What happens when we sleep and 8 ways to improve it

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What happens when we sleep?

Our sleep works in a cycle of phases: Phase 1, 2, 3, 4 and REM. REM stands for, Rapid Eye Movement (characterised by fluttering eyes).

Phase 1: This phase is light transitional sleep. In this phase you may be aware. It’s where drowsiness begins and you slip in and out of consciousness. Some people may suddenly experience a jerk in this stage which wakes them up.

Phase 2: This is the phase in which you fully fall asleep. Sleep becomes stable and it is difficult to awaken. Here is where your heart rate and body temperature decreases. This was an important stage for our ancestors, as the lowered heart rate and temperature would make them harder to spot by predators. As much as 50% of your sleep cycle is in this phase. Eye movement and brain waves also slow down.

Phases 3 & 4: These phases are often grouped together being so similar. They are the stages of deep sleep and is when growth hormones are released. These stages are the hardest to wake from; doing so would likely result in disorientation and feeling drained. You may even feel physical discomfort such as a headache. I myself recall an instance where I was awoken in this stage and felt as if my organs were on fire!

In these phases your brain experiences slow brain waves, also known as Delta waves. Whilst this is where dreams can begin, sleep disorders such as nightmares and sleep walking can occur in this phase too; in children, this is where bed wetting can happen.

Although most problems can arise in these phases, it is also where the most rejuvenation can occur as well. Your muscles and hormones are replenished and therefore blood flow is repaired.

REM: Also known as Stage 5, REM is where revitalised memory and dreaming occurs. This is the time where the brain is prepared to wake up, and also where dreams and nightmares can occur.

Memory and learning are processed and stored in this phase. You might have seen Pixar’s “Inside out” movie, wherein Riley goes to sleep and the control centre in her brain sends her memories from the day through to long-term memory libraries, and then her brain tries to make sense of her emotions of that day by piecing them together in a logical order creating a disjointed narrative which plays out as a dream. Such is the case in real life!

REM is often prioritised and even extended to catch up on lost quality sleep. If an individual is sleep deprived, they may slip into REM straight away to compensate for the lack of sleep.

In an average person, these 5 stages occur every 90 to 120 minutes and ideally will occur 4-6 times in a night. If these cycles aren’t repeated enough times, the person will become sleep deprived which can lead to impaired bodily functions. The length of each stage and the quality of each cycle will depend on variables of the individual, such as age, the previous sleep cycle, stress and state of health.

Why is sleep so important to our health?

You’ve no doubt heard of fight or flight, and you might have heard of rest and digest; this is exactly what sleeping is. It is the state the body goes into in order to rest and heal the body. Detoxification and the body’s natural healing processes kick in when we sleep. Missing out on a full 8 hours sleep is stopping your body from doing its natural functions that keep you healthy.

We live busy lives, and when one factors in children and careers, sleep can often become an afterthought. Margaret Thatcher famously said that she survived on 4 hours sleep a night, however this isn’t something we should strive for. When you lose out on sleep, you bank that requirement and the stress of sleep loss will take its toll on the body.

Sleep is vital for our emotional and mental health. You’ve likely heard of the phrase “sleep on it!” when making a decision; there is a scientific basis for this too. Sleep is when our brains process information, emotions and heal mentally from a day’s worth of data. This information is played out in the form of dreams and is why we should pay attention to nightmares that disturb our sleep.

8 Ways to improve sleep:

Steps to improve your sleep are quite aptly named sleep-hygiene techniques.

1.Avoid stimulation before bed: Blue lights!
One of the most notable things you can do for your health and a for a better night sleep is to avoid stimulation before you go to bed, especially from screens and electronic devices. Ideally, you should avoid screen time for at least 1-2 hours before going to bed. All that information you’re downloading into your brain from social media and the rest of the Internet will likely keep you up and stimulated when you should be winding down.

