Sleep. You might look forward to it all day, you may prefer a firm or a soft mattress, one or two pillows, you might associate it with a falling sensation, you might take medication to help you get it but the one thing most of us have in common? We do not get enough sleep.
Sleep has always been strange to me. I have always had trouble sleeping. I can remember as a very young child willing myself to go to sleep. I would lay in my childhood bedroom and have a competition with myself to see how long I could keep my eyes closed. I also remember laying on a cot in daycare at about four years old, all the other children snoozing around me as I quietly stared up at the ceiling, making up stories in my head.
As I have grown into adulthood, doctors have tried prescriptions, I have tried melatonin, but my body either adjusts to the medication and stays awake anyway, or it is so powerful that I cannot stay awake during the day. On any given night, I could pull an all-niter. This superpower gave me an advantage in high school and college, but nowadays? I am so tired. I live a normal life with a (approximate) 9 to 5 work schedule. So, as I lay in my bed the other night, staring up at the ceiling, counting the hours until my alarm would go off, waiting for sleep to come while I listened to my dog snore, I started thinking...what is sleep anyways?
I have been researching all week for this column and there is so much more to sleep than I ever knew. In fact, there is much more to sleep than even scientists know. In fact, until the 1950s, scientists thought that when we sleep, we are dormant. This means that science used to tell us that when we fell asleep at night, all of our organs stopped but our hearts. Now, we know not only is there activity, but during a stage of sleep called REM, there is even more brain activity than we usually have throughout the day. But, I am getting ahead of myself.
According to the American Sleep Association (ASA), nerve-signaling chemicals called neurotransmitters control whether we are asleep or awake by acting on different groups of nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain. When we fall asleep, certain neurons appear to “switch off” the signals that keep us awake. In simpler terms, the relaxing and comfortable sinking feeling that we get as we fall asleep is actually, to a certain extent, our brains switching off.
After we fall asleep, our bodies enter stages. There are five stages of sleep: one, two, three, four and REM (rapid eye movement). During sleep, we cycle from one to REM and then start over again. According to the ASA, we spend 50 percent of total sleep in stage two sleep. Stage one sleep is a light sleep where we drift in and out of consciousness. As we start to fall deeper, stage two sleep kicks in and our eye movements and brain waves become slower.
Stages three and four of sleep are characterized by something called “delta waves.” These stages are known as deep sleep because there is no eye movement or muscle activity. After this stage, our bodies start to move into the most important stage of sleep, REM.
At this point of scientific understanding, while it cannot be proven yet, scientists believe that REM sleep is when the body sorts through everything that happened throughout the day. Your brain is deciding what to “file” and what to get rid of. People who are deprived of REM sleep reportedly suffer memory loss. According to the ASA, lab rats deprived of REM sleep only survive for about five weeks, while those deprived of all sleep only survive about three weeks.
We obviously need sleep, but how much? Well, new studies suggest that how much sleep we need depends on how we live our lives, but adults from age 18 to 64 need seven to nine hours of sleep and adults 65 and older need seven to eight hours of sleep. However, because of the important developmental changes that happen in our brains, children under the age of 18 need a lot more sleep. In fact, the National Sleep Foundation breaks the age groups down into six categories, ranging from newborns (need 14 to 17 hours of sleep per day) to teenagers (need 8 to 10 hours of sleep per day).
All right, you can put your pencils down, I am putting away the chalkboard. I have always been fascinated by science and can get carried away. I could write about this all day, and do not even get me started on dreams.
Sometimes even when I have technically slept for long enough, I still feel exhausted. This can be largely attributed to the quality of sleep that we get. I know I am not alone in this, so here are some tips and tricks to getting the best quality of sleep.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, you can get better sleep by sticking to a sleep schedule and practicing a relaxing bedtime ritual. In addition, exercising daily, avoiding caffeine and alcohol and turning off all electronics before bed can help us get better sleep. That last one I have some trouble with. I have always gone to sleep with the television turned on. It never kept me awake until the last few years.
I have been making some changes in my life lately. I am planning more for the future instead of my early twenties when everything was “in the moment.” I have started an exercise routine and I am trying to eat healthier. I think finally figuring out what is enough sleep for me will be integral to my overall health. Even more than that, I think getting quality sleep will be the final puzzle piece in my more healthy lifestyle. So, I am going to try to follow all the rules to get better sleep and I will let you know how it goes. Until then, sweet dreams!