The Science Of Sleep: How To Sleep Better?

You get up in the morning and you already hate yourself. You vaguely remember contemplating whether you should watch another episode before getting some sleep… not exactly worth it, was it?

Statistics reveal that we spend one-third of our lives sleeping. This average, might be reducing, despite our repeated efforts of compensating for lost hours on Sundays, as you stay up late anyway to watch a dog wrestle a panda and witness another failed attempt to escape the cycle of self loathe in the morning.

The Brain While You Sleep

The Stages

Sleep occurs in a series of stages that are identified by brain waves. These are generated on an electroencephalogram (EEG) that measures electrical impulses in your brain. The frequency of waves is associated with brain activity.

Wake stages are characterized by alpha and beta waves. The former has a high frequency and low amplitude; most importantly, alpha waves are inconsistent, which reflect the variety of experiences we have throughout the day.

When relaxing while still being awake, we observe beta waves, which have a lower frequency and a higher amplitude. These waves are relatively more consistent.

  1. Stage 1: The first stage of sleep is characterized by theta waves, which display even lower frequencies and higher amplitudes.
  2. Stage 2: As we move on to Stage 2, two phenomena occur; sleep spindles and K complexes. The former elevates the wave frequency and the latter boosts the amplitude. Stages 1 and 2 are relatively lighter stages of sleep and being awakened prematurely while in these stages provides the impression of not being sleepy at all.

Brain waves in various stages of sleep.

  1. Stages 3 and 4: These stages consist of delta waves, the highest in amplitude and the lowest in frequency. The difference between the two stages is the amount of delta waves they harbor. Whereas less than 50% of waves are delta in Stage 3, Stage 4 allows more than 50% of them. The stages are responsible for what we call deep sleep, the stage from which we are least likely to wake up.

REM sleep

Another critical stage that we go through while asleep is the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage. As the name implies, our eyes rapidly tremble when we are in this stage of sleep. Surprisingly, alpha waves make a comeback during REM sleep, and you enter the waking state, only mentally. However, our muscle inhibitions are numbed and we are paralyzed physically, rendering us in a state of wakefulness while still being asleep.

We are all familiar with this, as we witness illogical and impossible sequences of imagery, such as flying through the sky and getting married to that  supermodel without ever leaving your bed. As we all know, this is called dreaming and is associated with REM sleep.

The stages can be summarized with this illustration:

Cycle

The brain starts with Stage 1 and drives down through to Stage 4. It cycles back to the previous stages, except Stage 1 is replaced by REM sleep, before moving through them again.

A single cycle, from stage 1 to REM, takes approximately 90-120 minutes. This cycle repeats several times, with the duration of REM sleep increasing and the amount of delta waves decreasing each time, until there are no delta waves at all and the sleeper wakes up.

Simple Tips to Improve Your Sleep

Avoid chemicals that might interfere with your sleep:

People have long relied on stimulants, such as nicotine and caffeine, to get their extra boost to focus on work, but their consumption is a part of a vicious cycle that borrows energy from the future which will drain you later, and force you to consume more stimulants to eliminate the recurring tiredness.

  • Regular intake delays your sleep and disrupts your sleep pattern. Even though their effects wear off, the chemicals remain in your blood in minute quantities and keep you awake. These should be specifically avoided hours before sleep.
  • Alcohol might make falling asleep easier, but it puts you directly in deep sleep, skipping REM sleep, which is critical for learning and memory.

Do not work in your bed

Sleeping, like any other habit, is taken up by the brain by forming certain associations. Making your bedroom suitable for sleeping is one of them.

  • Avoid working on your bed, so that the brain does not associate it with a waking state. Rather, use it only to relax, which will form the necessary associations between your beloved bed and peaceful sleep.
  • Do not resort to sleeping pills, as one might be sensitive to their side effects.
  • Also, use a comfortable pillow and a proper mattress for a slumber devoid of any hassle or discomfort.

Exposure to light and sound

The onset of sleep is aided by sleeping in darker environments. Exposure to light before sleep will delay the onset of beta waves and consequently delta waves.

