We’re often told by our doctors, personal trainers, studies, and other sources that we must value rest, that getting ‘enough sleep’ is ‘important’ to our health — but what exactly is enough sleep? Understanding the answer to this question can help us understand the quality of our own rest, and better recognize its impact on our overall well-being.
The importance of sleep
Sleep is a time for our body to recover from the rigors of the day, to rebuild our bodies and minds. When we short-change our body on sleep, the detritus of days — tired muscles, mental stress, minor illnesses — start to build up, leading to worse conditions. This forces our bodies to work overtime during the day, burning resources and energy it would normally replenish during our evening rest.
With our resources taxed, we get sick more often. We make mistakes, and injure ourselves. We find our moods unpredictable. Sleep matters
, for the same reason you want to park your car before a mechanic works on it — the alternative is unsafe and impractical.
To really understand sleep, you need to understand sleep cycles and the stages of sleep. It may seem like useless trivia, but, in fact, these cycles play an important role in determining sleep quality. For example, when you wake up completely unalert, exhausted, and yearning to put your head down, it’s because you’ve woken up in the wrong stage of sleep.
For most of us without sleep-related ailments, the cycle of sleep lasts up to 100 minutes and consists of the following stages:
• Stage one - light sleep, drifting in and out of wakefulness quite easily.
• Stage two - eye movement stops and brain waves slow, with occasional rapid bursts of mental activity.
• Stage three - the brain cycles between extremely slow delta waves and faster, smaller waves before shifting to almost nothing but delta waves. This is deep sleep, the hardest sleep to wake from. Eyes and muscles don’t move.
• Rapid Eye Movement - following deep sleep, REM involves rapid breathing, some paralysis, waking-level brain waves, and dreaming. Early in the night, REM is short and the deep sleep stage long, with REM cycles lengthening and deep sleep shortening with each cycle.
Your goal with sleep should be to complete four or five cycles to completion, waking up as you return to stage one. You’ll be able to tell when you’re getting close — you’ll remember dreams quite easily if you’re waking up during or slightly after REM sleep.
To successfully move through complete cycles, you’ll want to do your best to eliminate things which cause you to wake up throughout the night — for example, you could turn of sources of lights and do yoga for low back pain
. You may also need to improve your ability to get to sleep in the first place by only sleeping in your bed, not looking at bright screens in the prior hours, and so on.
Once you're getting the amount of sleep you need, and avoiding poor sleep quality, you'll never question the importance of a good rest again.