What a good night’s sleep really means

Having a proper night’s sleep helps your body and mind recharge for the next day but research shows there is more to consider than just achieving 8 hours of rest. If you’re waking up feeling tired or unrested, it’s a sign of sleeplessness – and it means you’re not getting the shut eye you need.

Sleep is an essential bodily function, like eating, drinking and breathing, and it can influence your physical, mental and psychological health. Research indicates deprivation of sleep can be harmful for your ability to learn, concentrate or make decisions that affect your everyday life.

What happens while you sleep?

While you sleep, your brain keeps working. The nerve cells in your brain, called neurons, continue reconnecting and forming new pathways in your brain to help you remember information learnt during the day.

Sleep also plays an important role in maintaining healthy growth and development in your body. While you sleep, cells in your body increase in production to:

  • Heal and repair your heart and blood vessels
  • Maintain a healthy balance of hormones to regulate your appetite
  • Control your blood sugar levels
  • Boost muscle mass, and repair cells and tissues in your body
  • Keep your immune system healthy. 

Getting a good night’s rest

Although most adults need about seven to nine hours a night, ensuring the time you spend asleep is restful relies on a pattern of sleep.

When you sleep, you fall into different stages known as:

  • Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, also called dreaming sleep
  • Non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, also called slow-wave sleep or deep sleep.

A sleep cycle typically last about 90 to 110 minutes and is made up of both REM and NREM sleep in varying lengths during the cycle.

A good night’s sleep occurs when you successfully complete about five cycles of sleep with minimal interruption.

How your brain helps you snooze 

Your brain works differently during the two different stages of sleep.

Research published by The European Sleep Research Society used scans to measure brainwaves during sleep. The research found there is more sustained brain activity during REM sleep that is stronger and more synchronised.

However, the research also suggests NREM sleep should not be viewed as a period of decreased brain activity. NREM sleep is also characterised by transient, slow-wave and recurrent brain activity that occurs in specific areas in your brain.

This alternating brain activity helps you stay asleep during the sleep cycles throughout the night.

Tips to help you sleep through the night

Your brain doesn’t automatically progress through the sleep cycles. The process adapts in response to changes in your body and your sleep surroundings. You can try these tips to create a healthy association for sleep.

Timing

Consider having a regular bedtime routine to prepare you for sleep. This might include going to bed and waking up at the same time, and not taking an afternoon nap when you feel tired during the day.

Relaxation techniques

Try breathing exercises and meditation as natural remedies to help you sleep. Relaxation techniques can release emotional tension and help you relax your body. Audio recordings and sleep machines may also help you calm your mind and body.

Sunlight exposure

Exposure to sunlight during the day, especially in the morning, can set your internal body clock (called the circadian rhythm) to wake during the day and sleep at night – this means you can fall asleep faster when you go to bed. At night, minimise light and noise in your bedroom, such as bright and flashing lights.

Be comfortable

Comfort at night can be affected by the temperature of your bedroom, going to sleep hungry or unfamiliar smells and sounds. If your sleep environment prevents you from feeling comfortable and relaxed, your body may produce stress hormones that keep you awake.

 

References available on request.

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