The importance of sleep

What is sleep and the importance of it?

Sleep is something strange. We close our eyes, and we are gone, into another world that we experience without controlling it and that we most of the time do not experience consciously. It is time for the almost 90% of our brain that is unconscious.

Sleep is therefore often associated with death, for example, in myths and fairy tales.

We regard it as something passive and often even a waste of precious time. When time is short, sleep is the first thing that is skimped on.

Among young people, business people, and politicians, there is even a macho culture about not sleeping enough.

Above all, sleep is something we know relatively little about. Well-established tips from grandmothers such as “A person needs at least eight hours of sleep,” “It is best to sleep in blocks of three hours,” and “Everything before midnight counts double” make little sense.

Even scientists know relatively little about this common but mysterious phenomenon compared to the knowledge about other human functions and characteristics.

Yet it is no coincidence that we spend about a third of our lives sleeping: sleep is an active process that is an essential part of our lives.

What happens when we sleep?

It is generally assumed that sleep serves to rest and recuperate us, and that is true. Everyone has already experienced that our alertness and concentration levels drop significantly after too short a night.

Although we do not know precisely what happens during sleep, resting our minds seems to be its most important task.

The sleep cycles

We sleep in different cycles made up of four phases, each with its specific characteristics.

On average, one cycle lasts about 90 to 120 minutes. There is a micro-awakening, a brief check-up to see if everything is still all right after each cycle.

If we receive certain stimuli here (e.g., light, noise, a sleeping leg, or a full bladder), we wake up for a short while to solve this. If not, we immediately start the next cycle.

It is therefore not abnormal to wake up now and then during the night.

The most important sleep phases

The most important stages of a sleep cycle are the deep sleep and the REM sleep.

During deep sleep, we receive a larger blood supply to our muscles, enabling our body to recover from the day’s efforts. Also, 70% of our daily quantity of growth hormone is secreted during the deep sleep.

This ensures that our tissues are repaired and that we recover.

As the body grows and develops most during this phase, babies and children also need more sleep than adults.

REM sleep (short for Rapid Eye Movement) is the stage of mental recovery. Our brain is very active in this stage, our heartbeat and breathing become faster and more irregular, and our eyes turn in all directions.

It is also the stage when we dream the most. REM sleep is responsible for processing the information we have gathered during the day by organizing and storing it. The data from our short-term memory is transferred to our long-term memory here.

This way, we can better apply some of the knowledge and especially skills we have learned the day after.

What is ‘normal’ sleep?

On average, an adult needs between six and a half and eight and a half hours of sleep. For children and adolescents, this is considerably more, for older people somewhat less.

However, sleep is, above all, an individual thing. It varies from person to person. Indeed, some people only need about four hours of sleep to be well-rested, others nine or ten. The primary indicator here is that you feel fresh and well-rested in the morning.

Sleeping is also a cultural thing. Nowadays, it is taken for granted that everyone sleeps lying down, but people sometimes slept sitting up until a hundred years ago. Sleeping in a more upright position is also suitable for breathing.

In the past, people went to sleep much earlier and often got up at night for a few hours before going back to bed.

For practical reasons, the whole family often slept in the same room or even in the same bed.

What is a sleep problem?

Sleep problems can occur in various forms and have multiple causes. The most common sleep disorders are sleep apnea and insomnia.

Sleep apnea

Sleep apnoea is a breathing disorder in which breathing slows down or even stops for a short period because the throat closes up. In response, the body has to strain to get oxygen instead of resting.

People suffering from sleep apnea are therefore often tired during the day. Sleep apnoea not only disrupts the rhythm of your sleep cycles it also prevents the supply of oxygen to your blood. In the long term, it can therefore lead to increased blood pressure and possibly a heart or brain infarct.

Loud snoring can be an indicator of sleep apnoea.

Incidentally, this condition is usually caused by obesity.

Insomnia

Everyone experiences those nights when our thoughts keep spinning, and we can’t get to sleep. Of course, this is nothing abnormal. It is only a problem if you lie awake for more than half an hour before falling asleep, several times a week, several weeks in a row.

The same applies if you wake up at night between cycles and cannot fall asleep quickly. Insomnia can be caused by stress or psychological problems, by certain medications, or by a poor lifestyle or sleep environment.

The problem with insomnia is that you associate your bedroom with worrying, lying awake, and frustration. This is called negative conditioning.

Even if the original cause of your insomnia eventually disappears (e.g., the stress at work), it has in the meantime been replaced by the pressure of not being able to sleep, and so the problem continues. A condition such as restless legs syndrome (RLS), in which you suffer from tingling in your legs and constantly want to move them, can also be a cause of insomnia.

Other sleep problems

Parasomnias also occur regularly. These are undesirable behaviors that occur during sleep, such as sleepwalking, teeth grinding, talking in your sleep, or nightmares.

