Sleep is as essential to our bodies as food. It nourishes us and keeps us healthy. It allows us to recharge our minds, process our days (both the good and bad stuff), and it even helps us eliminate metabolic waste. We spend more than one-third of our lives sleeping (or trying to sleep), and it’s a vital part of our mental and physical wellbeing.
If you struggle with sleep, you’re not alone. The American Sleep Association estimates that anywhere from 50 to 70 million Americans struggle with sleep problems. Around 30 percent of adults struggle with some form of insomnia at some point in their lives, and around 10 percent of adults can have chronic insomnia. Bill Fish is the Managing Editor for the National Sleep Foundation , and he says that sleep is as crucial to our bodies as breathing.
“Sleep is considered the third pillar of wellness to go along with diet and exercise. It is an integral part of our health regimen. Each adult should be getting between seven and nine hours of quality sleep on a nightly basis. If you aren’t, you aren’t preparing your mind and body to take on the day,” he says. What happens to our bodies when we sleep?
When we sleep, our unconscious minds take over while our bodies work to replenish and repair the damage of the day. While sleep affects every tissue of the body, its biological purpose is still a bit of a mystery.
Sleep is naturally regulated by the hormonal cycles our bodies go through as the sun traces its trajectory across the sky. These rhythms include both the circadian rhythms and sleep-wake homeostasis. If you’ve ever traveled to another timezone, pulled an all-nighter, or had to get up well before the sunrise, you know what it feels like to fight those natural urges to sleep, and you likely know what it’s like to walk around in a stupefied sleepless state trying to function.
It turns out that one of the key functions of sleep is to keep your neurons sharp and perform what the National Institute of Health refers to as “housekeeping” for the brain and remove toxins that build up during the day. Consider doing a wind down activity before bed to prepare yourself. There are two primary rhythms that affect our need and desire for sleep: Circadian rhythms and sleep-wake homeostasis. Circadian rhythms handle many other things outside of sleep, but they generally control your sleepiness at night and wake up in the morning. The rhythms are usually tied to the movement of the sun, though they can operate without those cues, too. Sleep-wake homeostasis is like the logbook for your sleep. This rhythm and system keeps track of your need for sleep. So when you stay up well past when your body tells you it needs sleep, your sleep-wake homeostasis system makes the drive for sleep that much stronger each hour.
According to the Cleveland Clinic , from a scientific standpoint, sleep consists of two basic states, REM sleep (aka rapid eye movement) and NREM sleep. There are four stages of NREM or non-REM sleep and only one stage of REM sleep. REM sleep generally takes place around 90 minutes after we fall asleep, and it is broken up by different levels of NREM sleep. If you’ve ever noticed that you’re particularly groggy after waking up in the morning, that’s likely because something woke you out of REM sleep. The longer we stay asleep, the longer our REM cycles last. The initial periods of REM sleep last around 10 minutes, with each one lasting longer, up to 90 minutes, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Stage 3 and Stage 4 NREM sleep is where you get the rest you need to feel refreshed in the morning, and usually the stage in which you start to dream. When you get a good night’s rest, you feel better, you’re likely less anxious, irritable and less likely to make less-than-optimal food choices, too. It’s normal to cycle between the two states repeatedly throughout an average night. REM sleep is the period of sleep where your body does the most repairing. According to a 2006 report on sleep by the U.S. Institute of Medicine , most normal, healthy adults need to spend about 13 percent to 23 percent of the sleep cycle in deep sleep to get the most benefit for their bodies and minds. Deep sleep can include both REM and the deeper levels of NREM sleep. The amount of REM sleep you get diminishes as you get older ; infants and kids getting the most REM sleep and older adults get the least. Why sleep matters to our mental wellbeing
Sleep does far more than just rest our bodies. It helps us problem solve and make sense of and digest events and traumas that happened to us during our waking lives, too. It also helps us with memory consolidation and learning, as well.
As we cycle between the two stages, our muscles relax, our breathing slows, and our heart rates lower. The deepest stages of NREM sleep help boost our immunity, according to Harvard , but researchers believe that REM sleep is the period where we learn and convert our experiences to memory.
Multiple studies have shown that sleep deprivation can and does have a significant impact on mental health and wellbeing. In fact, it turns out that mental health and sleep are inter-related. A lack of sleep can impact how we handle our daily lives and worsen mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders, and ADHD. Sleep disturbances and disorders can also be early indicators that a mental health condition exists.
For example, as Harvard points out, anywhere from 65 percent to 90 percent of adults with major depression suffer from some form of sleep problem, whether its insomnia, sleep apnea (disordered breathing while sleeping), or various movement syndromes like restless leg syndrome or others. In fact, most people with depression suffer from insomnia.
The feedback loop works the other […]