Struggling with sleep deprivation or insomnia? Wellbeing Activist, Entrepreneur, Author, and Humanitarian Dr Lola Tillyaeva reveals how to achieve the perfect night’s sleep
Until the 1920s, scientists believed that when we sleep, our brains shut down.
It was only when researchers began to measure brain electricity using scalp sensors – what’s known as an electroencephalogram or EEG – that it became clear that the brain is far from passive or inactive during sleep.
Today, we know much more about all that our brains and our bodies accomplish while we sleep.
Good sleep habits are critical both for our present and long-term physical health as well as our mental and emotional well-being.
Whatever your life stage, if your sleep is disrupted or you suffer from insomnia, some reliable tools that may help improve your sleep patterns include:
- Practise deep breathing, meditation or other relaxation techniques just before bedtime
- Avoid caffeine after 2pm and remember that alcohol is the enemy of good sleep
- Try going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, to instil a good sleep rhythm
- Keep your bedroom temperature between 18-22 degrees Celsius: warmer temperatures can interfere with your body’s ability to achieve deeper, more consistent sleep
- Switch off all screens 60-90 minutes before bedtime: the blue light interferes with your biological clock and circadian rhythms that regulate sleep.
What happens while we sleep?
While we sleep, our brains are hard at work processing the information we’ve gathered during the day: filing some away for future use, discarding some and using some to create long-term memories or even solutions.
It’s why sometimes we awake with a freshly-formed answer in our mind to a problem or decision we’ve been grappling with – and why there’s so much truth in the phrase ‘let me sleep on it’.
There’s also good science behind the notion of ‘beauty sleep’. While we sleep, our bodies release the antioxidant hormone melatonin, which helps the skin repair itself from damage and pollutants experienced during waking hours.
While we sleep, our brains are hard at work processing the information we’ve gathered during the day
Good quality sleep also replenishes collagen, the protein that, among many other functions, maintains the elasticity and firmness of the skin. This is why we look refreshed after a good night’s sleep.
Other regenerative work that happens during sleep builds long-term health benefits by strengthening our immune system and possibly even protects us from dementia.
The spaces between our brain cells are bathed by cerebrospinal fluid that washes away toxins accumulated during our waking hours, including some implicated in dementia.
Meanwhile, our immune system releases cytokines, proteins produced by our cells, that help regulate the body’s response to disease, infection, inflammation and trauma.
The four phases of sleep
But a good night’s sleep isn’t just about getting the recommended seven or eight hours. Good quality sleep is when the brain goes through four phases, making up a cycle of about 90 minutes that repeats while we sleep.
This matters because the brain and body do different jobs during each of the four phases.
During the first and second phases, the brain waves gradually slow down. After about 30 minutes, our brains enter the third phase, settling into a slow, deep, delta waves pattern: this deep sleep is the body’s refreshing and regenerative period.
It’s also believed by some neuroscientists that this phase helps clear the brain to receive new information the next day.
The fourth and final phase is when we dream, during which the brain processes thoughts and experiences of the day.
the stress hormone cortisol are at their lowest during the final three hours of sleep
One of the many benefits of meditation is that the restorative delta brain waves of the third phase can also be attained during a deep meditative state.
Our levels of the stress hormone cortisol are at their lowest during the final three hours of sleep, so if your sleep is cut short, your body and mind don’t get as much of a break from stress.
And if you feel unrested even after getting eight hours’ sleep, it’s likely that you didn’t get enough deep sleep. It’s during the deep sleep phases that our sleep cycle is most disrupted by stress, alcohol, drugs and other harmful factors.
Good quality sleep is essential to good health and well-being because, without it, we miss out on all this restorative and regenerative work by our brain and body.
So, it’s not surprising that chronic sleep deprivation increases the risk of depression, obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and a weakened immune system.
There’s much about sleep that is still mysterious and research continues. One key area of focus is sleep disruption experienced by older adults due to changes in the body’s internal clock – the circadian rhythms that help determine sleep habits.
While there’s promising research into manipulating the genes that influence circadian rhythms, it’s clear for now that maintaining good sleep habits is a key factor in promoting longevity.
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