Rest better, according to the science of sleep

The consequences of sleep deprivation offer strong support for the view that sleep does not have only one biological purpose, but in fact due to its complexity is an important factor for the proper functioning of almost all body systems. Prestige takes a closer look at the science behind – and the importance of – closing one’s eyes

Although we feel like a luxury, we spend approximately one third of our lives asleep and this is an important part of our daily lives for mental and physical health. The quality of sleep, the optimal duration of sleep and sleep at the right time are as important to our survival as food and water; affects our brain function, metabolism, immunity, heart, lungs, muscles and mood. And while for some it’s a calm, positive and even reconstructive part of our day, it eludes many others – with one in three Thais reporting sleep deprivation and 19 million Thais experiencing sleep disorders known by the medical term “insomnia”. ‘. So how do we improve our sleep and in turn our quality of life?

Although everyone needs sleep, the reason for its development is unknown. What we do know is that without it, our bodies cannot function. Studies show that people who suffer from chronic sleep disorders are more prone to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, obesity and depression. Until relatively recently, sleep was considered passive, a period of time in which we lay dormant or unconscious until it was time to wake up again. However, studies that began in the 1970s show that our brains are remarkably active.

To get a good night’s sleep, it is first important to understand the mechanisms behind this. The human body is a meticulously designed – and very complex – system, and even during rest it is difficult to ensure our continuation in life after waking up. An intricately balanced cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters – chemicals that communicate between nerve cells – are released to send signals to different parts of the brain that control drowsiness and agitation.

Two different systems, circadian rhythm and homeostasis, work symbiotically to control your sleep. The circadian rhythm – also known as your biological clock – tells you when you will sleep and wake up based on environmental signals such as light and temperature. It is based on an approximately 24-hour clock and instructs your body to release neurotransmitters and hormones such as melatonin at night. Meanwhile, homeostasis dictates your need for sleep and its intensity – the longer you are awake, the deeper you will sleep.

There are two types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (non-REM), which are related to the activity of neurons and brain waves. In a typical sleep period, you will go through four different stages of sleep.

When you start napping, you enter the first stage, which is not REM, a light, short sleep that lasts a few minutes and is characterized by muscle relaxation and twitching, a slower heart rate, breathing, and eye movements. Your brain waves begin to decrease from your daily patterns as you prepare for the next stage.

You spend at least half of your sleep time in repetitive cycles of the second stage, which is not REM. At this stage, your heart rate and breathing slow down further and your muscles relax more, while your body temperature drops and eye movements stop completely. Your brain wave activity continues to decline, but there are still small bursts of electrical activity.

Stage 3 non-REM occurs in the first half of the night and is a deep sleep that makes you feel refreshed in the morning. This is your most relaxed body; heart rate and respiration levels are lowest and brain waves are identified by a unique pattern called “delta waves”.

After the third stage comes REM sleep, usually 90 minutes after you first fall asleep. It is marked by rapid eye movement behind the eyelids. Your brain waves become mixed in frequency, more like when you are awake. The muscles of your arms and legs become paralyzed and you tend to dream during this period. Your breathing and heart rate also become fast and uneven and increase in speed, more like wakefulness.

When the stages of sleep are disturbed regularly, it can drastically affect our health, emotions and appearance. Insomnia is a problem that affects most people in their lives at some point, we regularly travel the globe and temporary jet lag is one of the less desirable effects of crossing time zones, but some suffer from it chronically. There are many factors – physical, mental, medical and environmental – that can cause disturbances, as well as specific sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, that directly prevent sleep or affect the quality of sleep. While some will require medical intervention, such as those with diseases such as overactive thyroid or major depression, or people on certain medications, there are scientifically supported strategies to help those with insomnia.

First, clean your sleep hygiene by improving your sleep environment, as suggested by the Thai Sleep Society. Tossing and turning, staring at your phone, watching the clock spin later, calculating how much sleep you’ll sleep before the alarm goes off – sounds familiar? Blue lights from phones, laptops and digital devices can prevent us from releasing melatonin, which means that our bodies do not know when to fall asleep. Remove TVs, stop watching your digital devices an hour before bed, and keep your room dark with blackout curtains to remove light pollution. The optimum room temperature is around 18 degrees Celsius, but you can adapt it to what works best for you, and if you sleep lightly, invest in some good earplugs and a white noise machine to muffle city sounds.

Next for the science of sleep, work on your schedule. If you are a coffee lover, a daily morning ritual for many, try to limit caffeine and do not drink it later than lunch. Alcohol can also ruin plans for a good night’s sleep, so if you’re enjoying plenty of burgundy or smoked scotch with dinner and want to drink, make sure it’s a few hours before bed. Remember to exercise, as many studies show that including physical activity reduces the onset of sleep, which means it will take you less time to fall asleep. Finally, try to go to bed at the same time every day; turn it into a pleasant experience with silk pajamas and pillows and a soothing body lotion (Byredo makes beautifully scented moisturizers).

If you still find that you can’t nod, there are some sensory tools to calm your mind and body to sleep. Mindfulness and the practice of meditation have long been hailed as a miracle that calms the mind and allows us to focus on the present. This is especially helpful for those with anxiety or depression, and there are apps like Calm that can take you through the process to the sounds of beach waves or tropical rain. Aromatherapy is another method of relieving insomnia and a mixture of lavender, chamomile and neroli has been shown to improve sleep.

Once you have tried everything and still cannot sleep, this may be an indicator of another problem such as sleep apnea, hormonal imbalance or nervous disorders. Consult a medical professional at a sleep clinic such as the Sleep Disorders Center at Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok, where a team of specialist doctors can assess your sleep and what may be causing your insomnia.

Make sure there are plenty of options to support your holiday. So tonight, slip into your 600-thread Egyptian cotton sheets, allow your eyelids to weigh, and walk away, knowing you’ll wake up for a healthier, happier future.

Credit to the image of the character: Unsplash

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