Science of Sleep: Discovering How to Maximize Rest

Science of Sleep: Discovering How to Maximize Rest

The bedroom is designed to be a sanctuary for sleep. Cool, dark environment. Very comfortable. Yet we can all admit to breaking the rules from time to time: staring at our cell phones in bed, watching TV before a night’s slumber. So, then, how can we optimize our sleep? There are many questions that need answering. According to Matthew Walker, a professor of neuroscience and psychology, “men who routinely sleep just four to five hours a night will have a level of testosterone which is that of someone 10 years their senior.” And for all adults, insufficient sleep has been linked to the development and management of a number of chronic diseases and conditions, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Sleep is a necessity of life.

Sleep needs to be talked about, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause high levels of stress worldwide. We cannot afford to compromise our immune systems with a lack of sleep.

Part 1: Sleep Hygiene

Improve your daily habits with these tips to create a better sleep schedule.

Maximizing the benefits of sleep can be simple. The process begins in your bedroom, where you enhance your environment, then apply daily routines that improve sleep.

Take advantage of these tips to create a safe space for sleep:

  • Choose mattress and pillows for your sleep style: side sleeper vs. back or stomach sleeper.
  • Use bedding that supports your comfort: soft, clean sheets; blankets that are the right weight.
  • Set a cool temperature (65° Fahrenheit).
  • Block out light with curtains.
  • Experiment with calming scents such as lavender.

Forming good sleep habits is a central part of health and well-being. Because practicing healthy behaviors naturally gives rise to a sense of reward, you can use them to create your own cycle of positive reinforcement. For instance, deep breathing before sleep slows down the nervous system, causing the body to relax. People who breathe with purpose, filling their airways with plenty of oxygen before sleep or anytime throughout the day, are more likely to repeat this process because it decreases stress. Deep breathing simply feels good. The same can be said for an evening routine that helps you fall asleep faster.

Prioritizing sleep is an easy behavior to carry out in your day-to-day lifestyle. Think of sleep as your own spa, a place of retreat in the evening. You work hard during the day, focused on productivity and meeting deadlines, but the bedroom will forever remain a safe haven. Think about sleep in the same context as eating: both activities are mandatory for survival. Therefore, they both deserve the same level of attention and respect.

Your sleep schedule should remain the same throughout each week. According to neurologist Kulreet Chaudhary, MD: “Timing your sleep is like timing an investment in the stock market—it doesn’t matter how much you invest, it matters when you invest.” Find a bedtime that works for you each night. Perhaps you enjoy going to bed at 9 PM and waking up at 6 AM. If that’s the case, try to unplug from electronics by 8 PM and focus on other activities: reading, light stretching, meditation.

Good sleep hygiene is an individual process. You decide what’s best for your pre-bed routine. There’s room for creativity. For instance, by dimming the lights in your house before bedtime, you’ll enhance your body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that aids sleep. Just remember to maintain consistency in your routine each night. Following the same steps every time helps your brain recognize that bedtime is approaching.

Part 2: Physiology of Sleep

Understand what happens in the body when you are asleep.

The average person sleeps for about 230,000 hours in their lifetime. In other words, we all spend one-third of our lives sleeping. During these hours of rest, cerebrospinal fluid—located in the brain and spinal cord—washes in and out, like waves, to help the brain empty out its metabolic trash. This process is essential for nightly recharging. By improving immune system function, better quality sleep helps to offset chronic diseases, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

Cytokines are small proteins that act as messengers of the immune system. They are produced and released during sleep to send signals between cells. Some cytokines also control specific defense systems and activate phases of sleep. These proteins are ultimate soldiers in the fight against foreign bodies (like the flu). However, skipping out on sleep may decrease production of these cytokines, putting you at a greater risk of developing an infection or allowing a virus to take hold.

During sleep, the body cycles through four different stages consisting of both rapid-eye-movement (REM) and non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) sleep. NREM sleep helps to repair the body, while REM sleep is renowned for its cognitive benefits. The body cycles through these stages 4-6 times throughout the night. Here is a breakdown of each stage:

  • N1 (Stage 1)
    • This lightest stage of sleep lasts about 5 minutes.
  • N2 (Stage 2)
    • During this deeper sleep stage, heart rate and body temperature drop.
  • N3 (Stage 3)
    • In this deepest stage of sleep, it’s very hard to awaken.
  • REM (Stage 4)
    • In this dreaming stage, the eyes and breathing muscles remain active. Each REM cycle increases in length throughout the night. The first period typically lasts 10 minutes, and the final one can last up to an hour.

Part 3: Circadian Rhythm

This internal process regulates the sleep-wake cycle and repeats every 24 hours.

Most of us sleep at night and are awake during the day. Why does this happen? Our bodies are programmed to notice changes in daylight, thanks to the circadian rhythm. This biological process is driven by a master clock in the brain — otherwise known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). This structure is made of about 20,000 nerve cells that receive direct input from the eyes. The SCN receives information about incoming light from the optic nerves, then relays that data to the brain.

During nighttime, when there is no sunlight, the SCN communicates with the pineal gland, telling it to produce melatonin, which causes us to become drowsy.

A 2009 study found that long-term disruption of the day/night circadian rhythm leads to weight gain, impulsivity and slower thinking. Lead author Ilia Karatsoreos, Ph.D., of Rockefeller University, said, “In our modern industrialized society, the disruption of our individual circadian rhythms has become commonplace, from shift work and jet lag to the constant presence of electric lighting. These disruptions are not only a nuisance; they can also lead to serious health and safety problems.” The researchers studied mice during a day/night cycle of 20 hours (10 hours of light and 10 hours of dark). These mice were compared with a control group that was studied during a normal 24-hour cycle.

After six to eight weeks, the chronically disrupted mice were impulsive and mentally slower when compared to their healthy counterparts. The distressed mice also suffered from disorganized body temperature cycles, and they gained weight as a result of elevated hormones. Perhaps the scariest finding: brain size had shrunk.

These results apply to humans. But do not fear!

Here are tips to maintain a healthy circadian rhythm:

  • Try to eat foods within a 10-hour window during the day.
  • Expose yourself to daylight for at least 30 minutes each day.
  • Reduce exposure to bright indoor light 2-3 hours before sleep.
  • Avoid too much television and depressing news.
  • Don’t forget to exercise!

Sleep will forever remain an essential part of health and well-being. There is no pride associated with losing sleep to complete more tasks. We cannot ignore signs of fatigue: headache, dizziness, muscle weakness, slowed reflexes and increased appetite. Listen to your body. Sleep helps your brain prepare for the next day, thus improving mental cognition. Take care of your body. Make sleep a priority.

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