Today, smartphones are strong emerging players that contest your sleep by hijacking your attention. Your friend’s visit to the zoo might be gratifying to look at, but it’s not worth losing your precious sleep!

Ways you can avoid light and sound:

  • Use heavy curtains or eye masks to block light.
  • Ear plugs can be used to obstruct sound.  

Pre-sleep routine

Avoid stressful or stimulating activities before sleep, such as work or watching high-intensity television shows. Instead, take up routines that fuel the flow of beta and theta waves, such as light reading, soft music and relaxation exercises.

Don’t keep looking at the clock

Everyone looks at the clock in dismay when they feel helpless about their difficulty falling asleep. Staring at the clock will only make the process more stressful, making it even harder to fall asleep.

Girl awake in late night

(Photo Credit : Flickr)

If you can’t sleep, get up and try another sleeping routine to relax and then return to your bed when you feel sleepy.

Set an Internal or biological clock

Sleeping and waking up at particular times becomes a habit and sets an internal clock within us. This can also be grouped under environmental factors, as light might govern the movement of this clock.

My biological clock throughout the day.

The brain expects sleep and wakes up automatically when the clock is set in motion. Make sleeping and waking up at a particular time an everyday habit, so that the body recognizes a pattern and follows it every day. The plasticity of our brain allows it to adapt to any such pattern after repeating it several times.

Food consumption

Devouring a pizza at 10 pm will only delay your sleep. Consume your meals hours before bedtime and avoid items that might cause indigestion. If you do get hungry at night, choose dairy or food that is rich in carbohydrates.

Fluid consumption

Drink enough water so that you don’t wake up thirsty and disoriented in the middle of the night. However, avoid excess amounts that might force you to take several trips to the loo throughout the night.

Exercise

Exercise a few hours before you sleep, as this will make you physically tired and help you fall asleep quickly.

Take power naps

Sleeping is conventionally looked down upon at work, as it is an indication of sluggishness – a workplace taboo. That being said, studies reveal that power naps, unlike external stimulants, rejuvenate you and make you more productive in a natural way.

(Photo Credit : Boggy / Shutterstock)

Small power naps are becoming acceptable in developed countries, including Japan, as people in workplaces are encouraged towards hard work and the perseverance to climb the stairs to success. Unfortunately, those people become burnt out or stressed by working overtime without rest, and end up demonstrating decreased productivity. Naps can help eliminate that problem!

Seek a sleep specialist

Not all difficulties can be treated so easily though. For example, one may experience sleep syndromes, such as sleep apnea or narcolepsy. Chronic insomnia is also an ever-present threat in our hard-working, success-crazy modern capitalism era. Consult a sleep specialist if difficulties still prevail.

Why is sleep so important?

Other than memory and learning disabilities, without several nights of REM sleep, attention and behavior will be seriously affected. Research shows that we become less empathetic, emotionally bland and forgetful without sufficient sleep. Also, our attention span is heavily reduced, which makes us prone to accidents while driving.

(Photo Credit : Fuzzform / Wikimedia Commons)

It is believed that without REM sleep, or as a result of sleep deprivation in general, memory consolidation does not occur, which is the process ensuring that learned tasks are permanently embedded in our memories on a long-term basis.

Sleepiness makes you irritated and causes you to lash out at people, bump your head on other people’s shoulders on the subway, and makes work a real drag after lunch. That is, unless you unplug early and follow these tips to fall asleep in a smarter and healthier way. Now, stop scrolling, put down your laptop and get some rest!

Reference

  1. Missouri University of Science and Technology
  2. Harvard Medical School
  3. Sleep: National sleep foundation
  4. Columbia University in the city of New York
  5. The California Institute of Technology
The short URL of the present article is: http://sciabc.us/8to8n
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About the Author:

Akash Peshin is an Electronic Engineer from the University of Mumbai, India and a science writer at ScienceABC. Enamored with science ever since discovering a picture book about Saturn at the age of 7, he believes that what fundamentally fuels this passion is his curiosity and appetite for wonder.

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