause nightmares.
Since I started my “30 Challenges | 30 Days | Zero Excuses” project, the evening routine was paramount for the quality of my sleep.
My usual evening routine looks like this:
- Eat dinner.
- Celebrate small wins and the completion of my tasks for the day.
- Write in my journal (releases stress and allows room for self-reflection).
- Perform self-gratitude.
- Create a task list for the next day (releases stress and worries).
- Read for 45mins to 1hour.
I would strongly recommend trying some of those tasks before going to bed especially if you experience sleep deprivation.
10. For Naps. Drink a coffee before a quick nap.
Caffeine usually takes 20 minutes to kick in, which means that you will wake up extra alert.
Sleep deprivation is a menace nowadays and I truly believe that raising awareness in this area and understanding the countless benefits of a good night sleep is a great way to tackle the issue and improve the quality of our lives.
Especially if you experience creative blocks, social anxiety and productivity issues, managing to take control of your sleep patterns will result to optimizing your performance levels.
And remember; don’t mess around with the hours of your sleep. 7-8 hours is the minimum amount required. If you need to wake up early just go to bed early.
Focus on improving your time management skills and everything will come naturally. “30 Challenges | 30 Days | Zero Excuses” is a great place to start.
This article was originally posted in www.thequintessentialman.com.