Friday, November 11, 2011

Sleep Tight, and Feel Better

We've all probably heard at some point or another that getting good sleep in crucial to health and well-being.  It's probably your parents who ended up unplugging the nintendo, or stepping into your room and turning off the light, or pulling the phone cord from the wall, saying under their breath "GO TO BED," in the harshest whisper you would've ever thought possible.  God was that frustrating.  Why is sleep so important anyway?  There's only so many hours in a day, you're just trying to make use of them, that's all.

Well it turns out, sleep is more important for your body than you could ever fathom.  A deep sleep represents a time for your body to repair and rebuild, recover and refresh.  Those who get more sleep get sick less often, recover from sickness faster, and are healthier in general.  But why? Why does a deep, restful sleep do so much for your body?  What's going on when you're out like a light?

In reality, sleep isn't just one, constant state. Your body actually goes through five distinct stages as you drift off, each one with different body and brain wave characteristics.

Stage 1:  This stage of sleep is very light, and you may not even think you're really "sleeping" yet.  Your brain produces high amplitude theta waves, which travel very slowly and basically relate to a slowed processing ability.  This stage of sleep most commonly lasts for about 10 minutes.

Stage 2:  The body really begins to shut down in stage 2, and your brain starts to slip into "sleep mode", releasing rapid patterns of rhythmic activity named "sleep spindles."  These spindles are just bursts of brain activity that are measured to be 12-14hz waves.  This stage of sleep lasts for about 20 minutes.

Stage 3:  Here, the brain begins to produce what are called delta waves.  Delta waves are even slower than the previous brain waves mentioned, with a frequency of only 1-4 hz.  These delta waves are present throughout the rest of the deep sleep process.  This stage is only transitional, and really represents when you lose all consciousness.

Stage 4:  This stage of sleep produces more delta waves, and lasts for around 30 minutes.  This stage is directly before REM sleep, and is sometimes called either delta sleep or NREM sleep.  It is the deepest stage of sleep, and is when your body produces HGH (Human Growth Hormone) to repair muscles and assist in fighting off disease.  It's very difficult to be woken from stage 4 sleep, as you generally have very little connection to outside stimulus at this point.

Stage 5:  REM sleep is the final stop your body makes on its journey into restful oblivion.  In this stage, the brain is somewhat active, and is trying to convert short term memory into long term memory.  This is why we often dream during this cycle of sleep, and can remember the images that flashed through our head.  Voluntary muscles (the big ones you use on a daily basis) become paralyzed or frozen.

An EEG scan showing the difference between "normal" sleep and REM sleep

OK, so now we know what our body is doing when we conk out for the night.  But it's still hard to believe that six hours of sleep wouldn't be just as good as the full eight hours (recommended sleep time for ALL ages).  I mean the first four stages take less than two hours, why would you need much more than that?  Turns out there are more reasons for an eight hour sleep than I can easily count.  But I'll mention some of the biggest, most easily noticeable benefits to a better night's sleep.

Muscle Recovery:  We all know that rest=recovery.  That's no secret.  But what you might not have known is that the HGH in your body takes about two hours of restful, uninterrupted sleep to be produced (in stage 4), and another six to do it's work.  This is really the only time when your body can use this powerful hormone.  And I'll let you in on a secret.  If you think you're getting pumped up in the gym, you're wrong.  You grow when you sleep, not when you lift.  Rest more and see greater muscle gains faster, and if you want to pack on some lean mass then hit the hay with plenty of time to get that eight hour rest.

Stress relief:  Sleep deprivation causes your body to produce more cortisol, a stress response hormone that causes anger, anxiety, nervousness, and a whole host of other stress-related feelings that you hate so much.  Get a better night's sleep and help your body to maintain low levels of cortisol, and I guarantee you'll feel much better the next day.  Again, aim for eight hours.  You need EVERY SINGLE ONE of them.

Metabolism:  A good night's sleep has been shown to increase your metabolism and keep your bodily chemicals perfectly in balance so you can more effectively use the energy in your food and burn through unwanted fat.  Start dropping hours of sleep and you'll STOP dropping weight, and more than likely feel like crap because of it.  Who wants to droop around all day, when they just as easily be happy, chipper, and full of natural food energy?

Heart Health:  It's been shown that the less you sleep, the more chance you have for increased blood pressure and other heart conditions such as irregular heartbeat.  Your muscles need to rest, and your heart is no exception.  Get eight hours a night and you may do more benefit for your heart than you can imagine.

Memory:  That's right, you'll have a better, more youthful memory if you get a full night's sleep every night.  As previously described, REM sleep is when your body commits information to long term memory.  The more quality sleep you get, the more likely you'll be to remember crucial information about your day.

Sickness:  Your body fights all sorts of diseases as you rest, and it's been proven time and time again that those who get a better night's sleep don't get sick as often, and recover from sickness much more quickly.  There are even studies out there that suggest that sleep may help to prevent cancer later in life, especially good habits of consistently restful sleep.

Now, the real question arises.  How should you go about trying to get more sleep?  Well after a bunch of research, I didn't find anything revolutionary.  It's all the classic "make it a ritual' and "get as comfortable as possible."  We know all this already probably, so I'll insert my own little nugget of knowledge in the quest for zzzz's.

I'm in college, and here, sleep is crucial.  Almost every night, if I must awake to use the bathroom (from all that water I drink) I almost always see someone out in the hall, romping around, generally causing some sort of ruckus.  This is usually at around 2-4 in the morning.  This is an absolutely ridiculous thing to be doing.  I don't care how much of a night owl you are.  If you are playing around at 2 o clock, something is bound to go wrong in your body.  And honestly, if you're on that kind of sleep cycle, something already has.  Here's my advice.  If you have 8-o-clock work (or class), get to bed at 10pm, and even if you don't fall asleep immediately, give it time.  You have to force yourself into a good sleep cycle.  As soon as you get out of it, it's very hard to get it back.  Sleep during the night, not between classes.  It's that simple.

Time it so every night you can get at least 8 hours.  A little more is fine, and if you don't quite get enough, I would strongly suggest a half hour nap midday.  DON'T OVERDO THIS NAP THOUGH.  You want a short nap.  That will reinvigorate you.  More than an hour and a half and you'll just feel worse than before, because your body will be trying to slip into a deep sleep by the time you need to get up.

Still think that sleep isn't as crucial as I make it out to be?  Here's the deal.  If you don't get enough sleep, or are on a poor sleep cycle, you will:

-Feel like crap
-Look like crap
-Be unable to focus at work or in class
-Be unable to perform even mundane physical tasks efficiently
-Feel Weak
-Get sick
-Be Irritable, frustrated, and stressed
-Gain weight

It's that simple.  If I don't get enough sleep, I can feel it, and I know you can too.

Bottom line:  Sleep is extremely important.  Keep a good sleep cycle as best you can, and make adjustments so that day in and day out you can rack up 8 hours under the covers.  Sound good?  Good.

Curl up, conk out, sleep tight, and as always, good luck!

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