Very few things feel better than crawling into bed after a long day and resting your head on a soft pillow. Unfortunately, many people in today’s world have trouble falling and staying asleep. Or, you might get a full night’s rest, only to wake up feeling just as tired as you did when you went to bed. This consistent feeling of exhaustion can be frustrating and actually lead to health problems.
Humans spend about one-third of our lives asleep, and not just because it’s relaxing. Sleep is necessary for our general wellbeing. Our mental, physical and emotional health can all suffer if we don’t get enough sleep each night—sleep deprivation has proven to cause decreased cognitive ability, poor memory, low energy levels, higher stress and greater chances of depression and anxiety in individuals of all ages.
If you are struggling with your sleep, there might be a few things going on. Your body’s natural rhythms might be out of whack, or you might be stimulating your body when it needs to calm down at the end of the day. To help you get a solid night’s rest, you need to first understand the basics of sleep and how you can promote the best nighttime routine possible.
Importance of sleep and how much we need
We’ve all had a bad night of sleep here and there. Afterwards, we usually wake up feeling groggy, slow and physically exhausted. This is because sleep helps your body in so many ways. It is the ultimate restorative process. Sleep can help your mind stay sharp, help you deal with stress and anxiety, heal bodily tissues, fight off illnesses and much more. In a way, sleep is just as crucial as food and water!
So, if sleep is so important, how much should you actually be getting? Most people think they need 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night, but the ideal number really varies based on your age and your own individual body composition.
In general, younger children up into their teen years, as well as elderly individuals, need more hours of sleep per night—even up to 10 hours. The average adult will typically need between 7 and 9 hours a sleep a night—a number that is often not hit due to increasingly long work hours and busy schedules.
How your body rotates through sleep stages
When you fall asleep, your body doesn’t just shut down for 8 hours a night. Sleep is actually a very active process in which your brain, heart, lungs and more are working hard.
Sleep can be broken down into two distinct phases: REM (rapid-eye movement) and NREM (non-REM). You’ll usually start with NREM, followed by short stages of REM that get longer over the course of the night.
NREM has four distinct stages: stages 1 and 2 are more light sleep, while stages 3 and 4 are much deeper sleep. These stages of deep sleep are when your body heals the most, restoring tissue and strengthening your immune system.
After NREM stages 1 through 4, you’ll typically enter REM sleep. During REM, you are likely to experience vivid dreaming, as well as an accelerated heart rate and increased brain activity. Working through all the stages of sleep takes around two hours, after which each stage is continuously repeated throughout the night.
You’ll usually feel more refreshed if you wake up between stages of deep, NREM sleep, instead of waking up during REM sleep. Paying attention to your body and timing your sleep schedule to accommodate for these stages can help you wake up feeling more rested.
How to get a better night’s rest
Your body operates on 24-hour circadian rhythms, which control your body’s cyclical processes, including body temperature, metabolism, hormone release and other factors contributing to sleep. These rhythms can change over time, but it’s usually best to follow your body’s natural pattern.
When you begin to feel sleepy at a particular time each night, that is your body’s natural rhythm for sleep kicking into gear. Maintaining a consistent routine every day that follows your body’s natural rhythm will help you get better sleep.
Taking time away from screens can help you sleep better, too. The light from a phone or computer can delay your body’s release of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate your circadian rhythms. Melatonin production slows in the presence of light, which is why you might have trouble falling asleep. You can also take melatonin supplements to help you fall asleep more easily and feel more rested in the morning.
Additionally, avoid drinking caffeine for at least five hours before bed. Caffeine is a stimulant and will keep your body hyped up and active when it should be winding down.
If you suffer from persistent insomnia, speak with your doctor to see if an underlying health issue such as sleep apnea or an illness could be affecting your sleep. Otherwise, focus on maintaining consistent sleep patterns and make an effort to get enough sleep every night to help your body feel stronger, healthier and more awake each day.