Usually, these are quite harmless.

They are most common in children and usually disappear as they grow up. In adults, parasomnias are generally stress-related.

Finally, narcolepsy is a condition where you suddenly fall asleep uncontrollably. It is not very common, but it can be very dangerous and is also very problematic socially.

Narcolepsy is sometimes accompanied by hallucinations and temporary muscle paralysis.

How to solve sleep problems?

Apart from the obvious consequences such as fatigue and reduced concentration, sleep problems weigh heavily on your mind and quality of life. In the long term, they often degenerate into a depression.

People with sleep problems usually wait too long before they take action, which makes treatment more difficult.

If you suffer from sleep apnea, it is best to have yourself examined in a sleep centre.

Through polysomnography, one can get a good insight into the problem’s nature and propose an appropriate solution.

In the case of insomnia, sleep medication is all too often prescribed. Sleeping medication can be a solution to get through a short period of a few weeks (e.g., after the death of a loved one), but in the long term, they are counterproductive. After all, they are addictive, and habituation occurs very quickly.

The most widely used and most successful approach to insomnia is cognitive-behavioral therapy. Here, one tries to eliminate the patient’s negative associations and frustrations in a planned way.

One of the ways this is done is by sleep restriction. The patient has to go to bed much later, so they are more tired and fall asleep faster.

You then spend fewer hours in bed, but you sleep a lot more of that time in percentage terms so that the negative conditioning disappears.

Afterward, the sleep schedule is slowly extended again.

Sleep quantity vs. quality

Sleep is about the quantity of sleep (how many hours you sleep each night) and the quality of sleep (how adequate your sleep is). During sleep, your brain cleans itself, as it were.

Good sleep means that your brain has the time and opportunity to cleanse itself. A good night’s sleep also ensures that you can process your emotions of the day properly and remember what you have learned during the day.

Sleep hygiene

Anyone who does not really have a sleep problem, as described above, but is not completely satisfied with his sleep can benefit from some relatively simple tips.

Sleep hygiene is the term used for things you can change in your daily life, behavior, and sleep environment to improve your sleep quality.

Block 2 “before sleeping hours” in your schedule

Would you like to sleep better? That shouldn’t be hard. The most crucial step is to make time for it.

When it comes to sleeping, we’re often stuck with fixed patterns. We try to do as much during the day as possible, work, social obligations, sports, and that is often at the expense of a good night’s sleep. To change that, you can ‘plan’ your rest.

It’s worth a try. Even if you think that due to social obligations, time pressure at work, etc., there is no ‘sleep planning’ to be made, try it out for a couple of weeks.

For example, if you plan to sleep at 11:30 pm, block the previous 2 hours in your calendar. In those 2 hours, you do all kinds of relaxing activities, such as going for a walk with your dog and then taking a nice shower, do some meditation or put on some relaxation music.

Whatever makes you relaxed with a good side effect that you are kind to yourself.

Your bedroom is there to sleep

Your ‘bedroom’ is meant to rest, relax, have sex, and of course, to sleep. Use it for that only!

These days, the bedroom is where we watch TV, reply to the latest e-mails and send out the latest WhatsApp with our smartphone.

All these things have a disruptive effect on your peace of mind and, ultimately, a healthy night’s sleep. We know from the blue (visible) light on these screens that it suppresses our sleep hormone melatonin’s natural production.

Besides, an exciting film, the use of social media and the information via e-mail or Internet, etc., keep your brain alert and active. This can’t be your intention if you want to sleep well and relaxed.

Banish all these things from your bedroom to not be tempted to use them before you go to sleep.

Hungry in the evening?

Stick to a light snack. A heavy meal shortly before going to bed is not wise. Your digestion has to work hard, which keeps your body more active and makes it harder to fall asleep.

The fact that you want to eat indicates that you lack energy. Give in to this lack of energy to sleep instead of wanting to eat to gain more energy.

Caffeine affects your biological clock even three hours before you go to sleep.

You can only fall asleep later, and your sleep is shorter and more restless. Alcohol also makes you sleep much less deeply. As a result, you wake up tired in the morning.

Summarised

Sleep is an essential part of our lives. It is necessary to allow the body and ‘mind’ to rest, organize our memories and thoughts, and recuperate physically.

Therefore, a sleep disorder is a problem that should not be underestimated and has a significant impact on your health and quality of life. Consequently, it needs to be treated appropriately.

Despite the importance of sleep for our general wellbeing, it is something that we are still not sufficiently aware of.

Indeed, now people are increasingly concerned with health and healthy eating; it is striking how little they concern themselves with their sleep quality.

A few minor adjustments to your habits and sleep hygiene, as described above, can improve your sleep considerably and make you wake up with a fresh mind.

– Nap time = my Happy Hour –