Your Brain on SLEEP - Let us Count the Waves…zzzzzz
We all know that sleep is important. But most of us are mystified as to how to get a really great, restful, peaceful, and rejuvenating sleep.
And it’s no wonder!
With so much to do, think, and worry about, by the time our head hits the pillow, our brains are so wired and stimulated, there is little left to do but think. All of this thinking interferes with not only us falling asleep (insomnia), but also staying asleep.
We have some helpful tips to help with both issues. But first let’s explore why sleep is so important, what happens when we don’t get enough sleep, and the different stages of sleep we need to feel refreshed.
You spend about 1/3 of your life sleeping (hopefully) and adults should get between 7-9 hours per night. Children and youth should aim for 8.5-11 hours per night. Sleep is when your brain does its work building neural connections, solidifying knowledge and information into your memory. Sleep can impact the function of your brain, heart, lungs, metabolism, immune system, and mood. Muscle and tissue repair also occur as you sleep. Chronic sleeplessness can increase the risk of high blood pressure, depression, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.
There are 5 stages of sleep, and all are linked to specific brain waves. As we transition from wakefulness to sleep, our brain produces more beta, alpha, and theta waves, which are associated with light sleep.
When we enter deep sleep, our brain produces delta waves. Rapid Eye Movement (REM) is the period of sleep where dreams occur. These stages, wakefulness, light, deep, and REM, cycle throughout the night approximately 4 or 5 times depending on how long you sleep.
Now let’s help you get some sleep!
#1 - Establish a bedtime routine.
A simple routine of winding down with relaxing activities such as reading, listening to soft music, enjoying a warm bath, journaling, or some gentle stretching are great options. The key is to do this as close to the same time every night as much as possible.
Alternately, rise at the same time every morning (even on weekends), so your sleep cycle doesn’t get thrown off. Set an alarm for bedtime as you would for the morning to help you keep to a schedule.
As an example, set your phone notifications to silent or “Do Not Disturb” from 10 PM to 7 AM. Don’t worry, all your notifications will still be there waiting for you when you wake up!
#2 - Turn off all your devices at least 1 hour (2 is ideal) before you want to fall asleep.
How can your brain rest if it is constantly stimulated? Electronics with screens emit a blue light that interferes with the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that influences our sleep cycle (otherwise known as our circadian rhythm). This can make you less drowsy than usual and may cause you to take longer to fall asleep. Avoid caffeine and alcohol 5-6 hours before bedtime as they may have similar effects.
#3 - Keep your room dark and cool.
Incidentally, keeping your room on the cooler side and as dark as possible will help you fall asleep faster. Your eyes can detect light even when your eyelids are closed. If you keep a light on in your bedroom while you are sleeping, your brain can get confused between night and day and it will be harder to stay asleep.
Tips for a darker/cooler room and comfortable body temperature:
- A quiet fan
- Sleeping in comfortable, breathable clothing
- Opening a window
- Sleeping barefoot and sticking one or both feet out
- Keep blinds and drapes closed
#4 - Get out of bed if you are awake for more than 20-30 min.
The anxiety of not being able to sleep can make it harder to fall back asleep, so it’s a good idea to try not to watch the clock. The problem with staying awake in bed too long is that it reinforces sleeplessness. You want your brain to associate your bedroom as a place to sleep. Get out of bed and try to do something relaxing or boring. Go back to bed when you feel sleepy again.
Here are some things you can do that might relax you before bed:
- Meditating or deep breathing (try inhaling for 4 counts, exhaling for 4 counts)
- Having a notepad or journal beside your bed to write down your thoughts if something is troubling you
- Something repetitive like Sudoku, reading, or crossword puzzles
- Folding laundry
#5 - Block out excess light or noise from your room.
Although it would be great to live in a place without nighttime noise or lights from traffic, sirens, streetlights, pets, kids, neighbours, or snoring household members, most of us have to deal with many of these on a nightly basis. Some strategies to prevent light or noise from interrupting your sleep:
- Something as simple as earplugs can make or break a good night’s sleep in these situations. They are inexpensive, comfortable, and do a great job of drowning out a lot of noise.
- Sleep masks are another easy way to block out any annoying light that may linger even without a night light on.
If you are having consistent trouble with your sleep, it is a good idea to seek help. Qualified health professionals like doctors and psychologists can help you understand the reasons why you are not able to sleep well. If there are underlying chronic or mental conditions present, you may find it more effective to address those first.