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The Miracle of Restorative Sleep

While it’s hard to identify the most important aspect of self-care, sleep could be it. Sleep deficiency can raise the risk for chronic health problems and affect how well we think, react, work and get along with others.

Sleep is a critical factor of self-care, but as I’ve lately discovered myself, the number of hours you sleep doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to wake up refreshed and ready for your day. I admit that when I was young, I was one of those people who claimed I’d sleep when I died because I was too busy to dedicate 8 hours of my day to sleeping. Fortunately, as I began studying mental health later in life, I discovered my error and started paying more attention to the vital function sleep plays in our well-being.

If you’re not catching enough Z’s, you’re clearly not alone. According to Allied Market Research, the global market for sleep aids generated almost $60 billion in 2020 and is projected to reach about $112 billion by 2030. That’s a lot of sleeping pills. With insomnia on the rise, many of us are suffering personally and professionally, yet a lot of people insist that they don’t have time to sleep more.

It's tempting, I know. You’ve got a million things to get done each day and sometimes into the night and you finally reach that beautiful moment where everything is quiet and no one is bugging you. Wouldn’t this be the perfect time to binge watch your favorite show, read that novel you’ve been dying to get to, or even get ahead of tomorrow’s workload? Well, yes and no. It depends on several factors.

I now look at my sleep like a bank. When I make adequate deposits, my mind and body heal from the punishments of my daytime activities, and I have clarity, energy and motivation to get up and do it again the next day. When I don’t make adequate deposits, I’m cranky, foggy and sluggish the next day. Keep in mind, these are just the observable detriments to not getting enough sleep. Studies show that there’s a lot of stuff going on while we sleep that we’re not even aware of.

That’s where the quality of sleep comes into play, as well as the number of hours we snooze. There are four stages of sleep and they all play an important role in our health. The first stage is actually being awake or dozing. We wake up quite a few times during the night and then drift back to sleep. During this phase, our temperature and heartrate drops, preparing us for the next stage of sleep.

About half of our sleep is the stage of light sleep. This stage boosts the brain’s communication system and our ability to learn and remember. That’s pretty critical and worth paying attention to.

These two stages of sleep are considered non-REM, as is the third stage, deep sleep. I falsely assumed this was the most important phase of sleep, but I was wrong. We need the full cycle of stages to maintain our health. But deep sleep is critical for repairing and strengthening the immune system, along with other key bodily processes. There is evidence that deep sleep contributes to insightful thinking, creativity and memory. Again, kind of important.

Rapid Eye Movement, or REM sleep, is the stage of sleep when we have the most vivid dreams. I was also wrong about REM, thinking it was the only time we dream, but that’s not true. They’re just more vivid during this stage of sleep, so these may be the dreams you can sometimes remember, at least for a few minutes, upon waking.

During REM, the brain processes emotions, new learnings and motor skills from the day, committing some to memory, maintaining others, and deciding which ones to delete. REM also promotes brain development.

So back to the question of whether you should binge watch a show or go to sleep, it depends because sleep needs vary by person. There is no golden number for how many hours you should sleep. What’s important is the number of sleep cycles you get. Each 4-stage cycle is repeated multiple times a night, with each cycle taking 90 to 120 minutes to complete. So instead of thinking that you have to get 8 hours of sleep, consider that ideally, you should get 4 to 6 cycles of sleep a night. That could be anywhere from 6 hours to 12 hours for the average adult. Babies need up to 17 hours a day, so perhaps we don’t want to sleep like a baby. Children and teens also need more hours, but for adults, determining your stages of sleep is what’s really important.

If your head was on the pillow for 8 hours but you woke up feeling tired, consider what you did the night before. Did you eat too close to bedtime? Use a device right up until you fell asleep? Drink alcohol? That last one aggravates me to no end because I really like wine, but if I drink wine close to bedtime, it interferes with my sleep quality every time.

Experts continue to study the process of sleep, but they’ve found evidence to suggest the body and brain are working throughout our sleeping time, including repairing muscle, growing tissue and synthesizing protein. REM and deep sleep are considered restorative sleep, where the brain activity during sleep helps restore the body and mind, essentially resetting us for the next day. Not getting enough restorative sleep can affect our health, not to mention our ability to function during our waking hours.

Almost everyone I know complains that they don’t get enough sleep, but I suspect they aren’t getting enough restorative sleep and that’s something we can change. There are a million reasons someone may have trouble falling asleep or completing all four stages of sleep, but two of the most common are life stressors and poor sleep hygiene, like my glass of wine.

