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The topic of sleep might seem like a fairly basic one on the surface. For example, most people know that if they get enough hours of sleep, they’ll be alert and well-rested, while suffering an inadequate amount of sleep will cause them to feel drained and exhausted. While these are certainly accurate assumptions, it gets a little more complicated when we take into account people’s different sleeping patterns and needs which are dependent on factors such as their age, occupation and overall lifestyle. How do we know for sure if we’re sleeping too little, or even too much? What is the “right” amount of sleep for any one person?

Although scientists have studied the phenomena of sleep for many years, it remains a significant subject of ongoing research, leading us to conclude that there is still much to discover about this naturally recurring state. Learning more about how sleep actually operates, as well as examining the factors that might be disrupting a person’s slumber, can only help us to refine our sleeping process so that we’re always guaranteed the best night’s rest. If you find you’re having trouble getting to sleep or staying that way, or even if you simply want to reconsider your sleeping patterns, keep reading to find out more.

The Ins and Outs of Sleeping

Sleep is a complex and multi-faceted subject, and is very fascinating in and of itself. When we sleep, our brains shifts between two different stages known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. This is a cycle that repeats itself approximately every 90 minutes.

NREM sleep, which consists of four stages and comprises about 75% of one night’s sleep, begins as soon as we start to fall asleep.

  • Stage 1: A light doze, the state in between being awake and falling asleep
  • Stage 2: The onset of sleep, in which a person’s breathing and heart rate become regular and their body temperature drops
  • Stages 3 and 4: When deep sleep occurs, which helps to restore the body’s energy, increase blood supply to the muscles, release essential hormones, and promote tissue growth and repair

REM sleep, which comprises the remaining 25% of one night’s sleep, occurs about 90 minutes after we first fall asleep and recurs every 90 minutes after that. This is the stage in which dreams occur, as the brain remains active while our bodies relax and become immobile. REM sleep helps to restore our physical and mental strength and to provide us with the energy we need for our daytime activities.

Why Is Healthy Sleep So Important?

It’s impossible to overemphasize how getting enough sleep can improve all aspects of your waking life. Many people think that sleeping for a certain amount of time is the best way to get a good night’s rest, but it’s the quality of your slumber that matters just as much (if not more so) than the quantity of hours. When it comes right down to it, what sleep does is allow you to recover from the physical and mental stresses of the day’s events. Your body and mind doesn’t shut off the moment you start snoring – your internal organs and processes actually need the respite from your everyday activities to repair and rebuild themselves. This explains why regularly getting the right quality and quantity of healthy sleep can help your body to resist certain illnesses and diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, as well as common colds and flus. Having a good sleep every night not only boosts your immune system, but also plays a critical role in increasing your powers of memory and recall, improving your attention to detail and problem solving skills, helping you to feel more physically alert and energised, and even boosting your overall mood.

What people often forget is that there’s a big difference between being able to get by on a certain amount of sleep, and feeling your absolute best because you’ve had the optimal amount of rest. You might not think that squeezing in an extra hour or two of sleep every night will make much of a difference, but the truth is that those few hours can definitely have a significant effect on your physical wellbeing and mental productivity throughout the day.

Insomnia and Other Sleeping Disorders

In the hectic and fast-paced modern world, urban dwellers often have a lot on their minds that can make it hard for them to get to sleep at night. Plaguing thoughts revolving around school and work demands, family obligations, money problems, and relationship dramas can understandably keep a person up for hours, stressing and debating internally and preventing them from falling asleep. These days, there are dozens of sleeping disorders that affect millions of people all over the world, many of whom are unaware that they suffer from such a condition and who, upon learning of it, never seek the help needed to improve their sleeping situation.

So how do you know if you have a sleeping problem? Firstly, consider the following questions.

