Sleep fuels the brain. It helps us stay active and alert throughout our days. And there are many reasons we spend about one-third of our lives sleeping (or attempting to do so).
A lack of quality shut-eye can have a grave effect on your immune system, stress levels, blood pressure and cardiovascular health. The CDC recommends at least seven or more hours of sleep per night. Yet, more than a third of American adults fall short of that standard. The obvious advice here is to simply make more time for rest. However, sleep is a complex matter and it's not just the duration of sleep that's important.
According to Alex Dimitriu, a psychiatrist and sleep medicine expert, we can break down a night's rest into a specific cyclical pattern known as sleep architecture. This pattern consists of four to five sleep cycles that alternate between rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM sleep. Dimitriu explains that our body needs these different cycles to feel fully rested in the morning.
Non-REM sleep typically occurs right after you fall asleep in three cycles with each lasting five to 15 minutes. This stage of sleeping allows for the body to relax. By the third cycle, non-REM sleep transitions to a deep sleep. This is where REM comes in. Though this is the deepest stage of sleep, REM sleep, as the name implies, allows your eyes to move rapidly behind closed eyelids and occurs 20 to 25 percent of the time you're asleep. Unlike non-REM sleep, your brain is extremely active during REM sleep. This allows for vivid dreams and, more importantly, mental restoration, which is essential to quality rest.
However, many fail to acquire REM sleep due to sleep disruptions that can arise from stress, a lack of routine or bad sleeping habits and poor mental or physical health. Because REM sleep is important to ensure you're well-rested and can impact daytime function, such as alertness and memory recall, it is vital to try to get REM sleep each night.
Here are six ways you can improve your deep sleep and achieve more restorative nights of rest:
1. Have a Consistent Night Routine
"It is important to realize that sleep is rhythmic," says Dimitriu, who founded Menlo Park Psychiatry and Sleep Medicine. Going to bed and waking up at a similar time every day (yes, this includes weekends) allows your internal body clock to adjust to a routine. If you think about it, consistency breeds results. You aim to be consistent at work or even at the gym, so why not apply the same motto to your sleep schedule?
2. Cut the Harmful Substances
Research shows that caffeine can impact the onset of sleep as well as the quality of sleep. While this may not come as a surprise, the same goes for nicotine and alcohol. These substances can cause severe sleep disturbances and impact your sleep quality by reducing REM sleep. So skipping that glass of wine and opting for a calming non-caffeinated tea before bed may just be the way to go.
3. Create a Cozy Environment
Noise, light, traffic and pollution can all impact your sleep. Ensuring a restful environment with limiting distractions is essential for a good night's rest. This may look like getting light-blocking curtains, turning off electronic devices an hour or two before bedtime and having a comfortable sleeping space. Essentially, anything you can do to make your sleeping environment inviting, comfy and relaxing is good for restorative sleep.
4. Say No to Late-Night Snacking
Your late-night eating habits could be contributing to insomnia. Whenever you eat food, a hormone called insulin is released. This interferes with our circadian rhythm, which is the body's internal clock, by signaling wakefulness in the brain. By regularly eating before bed, you're delaying the onset of sleep. In order to avoid this, attempt to eliminate snacking at night and have an early dinner.
5. Consider Meditation
Dimitriu's recommendation for sleeplessness? Mediation. "I often recommend meditation in the form of just practicing bringing your mind back to the stillness, knowing quite well many of us have a monkey mind," he says. Practicing mindfulness during the day can also better prepare you for night mediation. This technique allows you to eliminate stress, a major factor in sleep disturbance. Research has shown that just a few minutes of mediation each day can help improve sleep quality.
6. Keep a Sleep Diary
The best way to find out if you're getting enough restful sleep is by tracking it. Whether you choose an app on your phone or a classic diary, tracking your sleep patterns is crucial. By taking notes, you can illuminate and transform both sleeping and waking habits. Important info to track might include the time you went to bed, the number of times you woke up in the night, how many naps you took during the day, your caffeine intake and most importantly, how these patterns made you feel. Sometimes, we also need to be reminded of why restful sleep is important. Keeping a sleep diary can do just that by reminding you how great it feels to get some quality z's.