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We have busy lives. We want to do well in school and at work. We want to go out with friends and experience as much as the world as possible. So the third of our lives we spend sleeping may seem like time lost, time wasted or time better spent doing something else. But the time you spend hitting the sack is some of the most productive time you will ever have.

If I told you, you can look better, perform better and feel better without having to lift a finger, you would probably ask “what’s the catch?” However, all you got to do is take a good long nap every night and you’ll be golden. I am going to give you a run down on all the great stuff that happens while you sleep, what you can do to make sure you and sleep stay BFFs, plus some things that could be messing up your sleep and therefore your life. (I also promise to use as many sleepy synonyms as possible!)

The Benefits of Bedding Down

During sleep your body does things you could only dream about. No but really, loads of stuff happens while you sleep that you probably never realized. While you sleep your body:

  • Regulates your hormones, in particular:
    • Growth
    • Hunger
  • Keeps your immune system strong
  • Organises growth and the  repair of muscles and tissues
  • Consolidates memories
    • Stores them away and makes them easier to access and stronger
  •  Is refreshed (like a spray of Febreeze to the brain)

Sleep Patterns

When you “sack down” your body falls into an established sleep pattern. It cycles through the five stages of sleep throughout the night and usually repeats 4 to 5 cycles.

    Stage One

    • Very similar to being awake
    •  It’s very light sleep and more of a transition phase

    Stage Two

    • Your heart rate, breathing rate and body temperature drop
    • Your muscles relax and contract

    Stage Three

    • Start of deep sleep or a transition from light sleep to deep sleep
    • Your brain waves start to become slow “delta waves”
    • Muscles relax
    • This is when a person becomes hard to wake up

    Stage Four

    • This is the deepest part of sleep
    • It’s here that tissue repair and hormone release happens
    • If you were a bed-wetter as a kid this stage was the cause of your plastic sheets
    • You will alternate back and forth between stage three and stage 4 before entering REM

    Stage 5 - REM
    This is the kind of sleep they like to show in the cartoons when the characters eyes move back and forth under their eyelids. REM stands for ‘rapid eye movement’ and is an important part of sleep. Actually this is the best part of sleep as it’s where you get to dream

    • Most people fall into REM sleep about 90 minutes after they doze off. They start off as relatively short periods and they lengthen as the night goes on and reoccur about every 90 minutes
    • 20–25% of total sleep of an adult’s nights rest is spent in REM which amounts to around 90–120 minutes
    • The large muscles of the body are paralyzed so you don’t act out your dreams (which would be potentially awesome but ultimately hazardous). Ever had a scary dream where you needed to run away from something or scream but couldn’t, this is why.

The Magic Number?

So how much sleep should you get? This is an incredibly legitimate question and I hate to give you the super lame answer “it depends”. But… it really does depend. People are different and need different amounts of sleep to function effectively and at their best however:

  • In general healthy adults need 7-9 hours a night
  • Teens (10-17) require 8.5-9.5 hours

Consequences of Too Little Kip

We all know that we feel better when we sleep better. But is pulling those all-nighters to get that essay written really hurting you in the long run?

  • Ability to concentrate decreases
    • Leads to an increase in accidents
  • Memory retention decreases
    • Often leading to poor performance at work, at school, at college or at Uni
    • Therefore poor exam scores
  • Increased risk of heart disease and diabetes
  • Increased risk of depression
  • Increased risk of substance abuse
  • Weight gain
    • Your body regulates your body’s hunger hormones and digestion during sleep. Lack of sleep can lead to hormone imbalance and weight gain
  • Weak immune system
    • If you are sleep-deprived you are more likely to get ill with things like colds and flu as your body relies on sleep to regenerate and keep a healthy immune system

Keys to a Good Night’s Rest

So now we have learnt about the benefits of ‘hitting the hay’. Let’s discuss ways in which to make it as awesome a night’s sleep as possible

  • Keep a consistent schedule where possible
    • Your body likes routine in this way. Sleeping 5 hours at the start of the week and 11 at the end doesn’t really average out to 8
  • Have a routine
    • Take a shower or warm bath
    • Read a book
    • Anything to help you relax and get ready for going to sleep
  • Comfortable sleeping conditions
    • Dark room
    • Quiet
    • Good temperature (cooler is generally considered better)
    • Make sure you have a comfortable mattress and pillows
  • Avoid TV’s and computers in the bedroom
    • Bedrooms are best used for sleep and sex
  • Don’t eat too close to bedtime give your body time to digest
    • 2-3 hours before sleep is recommended
  • Regular exercise
  • Don’t overdo the caffeine or alcohol

Slumber Problems

We all have some sleep problems every now and again. But if the sandman just isn’t visiting you these days and you are really struggling with getting some shut eye, or if you wake up feeling more sleepy then when you went to bed, you may have some sort of sleep problem. It’s worth keeping a sleep diary and going to see you Doc to work out what the problem may be. Common sleep disorders can include:

  • Sleep apnoea
    • This is when your upper airway becomes partially or completely blocked during your sleep. It leads to irregular breathing for short periods of time which can then wake you up. You may not remember waking up in the morning but it leads to a broken night’s sleep
    • Can be dangerous and should be discussed with your doctor
  • Insomnia
    • When you just can’t get to sleep, which can be caused by a number of thing including
      • Stress and anxiety / things weighing heavily on your mind
      • Depression / low spirits
      • Certain medications
      • Or poor sleeping habits
  • Snoring
    • Snoring is pretty common but it can lead to a poor night’s sleep simply due to the noise it causes
    • Could be a symptom of a more serious problem like sleep apnoea
  • Restless Leg Syndrome
    • Discomfort in the legs and feet causing the need to move them about
    • Often peaks at night making it hard to get a full night’s rest
    • More common among older adults
  • Nightmares
    • They can be caused by stress, anxiety, and some drugs but often, there is no clear cause

If you’re not sleeping as much as you think you should be start by trying the advice above. If that fails it’s well worth going to see the doctor. Going to bed isn’t just a case of pushing up zeds!

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