  • Do you feel sleepy and irritable during the daytime?
  • Do you have difficulty staying awake when watching television, reading or driving?
  • Do you have difficult falling asleep and/or staying asleep?
  • Do you have trouble with concentration or memory loss?
  • Do you frequently experience mood swings?
  • Do you feel the need to consume numerous caffeinated beverages to perk yourself up?
  • Do you feel the need to take a nap every day?

If you answered yes to the majority of these questions, you may be experiencing one of several sleeping disorders. Sleep apnoea, for example, is a common disorder that occurs when a person’s breathing temporarily stops while they are sleeping, due to their upper airways becoming blocked. This can cause them to awaken frequently during the night, and to therefore suffer from exhaustion, mood swings and lack of energy during the day. However, sleep apnoea can be treated with Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP), a device that delivers air to you while you sleep.

Other notable sleep disorders include restless legs syndrome (RLS), where people experience an almost uncontrollable urge to move their legs due to uncomfortable tingling or aching sensations; and Narcolepsy, which causes people to experience intense and excessive daytime sleepiness. There is no cure as of yet for either of these sleeping disorders, although they can be treated to varying degrees of success.

However, by far the most common sleep disorder is insomnia, which is heavily prevalent and has a number of common symptoms. People who suffer from this condition often have great trouble falling asleep; even once they do, they may wake up during the night and find it again difficult to get back to sleep. Their slumber is light, fragmented and ultimately unsatisfactory, so they tend to experience sleepiness and lethargy during the day.

The good news is that most people can cure themselves of insomnia by making simple lifestyle changes, such as ensuring that their sleep habits are regular and that their sleeping environment is peaceful, quiet and uncluttered. However, if your insomnia is persistently interfering with your day-to-day life regardless of any changes you’re made to your sleeping routine, it’s advisable to seek your doctor’s advice.

Improve Your Quality of Sleep

The good news is that there are several steps you can take if you’re suffering from sleep debt. Sleep debt is the difference between the amount of sleep you’re currently getting, and how many hours you actually need to feel well-rested and alert. Many people attempt to make up for the sleep they’ve lost in the weekdays by sleeping in during the weekends, but this isn’t a good method in the long run. The best way to “pay off” your sleep debt is to revaluate your entire sleeping schedule so that you’re snoozing for the same amount of hours each night.

  • Consistency is important! Adults need approximately 7.5 to 9 hours of sleep per night for the best rest and recovery, so make sure you set a regular bedtime that allows you to sleep for the right number of recommended hours.
  • Keep a sleep diary and record all the pertinent details, for example: when you go to sleep each night, how long it takes you to fall asleep, when you wake up, how many times you tend to awaken during the night, and your sleeping position(s). It might also be beneficial for you make note of any other relevant information to do with your sleeping environment, such as lighting, noises, and even the support of your bed/pillows. Your sleep diary will help you to track your sleeping patterns, allowing you to make any necessary changes for optimal comfort.

  • Create a soothing sleeping environment. This might involve having relaxing rituals before you get into bed, such as having a warm shower or a bath, or playing calming music to help you drift off. Try not to spend too much time reading, watching television, or using other electronic devices before you intend to sleep, as these activities can often disrupt the natural drowsiness you feel at bedtime and instead prompt you to lie awake in bed with your mind buzzing.
  • Incorporate physical activity into your day, as this will naturally tire out your body and may help you to fall asleep faster. However, take care not to exercise too late at night, as this may conversely cause you to feel energised. Instead, engage in physical activity earlier in the day, so that when you fall into bed your body, and hopefully your mind, is ready to rest.

The Final Word: Make Your Sleep A Priority

It’s easy to forget about or dismiss how crucial getting a good night’s sleep is when you’re distracted by other priorities in your life, such as workplace tasks and your personal relationships. However, it’s important to realise that having a regular sleep schedule can only help you in the long run to conduct your daytime activities with more verve and vigour. Once you know this to be true, it’s much easier to make sleep your number one priority. It’s guaranteed that you’ll feel better inside and out when you’re getting the best night’s rest, every night.

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