SLEEP: How to Sleep Well & What Happens When We Sleep

Feeling fatigued? Forgetful?

Unfocused? Irritable?

Depressed? Overeating?

Dozing off (especially while driving!)?

Plagued with headaches? What about mysterious ailments that suggest an out-of-balance immune system?

You may be Sleep Deprived. If so, you have lots of company. The CDC reports one in three Americans, about eighty million, suffer from sleep deprivation. And it is not something you’re body “will get used to.” Enough sleep is essential for physical and psychological health including a healthy immune system, regulation of blood pressure and stability of mood.

Sleep is as essential for life as food. All animals sleep and they will die of sleep deprivation before starvation.

Sleep experts recommend that adults get a minimum of seven and a half hours of sleep, and even up to nine hours. But current polls indicate that the vast majority of adults get less than seven hours of sleep a night. Children need far more sleep than this. Even up through high school kids need up to ten hours of sleep a night.

Remember when your sleep experience felt like this?

And now it’s more like this…

Let’s change that right now.

How to Sleep Better

You’re listening to part of Max Richter’s “Sleep,” a ground-breaking new work scored for piano, strings, electronics and vocals – but vocals with no words (start/stop below). ”It’s an eight-hour lullaby,” says the composer, “It’s my personal lullaby for a frenetic world. A manifesto for a slower pace of existence.”

While you might not be able to control all the factors of our “frenetic world” that may interfere with your sleep, you can adopt habits that support better sleep. Start with these simple tips:

1. Exercise daily. Vigorous exercise is best but even light exercise is better than no activity. Exercise at any time of day, but not at the expense of your sleep.

2. Avoid alcohol, cigarettes and heavy meals in the evening because they can disrupt sleep. Eating big or spicy meals can cause discomfort from indigestion that can make it difficult to sleep. If you can, avoid eating large meals for two to three hours before bedtime. If you’re still hungry, try a light snack at least an hour before bedtime.

3. Perhaps talk to your doctor if you consistently have difficulty getting to sleep, staying asleep or wake up exhausted. You may have medical issues that are interfering with your sleep. Or you may need a sleep study to determine if you have a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea. During our lifetimes, about a third of us will be challenged by a diagnosable sleep disorder. Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea can wake you many times during the night, even if you do not remember waking up, and prevent you from sleeping soundly. Sleep apnea can cause serious medical issues. If you have a sleep disorder your doctor can discuss with you strategies to improve sleep including various devices. Below you can learn more about the Stages of Sleep and what happens when we sleep.

3. If you have trouble sleeping avoid naps especially in the afternoon. Power napping may help you get through the day but, if you find that you can’t fall asleep at bedtime, eliminating even short catnaps may help. If you choose to catnap, limit yourself to a maximum of thirty minutes daily and avoid doing so late in the day.

4. Develop a relaxing sleep ritual and regular sleep time. A set sleep schedule helps to regulate your body’s clock and could help you fall asleep and stay asleep for the night. Wind down your day with a warm bath, pleasant music, breathing meditation, or a relaxing body practice like yoga poses for sleep.

5. Don’t go to sleep angry or stressed out. Give yourself some time to chill out. If something worrisome is on your mind, jot it down and then set it aside for tomorrow. Don’t ruminate because the chances are your problem will still be there tomorrow waiting to be solved. Or better yet – it won’t be. For now, let it go.

6. Walk away from screens an hour or more before sleep. Digital screen emit a higher concentration of blue light than we receive from natural light. This blue light affects levels of melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone, more than any other wavelength. Dimming the brightness of your devices as much as you can is helpful.  

franz falckenhaus

7. Reduce exposure to violent images and other stimulating media especially right before sleep.

8. Make sure your sleeping environment is uncluttered and comfortable. Cover light sources. It is best to take work materials, computers and televisions out of the sleeping environment. Use your bed only for sleep and sex to strengthen the association between bed and sleep.

9. Spend time enjoying the relaxing benefits of the natural world as often as possible. Many therapists believe that we all suffer from “nature deficiency disorder”and can restore ourselves with time in nature.

10. If you’re having difficulty falling to sleep or have awakened and can’t get back to sleep soon, go into another room and do something relaxing until you feel tired.

