Let's do some quick word association -- red... fire, up... down, sleep... neglect. There is no arguing our culture is sleep-deprived and over-stimulated. In a world of child-chauffeuring and page-long to-do lists, sleep is often the first thing nixed when time is short. A spinoff from our last article (see Routine vs. Stress -- May 24), sleep is an internal factor requiring routine for it to contribute positively to homeostasis (our body's regulation of healthy functioning by way of multiple conditions). We all know sleep is beneficial -- but do we know why? How do you maximize your time spent in the bedroom?
Sleep for dummies
Sleep is divided into four stages. Stage 1 is a brief 5- to 10-minute transition period between wakefulness and sleep. Stage 2 lasts about 20 minutes and causes your core temperature to decrease and heart rate to slow. In stages 1 and 2, you are generally still responsive to external stimuli. Stage 3, or delta sleep, is the beginning of unresponsiveness and is a transition period between light and deep sleep. Stage 4 is known as REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, and is the most important part of our sleep cycle. During REM sleep, our voluntary muscles are relaxed/paralyzed but our brain and other systems become more active. This is because sleep is restorative. It is the time for your body to replenish, repair, and regenerate energy stores, damaged tissue and dead cells. It's integral to homeostasis.
If you are in some sort of routine and have not just returned from a flight around the world, your body will experience dips and rises in energy levels, caused by your internal circadian rhythm and changes in core temperature. Have your sleep patterns, circadian rhythm, and base/peak core temperatures all line up successfully, and you have the recipe for a good night's sleep.
How can we get the perfect sleep and replicate it over and over? Here are a few helpful tips.
Consistency: If you put down this article and glean only one thing -- it should be that sleep is a cycle that requires routine and repetition. So many factors contributing to quality sleep rely on your body's memory of slumbers past. How easily you fall asleep, how well you awake, and how quickly you fall into long, restorative cycles of REM sleep all bank on the fact you are following the same pattern every night. Sleeping in on weekends for an extra three or four hours will not restore any sleep-debt, but will actually disrupt your sleep cycles and make Monday morning feel like -- Monday morning.
Eight hours a day?: Not everyone needs the same amount of sleep. Your personal sleep number is the amount of sleep you require to make it through the day without feeling drowsy. This may sound crazy, but start with nine hours, several days in a row, and then increase or decrease that amount until you find what works for you. Adjust it in 15-minute intervals. Throughout the night, your body will cycle between stage 2 and stage 4 (REM) sleep. If you wake during stage 4, you will seem more rested.
Environment: Your bedroom should be a dungeon: dark, cool and quiet. Since sleep centers around your lowest temperature -- help it out a bit by keeping it cool. Removing lights, noises and electronics will eliminate stimuli that make it difficult to fall asleep. Your room should also be used almost exclusively for sleep. This will condition your body to expect sleep when you are in there. Once you're in bed, establish a 20- to 30-minute routine (reading, writing, praying, cuddling), that announces to your body sleep is near; the four stages of sleep that follow will cycle through that much quicker.
Get full-on tired: Too many people try falling asleep mentally exhausted, but physically untaxed; unable to shut down and rest. This is because every part of you needs to be fatigued in order for the sandman to come. Exercise regularly and at a consistent time of day so your body knows when it finally has a chance to replace energy stores and rebuild muscle.
So sleeping in on the weekends doesn't help -- it hurts. If your weekly sleep graph has the highs and lows of my heart rate during Montreal playoff hockey, it's time to make time for consistency and routine. Integrate these tips and treat sleep as an important life factor instead of an afterthought, and you'll have more energy to tackle the other factors that make you tired. I'm ready for bed -- are you?
We welcome your questions. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and you could be featured in a future article. Tim Shantz is a certified athletic therapist and trainer.