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Sleep is a regular period of rest which allows the brain and body to slow down and engage in processes of recovery. Find out more about how sleep works, why it’s important and how to improve your sleep.
Sleep is a regular period of rest which allows the brain and body to slow down and engage in processes of recovery, promoting better physical and mental performance the next day and in the long-term. What happens when you don’t sleep is that these important processes are short-circuited. This affects thinking, concentration, energy levels, and mood. As a result, getting enough good quality sleep is crucial.
Everyone is different
It is important to remember that sleep is very individual and there is no right or wrong way to do it – every person is unique and will have a sleep cycle and sleep preferences that suit them.
Sleep is the golden chain that ties heath and our bodies together.Thomas Dekker, (1572-1632)
Sleep is the golden chain that ties heath and our bodies together.
You have internal body clocks that control when you are awake and when your body is ready for sleep. These clocks have cycles of 24 hours on average. As you fall asleep, notable changes start to affect both the brain and body: body temperature drops, brain activity ramps down, and heart rate and respiration slows as well.
There are four stages of sleep divided into two categories. The first three stages fall into the category of non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. The fourth stage falls within the category of REM sleep. REM sleep stage is most essential for the brain, enabling key functions like memory and learning.
Stage 1 of sleep is when you have just dozed off, and it usually lasts 1-5 minutes. In this period, we drift in and out of sleep and can be awoken easily. Our eyes move very slowly and muscle activity slows.
You then transition into stage 2, which can last between 10-60 minutes. This stage involves further slowing of activity in the brain and body. It is much easier to be awoken during these early stages of the sleep cycle.
Stage 3 is the deepest part of non-REM sleep. It is also known as slow wave sleep, delta sleep and deep sleep, and can last between 20-40 minutes.
Your muscles and body relax even more, and brain waves show a clear pattern of slowed activity that is markedly different from waking brain activity. It is believed that deep sleep plays an important role in recuperation of the body as well as effective thinking and memory.
Stage 4 is the only stage of REM sleep. During this time, brain activity picks up significantly and most of the body except the eyes and breathing muscles experience temporary paralysis. Although dreams can happen during any stage, the most intense dreaming takes place during REM sleep.
Sleep is as important to our health as eating, drinking and breathing. It has an important restorative function in recharging the brain at the end of each day just like we need to charge a mobile phone after prolonged use.
Sleep contributes to the effective function of virtually every system of the body. It empowers the immune system, helps regulate hormones and enables muscle and tissue recovery. Lack of sleep is linked to a number of health problems including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.
Sleep benefits the brain and promotes attention, memory and analytical thought. It makes our thinking sharper, recognising the most important information to consolidate learning. Sleep also facilitates expansive thinking that can spur our creativity, whether that is studying for a test or learning an instrument.
It is no secret that there is a close relationship between sleep and mental health. Living with a mental health problem can affect how well you sleep and poor sleep can have a negative impact on your mental health and emotional wellbeing.
Sleep deprivation can leave you feeling irritable and exhausted short term, but also have serious long term health consequences as well. For example, lack of sleep has been linked to depression.
If you are having problems sleeping you might:
Sleep deprivation can affect the development of the part of the brain that controls impulsive behaviour. Not getting enough sleep makes it more likely to engage in high-risk behaviours like texting while driving or riding a bike without a helmet.
Behavioural problems can then have widespread affects that harm academic performance as well as relationships with family and friends.
The teenage years are a formative period. The brain and body experience significant development during this period, and the transition to adulthood brings important changes that affect a person’s emotions, personality, social and family life, and academic ability. A minimum of 8-10 hours of good sleep is recommended for young people.
Deep sleep is an important factor in the onset of puberty; it is extremely important to be sure that adolescents are getting an adequate amount of sleep time per night.
During adolescence the brain makes the hormone melatonin (the hormone that regulates the sleep cycle) later at night than the brains of children and adults do. This causes the body’s circadian rhythm (the body’s natural, internal process that regulates sleep) to reset, telling the person to fall asleep later at night and wake up later in the morning.
Find out more about puberty here.
A lot of the time it’s easier said than done to make changes to your habits, especially something as ingrained as a sleep schedule, even if it isn’t doing you any favours! If you want to improve the quality of your sleep, try starting by implementing changes that feel realistic to stick to, rather than trying everything all at once. Here are a few suggestions of things you could try to improve your sleep.
If you have been struggling with sleep and the tips above don’t help, it is possible that you might need some more support with your sleep. If you are worried, talk to your GP about your concerns. Your GP may want to conduct a sleep study in order to get a better look at your night time sleep patterns. They can then recommend treatments that are appropriate for any underlying sleep disturbance that might be impairing your ability to rest. Treating your sleep issues early is important for protecting both your physical and mental wellbeing.
Find more support here.
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