Blue light from screens block the production of the hormone melatonin which is required to initiate sleep. Blue light has a high intensity and can damage retinal structures through photo-chemical and photo-oxidative reactions. Short-term exposure can manifest as eye-fatigue, strain and headaches. Long-term can lead to gradual damage and loss of visual function.

Most people are aware of the effects of blue lights now and if you have to use screens close to bed time, most phones come with a night mode (that you can have on throughout the day too) which turns off the blue light. You can also use apps such as ‘F.lux’ that sets the screen to a gentle, amber tone.

2.Light and darkness
Light has an impact on the circadian rhythm, so you should switch off all devices at night and close the curtains to stop light coming through. Your body’s master clock receives light information through the optic nerve relaying information to the brain. When there is no light at night, the body knows that it is time to release melatonin. Artificial lights tell your body that it’s still daytime, so it’s not time to release melatonin yet.

So whilst you avoid the light at night, you should also get enough sun during the day. Vitamin D3 from the sun helps to build your melatonin levels during the day to help you trigger sleep ready for the night.

Those who work at night or shift work, can find this particularly tricky.

3.Journaling
Keeping a journal is a good way to support the quality of sleep because it helps to give clarity of the day. Part of the role REM and dreaming has, is to break down information acquired during the day; essentially to reset the mind, so keeping a journal can start this process for you so that this doesn’t need to be as extended or vivid. Vivid dreams can be a sign that you have excess of vitamin B6, but they can also indicate that you are spending too much time in REM sleep.

Journaling can also be in the form of a to do list. If you have a lot on your mind or can’t stop thinking about all the things you need to do, making a to do list before bed can help put you at ease.

4.Bedtime yoga or meditation
Yoga specifically tailored to relaxing the entire body and mind can help you to let go of pent up tension and bring your mind into a peaceful state ready to sleep.

Meditation is a wonderful tool to help reconnect to the body and connect to a more peaceful state. Although we should be avoiding screens, you can download apps with guided meditation that you can listen to.

5.Routine
Our body likes routines. Our bowels certainly like it, and our sleep cycle does too. Having regular sleep and rising times helps your body run on a circadian rhythm. This is a biological clock the body has which runs on a 24 hours cycle. Jetlag is an example of how your body feels when this cycle is disrupted. With jetlag, the normal cycle of the day changes which confuses your biological clock. The sun works as your body’s scheduler to tell you when to sleep and when to wake up. Try and stick as close to these times as possible. Obviously, throughout the year these times vary. You can’t necessarily go to sleep at 4pm in winter and wake at 4am in summer, especially when we have our working hours to consider, but staying as close to these sunrises and sunsets as possible can help.

6.Keep it cool
Sleep can be disturbed if your temperature isn’t between 16-19°C.

Synthetics can trap heat, so use breathable fabrics at night. Your mattress, pillow and duvets ideally should be temperatures sensitive and not be made with synthetic materials. This may require a significant investment, but we spend 33% of our lives in bed, and sleep should not be overlooked when living a healthy life, so it’s worth it. You’re worth it!

If temperature is an issue that you know you struggle with, you can try diffusing lavender as it is a natural body cooler. It may help slow the heart rate which is useful for phase two of sleep when the core temperature drops.

7.Atmosphere: Make your bedroom a place to sleep
If your environment doesn’t support your sleep, then you’re getting off to a bad start. If you know there is mould, you need to go to lengths to get rid of it, not just for sleep sake but for your overall health. Mould is toxic, inflammatory and can cause problems with breathing. It goes without saying that breathing is necessary!

We’re already established that you should be keeping the lights off in the bedroom, so if your window is next to a streetlamp for example, it may be worth using blackout curtains or blinds and/or using an eye mask.

Ear plugs are also useful if there are noises out of your control that keep you up at night.

Keeping your room clean, tidy and free of clutter can also help to keep your mind clean, tidy and free of clutter.

8.Improve your diet and lifestyle. 
You should be drinking two litres of water a day.