Other factors that disrupt our sleep cycle include shift work, which throws the body for a loop because of our circadian rhythms, jet lag, anxiety, and chronic pain. If you have young children or are providing care for someone with an illness, you probably don’t get enough deep sleep because a part of your brain stays on high alert. Illnesses and certain medications can also disrupt your sleep cycle.

You can track how much time you spend in each stage of sleep with a wearable device or now, even beds come with sleep trackers built in. The benefit of a device is that it tells you exactly how much time you’re spending in each phase, which is quite helpful. I wear a device which shows me clearly that wine shortens my REM sleep, darn it. And since REM sleep is so important, I now know that I should avoid wine before bed. But you can also simply pay attention to how you feel. If you’ve had a good night’s sleep, meaning at least 4 cycles, you’ll feel rested. If you feel tired when you wake up, be mindful as to what’s going on.

As I mentioned, improving sleep hygiene can make a big difference in the quality of our sleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest a few habits that can improve our sleep health including keeping a consistent sleep schedule, maintaining a sleep environment that promotes a good night’s sleep, like keeping your bedroom dark, quiet, and on the cooler side,

and leaving your computer, phone, and other screens outside of the bedroom.

They also suggest sticking to smaller meals or light snacks before bed and avoiding caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine in the hours before bedtime. Clearly, my wine is on every hit list when it comes to sleep. You may be wondering why it would be worth it for me to give up my wine altogether, along with anything you don’t feel happy about changing, like screen time, but there are compelling reasons to consider it.

Studies show that sleep deficiency alters activities in some parts of the brain, resulting in difficulties in making decisions, solving problems, controlling emotions and behavior, and coping with change. Sleep deficiency is also linked to depression, suicide and risk-taking behavior. Children and teens who are sleep deficient may have problems getting along with others, feel angry and impulsive, have mood swings, feel sad or depressed, or lack motivation. They may also have problems paying attention, and they may get lower grades. If you have children, you may have heard that many school districts are going to start school later next year. That’s because of these studies.

As for our physical health, sleep is involved in the healing and repairing of our hearts and blood vessels. Ongoing sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. Lack of sleep increases the risk of obesity. In one large study, insufficient sleep was linked to an increased risk of obesity by 89% in children and 55% in adults. And if you’re trying to release weight, this is definitely something to consider. What’s the point of cutting calories if your lack of sleep prevents the weight from dropping?

Deep sleep triggers the body to release the hormones that promote normal growth in children and teens, boosts muscle mass and helps repair cells and tissues in all ages and plays a role in both puberty and fertility.

In addition to good sleep hygiene, there are a lot of actions we can take to improve our quality of sleep. If you’ve ever found yourself lying awake, worrying about problems that popped up during the day, or the challenges that you’re expecting tomorrow, you may want to work on stress relief because high levels of stress can have a negative impact on your sleep.

It’s impossible to eliminate all stress from life, and in fact, we wouldn’t want to. Not all stress is negative and if you’re like me, you might need some stress to get you motivated, to face tasks you’d rather avoid, and to feel excitement over various aspects of life. But finding ways to better manage negative stress can go a long way toward helping you get more restorative sleep.

Practicing good self-care, including mindfulness, not only reduces stress, but studies indicate improves sleep. Meditation, yoga, regular exercise, staying hydrated and eating a balanced diet are all good bets as well. Naps can go either way. Studies suggest if you nap less than 30 minutes, it might boost your mood and energy during the day and not affect your sleep quality, but it’s very subjective. Just pay attention on the days you nap and if you don’t sleep well at night, cut the naps out. A hot bath or reading a book (the paper kind, not from a screen) right before bed also relaxes us and helps us slide into the sleep cycle.

I suggest you use prescription and over the counter sleeping aids only occasionally, as they not only have side effects, but could have long-term effects on your health and longevity. Supplements are another option, but again, there are questions about safety and long-term effects, so do your due diligence and research before reaching for a pill.

If you’re consistently practicing good self-care and good sleep hygiene and still have trouble falling or staying asleep on a regular basis, you might consider turning to professional help. This could be even more important if you doze off involuntarily during the day, experience memory problems, or even snore loudly. These could be symptoms of an underlying medical condition, so connect with your health care provider to get the support you may need.

Mindfulness is awareness and self-awareness is key to getting restorative sleep so that we can be our best selves, do our best work and enjoy life to the fullest. There’s an Irish Proverb that says, “A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.” Are you ready for the cure?

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