Sleep. We all need it, we all enjoy it (when it happens) – but are we doing it right?

There are many people in the world for whom an easy six hours in bed is all that’s necessary to be 100% ready to tackle the day. For others, however, facing the world without a good nine hours behind them is an impossible feat.

Getting the correct amount of shut-eye is ultimately a challenge which most of us could stand to take more seriously – after all, there’s a lot more to ensuring your slumber is productive than many believe.

Why should we have sleep awareness?

Despite the prevalent attitude of one-upmanship between people around the world, boasting how little sleep they got the previous night, it’s clear that the reasons behind that groggy all-day feeling continue to elude many of us.

We know the symptoms – heavy eyes, limited co-ordination, constant yawning, inability to focus, low motivation, mood swings and so on… but why?

The body needs to rest, both mentally and physically. From a physical perspective, muscle and tissue repair from daily exertion is carried out while we nap so we can continue to function the next day.

From a mental perspective, the widespread consensus put forward by psychologists is that we need to sleep in order to process short-term memories and experiences into our long-term memory, allowing us to maintain a sufficient daily-waking mental aptitude. In fact, staying awake for longer than 17 hours leads to a downturn in performance akin to having drunk two glasses of wine.

How does sleep work?

There are two forms of sleep that occur in repeated cycles throughout the night – non-REM followed by REM. Non-REM is divided into four stages:

  • Light sleep, during which we begin to slow down our brain functions and muscle activity.
  • True sleep, the period when both our breathing and heartrates begin to slow.
  • Deep sleep (i), where all bodily functions reach their lowest levels of activity and our brains start to produce delta waves.
  • Deep sleep (ii), the final part of non-REM sleep where our body is almost entirely shut down – and this is also the phase during which we feel the worst if we are awoken.

Our mind then enters REM sleep – it is at this point that we begin to dream. REM or rapid-eye movement gains its name from the movement of the eyes while closed as they move from side to side as the brain begins to increase its rates of activity. Our breathing, blood pressure and heart rate also begin to rise dramatically at this point, but our body prevents us from physically reacting to these catalysts.

These two forms of sleep repeat between three and five times during the night; and these cycles of low and high brain activity are what help us to feel refreshed by time the morning comes.

Getting a good night’s sleep can be tough

The greatest factors determining the quality of sleep we enjoy are the result of our own daily routines and preferences. Popular consensus is that these include:

  • A large intake of stimulants throughout the day, including high-sugar foods, alcohol, and caffeine, which can keep our brains alert well into the evening.
  • A lack of comfort or too much noise prevents us from beginning our sleep cycles.
  • Stark changes to our sleep routine can heavily affect the provision of the hormone melatonin.
  • High levels of stress in our daily lives prevent us from falling asleep – unfortunately we then start finding the idea of trying to fall asleep stressful, causing us to sleep worse and feel even more stressed the following day.

Of course, there are a great number of other factors that determine our ability to rest, from medical conditions such as sleep apnea, to hormonal changes as we age. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make things better.

Improving your quality of sleep

With a large amount of reading material available, online communities sharing tips, and the availability of sleep clinics for when all else fails – no matter what you’re going through, you can guarantee that you’re not the first.

The main advice from sleep experts includes:

  • Get comfortable – It wouldn’t surprise most people to learn that comfort is a huge part of sleeping well. Have you ever asked yourself whether your mattress is actually comfortable? Or have you slept on it for so long you’ve forgotten what ‘comfort’ feels like? A study carried out in 1988 found out that switching to a comfortable mattress can give you an extra 42 minutes of sleep each night.
  • Get cosy, but not TOO cosy – Have you ever checked the temperature of your bedroom? Studies have repeatedly shown that a cooler room aids the ability to fall asleep and prevents you from feeling irritable throughout the night.
  • Get a routine – Like all animals, humans thrive on routine for everyday necessities such as food and sleep. Just a few nights of going to bed at the same time reprograms the body to prime itself for slumber at more specific times, meaning less effort to fall asleep.
  • Avoid electronics – The presence of electronic equipment in the bedroom - even a mobile phone - can have a detrimental effect on your quality of sleep. Even the use of electronics before bed can lead to the brain becoming too ‘wired’ to switch off and allow you to snooze.
  • Avoid naps – Napping during the day may make you feel better in the short-term, but you may not appreciate it later that night in the darkness as you stare at the ceiling all night.
  • Lights out – Any light that can seep through into your room as your try to rest will decrease the likelihood of you falling asleep – so why not buy some cheap blackout blinds or opaque curtains?
  • Avoid distractions – If outside sounds are affecting your sleep, or, as is common for many people, a lack of sound, try using a fan or white noise machine to provide a consistent audible experience from night to night.
  • Try again – If you’re lying in bed and feeling irritable, it can often be worse for you to stay there. Try leaving the room, and doing something relaxing for half an hour before returning to try again.

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