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Sleep Better

Updated: Oct 26, 2022

It’s not about the number of hours you sleep, but about your quality of sleep.

Co-authored by Gerda Venter

When patients come to me to address the root cause of their illness, we often address their sleep first. Sleep is vital for overall health and wellbeing. It is as essential to your survival and wellbeing as food and water. It impacts nearly every aspect of your body, affecting the brain, heart, and lungs, as well as metabolism, mood, and your immune system. Physical, emotional, and mental health all depend, in part, on good sleep. Your body has an incredible ability to heal itself when you allow it. Healing often takes place when you sleep.

When you do not get enough sleep, you become sleep deprived. In the short term, sleep deprivation affects your mood, judgment, and ability to focus. While sleep-deprived, you might have trouble remembering things and be more prone to make errors at school or work. In the long term, lack of sleep is associated with chronic health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, obesity, depression, and heart and kidney disease.

What happens when you sleep?

As you sleep, your brain works to physically repair your body and encode memory. In the process, your brain also flushes out waste that accumulates during your waking hours which may contribute to neurodegenerative diseases. In simple terms, you increase your risk for dementia later in life if you don’t sleep enough now.

Your body has a circadian rhythm to help you know when to sleep and when to wake up. Circadian rhythms are internal cycles that run on a roughly 24-hour schedule, much like the earth’s rotation. Your circadian rhythm is regulated by the hormone Melatonin. Melatonin is produced by the pineal gland in the middle of your brain. Sunlight entrains your circadian rhythm, impacting when you want to sleep and when you are awake. When you are exposed to less light, such as in the evening, your melatonin levels rise, and you feel sleepy. When you are exposed to more light, melatonin falls and cortisol rises, so you feel alert and awake.

Adenosine is a neurotransmitter that transfers energy and signals throughout the body during the day. When your body runs out of fuel from food, adenosine signals to the body to become drowsy to sleep and rebuild your energy reserves. During sleep, the build-up of adenosine gets broken down again, leaving you refreshed in the morning.

The 5 phases of sleep

During sleep, you usually pass through five phases. For a good night's sleep, your body needs to cycle through all five stages of sleep at least five times (5x 90min = 7.5h.) Each stage has a different function. These stages of sleep progress in a cycle from stage 1 to REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, starting with stage 1 each time.

During stage 1, which is light sleep, you drift in and out of sleep and can wake up easily.

When you enter stage 2, your eye movements stop and your brain waves become slower, with occasional bursts of rapid waves called sleep spindles.

In stage 3, extremely slow brain waves called delta waves begin to appear, interspersed with smaller, faster waves. Your brain waves slow, and blood is redirected from your brain to your muscles, allowing your body to heal and repair itself. Your muscles relax. Your blood pressure decreases and your breathing rate decrease. Here is where your deepest sleep occurs.

By stage 4, the brain produces delta waves almost exclusively. It is very difficult to wake someone during stages 3 and 4, which together are called deep sleep. There is no eye movement or muscle activity.

Stage 5 is when you experience REM sleep. Your brain becomes more active, your body becomes more relaxed and immobilized. This is the phase when dreams occur, and your eyes move around quickly.