The Science Behind Getting Good Sleep

It is common knowledge that getting enough sleep for the night is supposedly good for you. And everyone has experienced waking up well-rested, having gotten a perfect sleep.
But what is the science behind sleep? And why is it so important we get enough of it? Keep reading to read about our sleep cycle, lucid dreams, and what can happen when we sleep too much or too little.

What happens while we sleep?

During sleep, your brain and body stay remarkably active. Research suggests that sleep plays a vital role in removing toxins from your brain that build up while you are awake. A chronic lack of sleep or getting poor quality of sleep further increases the risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes depression, and obesity.

The Stages of Sleep

During the night we pass through four stages of sleep multiple times. How much time we spend in each stage, and how we move through each phase all influence how we feel the next morning. This is also the reason why we can wake up after four hours of sleep feeling great, while sometimes after more than ten hours feel like a truck drove through our brain (of course metaphorically).

There are two basic types of sleep: Non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM). During the night you cycle through all stages of non-REM and REM sleep, with longer, deeper REM periods during the morning. 

Stage 1

Non-REM is the transitioning phase between wakefulness and sleep. During this phase, which lasts only several minutes, we experience very light sleep and we easily wake up. Your heartbeat, breathing, and eye movement slow down, and your muscles relax with occasional twitching. Many people also experience sudden muscle contractions, followed by the sensation of falling. These are similar to the “jump” we experience when we are startled. These contractions are called hypnic myoclonia or hypnic jerks. Your brain waves also begin to slow from their daytime wakefulness patterns.

Stage 2

This non-REM period is also very light, it occurs just before you enter deeper sleep. Your heartbeat and breathing slow down even more, and your muscles relax even further. Also, your body temperature drops, and eye movements stop. Even though your brain wave activity is slow, there are bursts of activity which are called sleep spindles.

Stage 3

This stage of non-REM sleep is the so-called “deep sleep” which is essential for a good quality rest. This period tends to be longer during the first half of the night. Your heartbeat and breathing slow to their lowest levels. Muscles relax even further and it can be extremely hard to wake up. People who are awakened during their deep sleep phase need a few minutes to adjust as they often feel groggy and disoriented. Some children experience bedwetting, night terrors, or sleepwalking during this phase.

Stage 4 – REM SLEEP

This period first occurs approximately 70 - 90 minutes after falling asleep. The rapid eye movement begins as your eyes move from side to side behind closed eyelids. Your breathing becomes more shallow and irregular, and your heart rate and blood pressure levels rise. Males can develop penile erections. This is also your dream phase, although dreaming also occurs occasionally in non-REM sleep. To keep you from acting out your dreams, your body temporarily paralyzes your arm and leg muscles. As you grow older, you spend less and less time in this phase.

A complete sleep cycle takes 90 to 110 minutes on average, after which the stages repeat. Throughout the night, REM sleep periods become longer while deep sleep decreases. 

What are lucid dreams and sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis and lucid dreaming both occur during REM Sleep. They are related but different experiences.

While lucid dreaming, people experience an increased awareness of dreaming. People often feel increased insight, control, access to waking memories, and dissociation from their own body and logical thought. Lucid dreaming is often seen as a positive experience, while sleep paralysis is overwhelmingly negative due to poorer sleep quality and greater stress and anxiety.

What are the risks of under-sleeping?

Having a bad night every now and again does not have any side effects apart from feeling a bit groggy and sleepy the next day. If this becomes a recurring thing however, sleep deprivation can have serious consequences.

  • Sleepiness can cause accidents
    Drowsiness can slow down our reaction time just as much as being drunk. This does not only apply to road safety but also accidents and injuries on the job.  

  • It can lower intelligence
    Lack of sleep damages the cognitive processes that happen during sleep which play a critical role in thinking and learning. This makes it difficult to learn efficiently as it affects your attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning, and problem-solving. Furthermore, you might not be able to remember what you learned and experienced the previous day.

  • Decreased sex drive
    Being sleep deprived lowers your libido which leads to a lack of interest in sex. This could cause friction between you and your partner in the long run. Men who suffer severely from this might also have low levels of testosterone during the night 

  • Increase the likelihood of depression
    It has been found, that insomnia, sleeplessness is often one of the first symptoms of depression. Luckily, by treating sleep problems you can also help depression and its other symptoms. 

  • Your skin will age faster
    There is a reason why people refer to sleep as “beauty sleep”. This is because when you don’t get enough of it, your body increases the amount of cortisol, a stress hormone it releases. Too much of this, and your skin begins to look wrinkly and you experience dark circles under your eyes. 

  • Increased forgetfulness
    Not only will your ability to learn new things worsen, but your memory to retain any information long term will suffer, and you might become prone to dementia earlier once you get older.

  • You might gain weight
    The hormones ghrelin and leptin help regulate your hunger. Ghrelin stimulates appetite while leptin decreases it. When you are running short on sleep, ghrelin levels spike while leptin levels sink lower, leading to increased appetite as well as cravings for high-fat, high-carbohydrate foods. Because of the increased hunger and appetite, you are more likely to gain weight and thereby possibly become obese.

  • And increase risk for one of these health issues
    Heart disease, heart attack, heart failure, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, getting a stroke, or diabetes.
  • Lastly, a chronic lack of sleep makes you misjudge whether or not you have a sleep problem
    People who are suffering from chronic sleep deprivation might say they feel fine, but that is only because their bodies have adapted to this deficit. However, just because you feel fine does not mean that everything is fine. Compared to individuals who get enough sleep at night, they are less alert and their overall performance is inferior.  

Even though in our modern society there might seem to be a competition for the person with the most awake time, you would be winning if you give your body the rest it needs.

But what about the opposite scenario. Is there such a thing as oversleeping? 

What are the risks of oversleeping?

Although it might seem, the more sleep you get, the better it is for your body, this is not the case. Sleeping more than 9 hours at night as an adult can lead to similar problems as sleeping too little does. Increased risk of obesity, headaches, back pain, depression, and heart disease are all possible.

Possible causes for sleeping too much could be sleep disorders or the influence of certain substances like alcohol or prescription medications. If you are suffering under so-called hypersomnia, try cutting back on substances (if you are using them), though you should always consult a doctor before getting off of any prescribed medication. In addition, work on having good sleep hygiene. If you don’t know where to start, you can try the "Habits You Need For Better Sleep" in this article to start you on your journey, whether it is how to get more sleep, less sleep or just better sleep. 

If you are still experiencing hypersomnia (or insomnia) even after establishing a sleep routine, don’t hesitate to consult a doctor to rule out any serious medical condition to make sure you have restful sleep.

As much as clean habits affect your sleep, the quality of your bed can have an impact as well. Read about "why a mattress topper can be a game-changer", or check out our new collection of mattress toppers

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