Georges de la Tour’s

11. To set your mind in a positive direction before sleep end your day recalling the gifts that have come your way. What are you thankful for? Even if you fear it may all be gone tomorrow, what are you happy about right now?

12. Start a body-oriented relaxation practice like basic breathing relaxation, stretching, yoga, walking or Qigong.

13. Try aromatherapy. Pick up an essential oil that is known for relaxing benefits such as lavender or chamomile, dilute with a vegetable oil such as almond, and apply just a bit topically to the soles of your feet.

The Stages of Sleep: What Happens When We Sleep?

Vincent Desiderio’s “Sleep”

The sleep cycle consists of two main parts: REM and Non-REM, with intermediary stages. Understanding the stages of the sleep cycle can help you understand how to time your sleep, how to achieve memorable and even lucid dreams, and even to know what stage of sleep you were in when you are wake up unexpectedly.

Stage 1: The first stage of sleep is when you are drifting off. This stage may last several minutes but usually not longer than 15 minutes. If you are awakened during Stage 1, you may feel like you haven’t actually fallen asleep when in fact you have. It is common for people with insomnia to stay in Stage 1 for a very long time. Every time they awaken they feel like they haven’t slept yet, which causes frustration. This can make it very difficult to relax and fall into Stage 2, the more restful phase of sleep.

Stage 2: This stage is characterized by light sleep that slowly moving to deeper sleep. As Stage 2 progresses your body will tense and relax intermittently and your breathing will become slow and deep. During this stage your body temperature will also decrease and, if you are not properly covered with blankets or if your room is too cold, you might wake up shivering.

Stage 3: This is the first stage of deep sleep. The brainwaves slow to the higher levels of Delta frequency and your brain prepares to enter Stage 4 which is the deepest sleep. It’s most difficult to wake up during stages 3 and 4 which are also the most restorative stages of sleep. This is when the body repairs muscles and tissues, stimulates growth and development, boosts immune function and builds up energy for the next day.

Stage 4: This is the second level of deep sleep, the last level of non-REM sleep before you begin to dream. At Stage 4 is the deepest level of sleep and similar to being in a coma. In this stage your brain is producing the lower levels of Delta frequency brainwaves. If you are awakened during Stage 4, you are likely to feel disoriented and perhaps not know where you are.

Max Richter’s “Sleep” with the Philharmonie de Paris

REM Sleep: REM sleep occurs last in the sleep cycle. You generally enter REM sleep about ninety minutes after initially falling asleep and each REM stage can last up to an hour. An average adult has five to six REM cycles each night. After a certain amount of time in REM sleep, you will move back to stage 1 and essentially begin the sleep cycle again.

                                                                                                      Max Richter’s “Sleep”

REM stands for “Rapid Eye Movement.” REM sleep is characterized by paralysis in your major voluntary muscle groups but quick movement in your eyes. Heart rate and blood pressure increase and breathing becomes fast, irregular, and shallow. The limbic system, associated with sexual impulses and our emotional life, is in the driver’s seat during REM.

Desiderio’s “Sleeping Family”

During this final phase of sleep, your brain waves are faster –  similar to the brain wave patterns of waking consciousness. REM sleep plays an important role in learning and memory function, since this is when your brain consolidates and processes information from the day before so that it can be stored in your long-term memory. REM sleep is associated with dreaming.

When we’re awake we’re recording our experiences. When we sleep we’re in editing mode.

We experience “a good night sleep” if we get at least seven and a half hours sleep and particularly enough restorative deep sleep. The longest periods of deep sleep are potentially early in the night when the REM period is short. In the morning your deep sleep periods get shorter and your REM sleep periods get longer. If you’re not getting enough sleep you’ll not only feel fatigued, you may have difficulty remembering your dreams.

If this is true for you, try some of the sleep tips above. And perhaps listen to composer Max Richter’s “Sleep” in its entirety.  Remember “it’s an eight-hour lullaby,” says Richter, “It’s my personal lullaby for a frenetic world. A manifesto for a slower pace of existence.”

For more on Sleep: The Neuroscience of Sleep with Russell Foster

Film directed by: Yulia Mahr

First painting by Marc Chagall

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