  • Kick the smoking habit. Nicotine dependency induces nocturnal awakenings.
  • Avoid drugs and alcohol. These are mind altering substances that are toxic to your body. You may think that alcohol “knocks you out”, but it actually does not have any sleep-inducing effects. It is actually a stimulant and in large doses, negatively effects your sleep cycle by suppressing REM, and not allowing the body to be refreshed from sleep.
  • Exercise helps to modulate mood and your hormones. It helps to support deep sleep, and whilst you should not exercise right before bed, better fitness levels lead to better quality sleep. Those who are overweight can of course benefit from exercise to improve their sleep by losing weight. Fat stores excess hormones that can disrupt the sleep cycle.
  • We can’t always necessarily control the stressors in our lives (and that is where mind set, meditation and exercise can help) but stress has an effect on sleep. If you aren’t sleeping well due to stress, you should be going to lengths to reduce them in your life where you can.
  • Consuming a wide variety of whole food, fruit, veg and grains help your body to regain a natural balance. Some people suggest that eating foods high in tryptophan can also be helpful. These include nuts like pistachios and hazelnuts, seeds like pumpkin and sunflower and non-GMO soy products like tofu and tempeh.

Nutrients to support sleep

Vitamin B6 contributes to the regulation of hormones in the body. Sleep requires hormones to initiate and move in and out of the various phases. Vitamin B6 is needed for the conversion of tryptophan to 5-HTP and then subsequently serotonin.

L-theanine is a relaxant. It elevates GABA, dopamine and serotonin. These are hormones that regulate emotion, mood, appetite, sleep and more. It also reduces levels of chemicals in the body associated with stress and anxiety. L-theanine boosts alpha-waves which enhances relaxation. These functions support a quicker sleep initiation, but also better quality too.

Choline is closely related to the B family and is found naturally in animal products such as eggs. Supplementation boosts acetylcholine which is a neurotransmitter in support of REM sleep. Acetylcholine and serotonin work together as opposing chemicals during the sleep cycle to go in and out of phases: deep sleep and REM. When acetylcholine spikes, serotonin drops.

Whilst choline is certainly a useful supplement in sleep, liver function, methylation and more, certain bad bacteria in the gut can turn it into toxic TMAO which can cause heart disease. Choline shouldn’t be taken long term and you should consult a GP if necessary.

5-htp (5-hydroxytryptophan) is a metabolite of the amino acid tryptophan and is used to boost serotonin. On the shelves it may be labelled as the plant from which it is extracted called, Griffonia simplicifolia.

It is used to improve not only initiation of sleep but also quality and duration.

It is a precursor to serotonin which is then a precursor to melatonin. Serotonin supports deep sleep (phases 3 & 4) and therefore suppresses REM. This might be useful for those stuck spending too much time in REM sleep and not getting enough deep sleep where healing really occurs.

As with vitamin B6, 5-HTP has also been associated with supporting lucid dreaming. Those with sharp eyes might ask how 5-HTP can help with lucid dreaming if it suppresses REM… Wouldn’t 5-HTP be counter-intuitive?

As explained with choline above, the two are opposing, and there is something called the REM rebound effect. The effects of the supplement are felt early on in the night and REM occurs closer to waking up. The body uses its natural mechanisms to balance the sleep cycle, and when serotonin is out of the system the body makes up for the loss of REM and prolongs this phase. In short, 5-HTP suppresses REM in the first few cycles of the night, but there is a longer one toward the end. With this in mind, 5-HTP can be taken before sleep to prioritise deep sleep.

Beyond the topic of the sleep cycle, 5-HTP helps with relaxation, increases drowsiness and decreases stress related mood states which support the initiation of sleep.

It’s important to remember that you shouldn’t supplement with 5-HTP if you are on SSRI’s as this can have an additive effect and cause serotonin syndrome. 5-HTP can influence more vivid dreaming so do not be alarmed if this happens.

2 thoughts on “What happens when we sleep and 8 ways to improve it

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