As we spend a large part of our life time sleeping, we might as well want to know a little more about why we do it. Although, science, at its current state has not been able to yet fully solve the mystery, some proven health benefits come from us catching some Zs. This article will provide you with good reasons for better sleep and scientific tips on how to get it.
Many people know the feeling of coming home after a long day of work, studying or training and not being able to fall asleep. Our sleep schedules are affected by societal norms and obligations, decimating our time for a basic human need. Sleep deprivation has detrimental effects on our health, our life-expectancy and our learning abilities and is considered one of the biggest silent epidemics of the 21st century in developed countries (Walker et al., 2002).
Sleep activity has been divided into stages to differentiate between the individual characteristics of sleep. REM sleep is the dream phase, accompanied by rapid movements of the eyes (REM) and low muscle tone – Remember the weak punches and slow running in your dreams? That’s why!
During REM sleep we process all kinds of impressions we made during day time, which is why it is so important. A decrease in REM sleep reduces our ability to learn, whether it is new motor skills or an algebraic formula we’re trying to get in our head during grammar school (Walker, 2008). Another important stage is the nREM stage, also known as deep sleep. Enough nREM sleep makes us feel recovered and ready for a new day, whereas a lack of it may make us feel tired and groggy throughout the day. During deep sleep, our bodies work their hardest to recover from physical activity and to strengthen our minds for the following day. In between these stages, there is light sleep that allows us to transition between REM and nREM sleep (Kushida, 2004).
Here is a little summary of the benefits of getting enough sleep:
- Increased cognitive function helps us to learn faster, memorize better, be more creative and make more logical decisions
- An improved immune system allows us to fight infections and keep us healthy
- Feeling more energized throughout the day and for any type of challenge
- A balanced metabolism helps us to regulate our appetite and maintain a healthy weight
- Adequate sleep improves performance in physical activities, reduces injury risk, lowers blood pressure and keeps our hearts healthy. A recent study reported an injury risk of 70% after 6h of sleep and less than 20% after 9h of sleep.
(Milewski et al., 2014; Badr et al., 2015)
If you don’t know where to start to get your well-deserved sleep, here are some simple things you can try to help improve it:
- Get to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Simple isn’t it? If you take away one piece of advice from this article, this should be it. Both, REM and nREM sleep, are strongly influenced by our natural circadian rhythms, also known as sleep-/wake-time rhythms. If you go to bed late, you literally rob yourself of deep and REM sleep. However, your body will eventually get used to it. Consistency is key. If it helps, set an alarm for going to bed just as you would for getting up.
- Don’t consume any caffeine close to bed time. Even if you think it does not affect your sleep, it does. Caffeine is a chemical and binds to adenosine receptors. It blocks the space for the natural sleep inducing neuro-transmitter adenosine, which facilitates falling asleep. Keep that in mind and set yourself a caffeine deadline in the early afternoon.
- Eat light in the evenings. Heavy meals including a lot of meat and fat require more energy to digest and thus affect your recovery.
- Tart cherry juice. Yes you read that right. A recent study demonstrated elevated melatonin levels in participants consuming tart cherry juice, which improves sleep quality and duration in healthy adults (Howatson et al., 2012).
I hope this article makes you strive for adequate sleep more often. Sometimes life inevitably gets in the way, but having the knowledge of all these mentioned benefits may help you to embrace it a little more often when it doesn’t. A joint consensus statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society recommends a sleep duration of at least 8 hours every night. If this article woke up your interest in our sleep behaviour, I thoroughly recommend you to read the book “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker.
Thank you for reading and have good night!
Badr, M. S., Belenky, G., Bliwise, D. L., Buxton, O. M., Buysse, D., Dinges, D. F., … & Martin, J. L. (2015). Recommended amount of sleep for a healthy adult: a joint consensus statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 11(06), 591-592.
Howatson, G., Bell, P. G., Tallent, J., Middleton, B., McHugh, M. P., & Ellis, J. (2012). Effect of tart cherry juice (Prunus cerasus) on melatonin levels and enhanced sleep quality. European journal of nutrition, 51(8), 909-916.
Milewski, M. D., Skaggs, D. L., Bishop, G. A., Pace, J. L., Ibrahim, D. A., Wren, T. A., & Barzdukas, A. (2014). Chronic lack of sleep is associated with increased sports injuries in adolescent athletes. Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics, 34(2), 129-133.
Kushida, C. A. (Ed.). (2016). Sleep deprivation: basic science, physiology and behavior. CRC Press.
Walker, M. P. (2008). Cognitive consequences of sleep and sleep loss. Sleep Medicine, 9, S29-S34.
Walker, M. P., Brakefield, T., Morgan, A., Hobson, J. A., & Stickgold, R. (2002). Practice with sleep makes perfect: sleep-dependent motor skill learning. Neuron, 35(1), 205-211.