This is the first chapter of our series ‘The Big Snooze’. We’ll be looking at how we sleep, what happens to our bodies when we nod off, and how you can make sure you’re giving your body and mind the rest they need.
Getting enough sleep is a modern-day obsession. We’ve moved from glamorising the ‘burning it at both ends’ lifestyle, to understanding how important sleep is for our health and wellbeing. But between stress, technology and raising families, a worrying number of people feel constantly tired.
One of the difficulties with sleep is that quality, over quantity, really does count. While a micro-nap after a late night may momentarily revive you, without moving through a complete sleep cycle your body isn’t getting the full benefits of rest.
The stages of sleep1
As we sleep, our brains and bodies move through five different stages: 1,2,3,4 and REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. These stages are roughly defined by what is happening with our physiology and brain activity as we rest2.
Stage 1 – This is considered ‘light sleep’ and should be experienced shortly after going to bed. During this period your muscle activity reduces, your eye movement will decrease, and some people may experience a ‘falling’ sensation.
Stage 2 – During stage two, our eye movements stop altogether and our brainwaves slow – occasionally being interrupted by short bursts of activity known as ‘sleep spindles’.
Stage 3 – This is the first stage of deep sleep, characterised by the appearance of extremely slow brainwaves known as delta waves. These are interspersed with the occasional shorter, faster wave.
Stage 4 – By this point, the sleeper is very difficult to wake, and their brain is almost solely producing delta waves. Sleepers who are awoken during this stage of deep sleep will often feel highly disorientated.
REM – This usually occurs around 70-90 minutes after first falling asleep. The heart rate increases, blood pressure rises and eyes will jerk rapidly. It is during this stage that we experience dreams.
Why do you need REM and deep sleep?
REM and deep sleep are the restorative phases of sleep when your body’s muscle and tissue are repaired. Not getting enough of these phases interrupts this important repair process and can interfere with your memory and your ability to learn. You’re also likely to wake feeling tired and unenergetic.
If our REM cycle is disrupted, our bodies shortcut the normal sleep stages and will slip straight into REM the next time we fall asleep. This process of ‘catch up’ could indicate the importance of this stage of the cycle.
What stops you reaching deep sleep?
If you live on a busy street, in a building with thin walls, have small children, or simply share a double bed with a restless sleeper you’ll know sleepless nights aren’t always your fault. But there are factors which you can control to help give you the best chance of reaching deep sleep.
Think that a night-cap helps settle you down for a peaceful night’s sleep? Think again. While alcohol is a sedative that can help you fall asleep quicker, it actually prevents the body from reaching the REM stage of sleep. So, while you might sleep well during the first half of the night, as your body processes the alcohol you will only be able to achieve lighter sleep. If you want to wake up feeling fully refreshed, avoid drinking alcohol too close to bedtime.
During REM sleep, our bodies lose some of their ability to regulate temperature. We don’t sweat or shiver during this stage of the sleep cycle, so if your environment gets too hot or too cold you may awaken mid-REM.
Maintaining the right temperature doesn’t just come down to fiddling with the thermostat or throwing on another blanket or two. Your bed, bedding and the mattress you use will affect your temperature throughout the night.
If you have a partner who radiates warmth, moving from a double to a king size bed may allow more air to circulate under the covers, keeping you cooler. Also, consider the firmness of your mattress. The more ‘sink’ a mattress provides, the more heat it will trap around your body. So, if you prefer to sleep at a cooler temperature, then firmer models could suit you better.
Stress and sleep deprivation is something of a chicken-and-egg situation. The cycle of one causing the other is tough to break. However, studies have shown that increased cortisol levels (the hormone associated with stress) reduce the amount of REM experienced.
Stress itself is hard to avoid, but there are things you can do to alleviate how it affects your sleep:
- Meditate before bed. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce sleep disturbance4.
- Declutter your bedroom. Studies have shown that cluttered rooms raise cortisol levels, increasing stress5. For extra bedroom storage, consider ottoman beds, or optimising your wardrobe space with space saving slider wardrobes.
- Avoid stimulants – coffee, tea and nicotine all inhibit your body’s ability to reach deep sleep.
- Stay off screens just before you sleep. Cell phones, computers and tablets produce a blue light that affects your sleep/wake cycle.
Improving the quality of your sleep can have a huge impact on your quality of life. Looking at what you eat, drink and do before bed, and how you construct your sleeping environment can all contribute to helping you reach the coveted phase of ‘deep sleep’. If you’re considering getting a better night’s rest, our beds buying guide can give you a steer on which of our beds will fulfil your needs.
So, if you struggle to get to sleep or find yourself wide awake in the early hours, consider how your evening routine and sleep environment might be working against you. Because when you master the art of deep sleep, you’ll find you can do it with your eyes closed.