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Why Sleep is a Literal Superpower

Sleep is the most fundamental aspect of health and well-being. As Matthew Walker said, it is our superpower. It helps our bodies recover and rejuvenate. It is vital for cognitive function, emotional regulation, and physical health. Getting adequate sleep can be challenging in a world of distractions…but you can take responsibility for your sleep health by improving your sleep hygiene. In this post, we will explore the structure of sleep and share tips and techniques for optimising sleep, including sleep-tracking technology and supplements.

The science of Sleep is complex. It involves various physiological and neurological mechanisms. Sleep can be subdivided into sleep cycles, typically lasting about 90 minutes. Each cycle usually includes several stages of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, each with its role. On average, you will experience multiple sleep cycles throughout the night, 4 to 6 cycles.

Stages of Sleep

As mentioned above, sleep is divided into two main types: NREM and REM. During NREM sleep, the body repairs and regenerates tissues, builds bone and muscle, and strengthens the immune system. During REM sleep, the brain processes emotions and memories, and the body undergoes temporary paralysis to prevent acting out dreams. These types are further divided into stages:

NREM Sleep (~75% of sleep)

Stage 1 (N1): This is the lightest stage of sleep, where you transition from wakefulness to sleep. It lasts a few minutes and involves slow eye movements and reduced muscle activity.

Stage 2 (N2): This stage represents deeper sleep, characterised by a lack of eye movement, slower heart rate, and decreased body temperature. Sleep spindles, K-complexes and specific brain wave patterns occur in this stage.

Stage 3 (N3): Also known as deep sleep or slow-wave sleep (SWS), this stage is crucial for physical restoration and growth. It features delta waves, which are the slowest brain waves1.

REM Sleep (~25% of sleep)

REM Sleep: This stage is marked by rapid eye movements, increased brain activity, and vivid dreaming. The body experiences temporary muscle paralysis, preventing the acting out of dreams. REM sleep is essential for cognitive functions such as memory consolidation, learning, and emotional regulation2 3.

Functions of Sleep

Physical Restoration: During deep sleep, the body repairs tissues, builds muscle, and strengthens the immune system.

Cognitive Function: Sleep is vital for memory consolidation, problem-solving, and learning. REM sleep, in particular, plays a significant role in processing emotions and experiences.

Emotional Regulation: Adequate sleep helps regulate mood and reduce stress. Sleep deprivation can lead to irritability, anxiety, and depression.

Metabolic Health: Sleep influences metabolic processes, including appetite regulation and glucose metabolism. Poor sleep is linked to obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases4.

Sleep Disorders

Several sleep disorders can disrupt the normal sleep cycle and impact health:

Insomnia: Difficulty falling or staying asleep.
Sleep Apnea: Interrupted breathing during sleep, leading to frequent awakenings.
Narcolepsy: Excessive daytime sleepiness and sudden sleep attacks.
Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS): Uncomfortable sensations in the legs, leading to an urge to move them.

Factors Affecting Sleep

Age: Sleep patterns change with age, with older adults often experiencing lighter and shorter sleep5.
Lifestyle: Diet, exercise, and stress levels can influence sleep quality6.
Environment: Light, noise, and temperature in the sleeping environment can affect sleep. Medications, recreational drugs, and even caffeine can significantly impact sleep7.
Medical Conditions: Chronic illnesses, pain, and medications can impact sleep.

How To Improve Sleep Hygiene

Sleep hygiene refers to the habits and practices that promote healthy sleep. Here are some tips to optimise your sleep hygiene8 9 10:

Stick to a consistent sleep schedule: Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends.

Create a relaxing bedtime routine: Incorporate activities to unwind, such as reading, taking a warm bath, or listening to calming music for an hour or two before bed.

Create a sleep-conducive environment: Ensure your bedroom is calm, dark, and quiet. Use blackout curtains, an eye mask, earplugs, or a white noise machine to block distractions.

Limit exposure to screens: Screens emit blue light, which can interfere with sleep. Try to limit screen time in the hours before bedtime.

Avoid stimulants: Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, especially in the hours leading up to bedtime.

Sleep Tracking Technology

Sleep tracking technology can be a valuable tool for monitoring and improving sleep. Here are some examples of sleep-tracking technology that you can utilise to begin to improve your sleep using data:

Wearable devices: Devices like fitness trackers or smartwatches can track sleep duration, stages, and quality.

Bedside devices: Devices like sleep monitors or smart alarms can track sleep patterns and provide insights into sleep quality.

Smartphone apps: Apps like Sleep Cycle or Sleep Score can track sleep and provide insights into sleep patterns.

Supplements for Sleep

Certain supplements may also help to promote healthy sleep. Here are some examples:

Melatonin: Melatonin is a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. Supplementing with melatonin may help improve sleep quality and reduce the time it takes to fall asleep. Melatonin will not induce sleep or aid sleepiness—due to its role in the circadian cycle, it is primarily useful when changing time zones to reduce jet lag11 12.

Magnesium: Magnesium is a mineral that plays a role in muscle and nerve function, including relaxing muscles and reducing anxiety. Supplementing with magnesium may help to promote relaxation and improve sleep quality13 14.

Valerian root: Valerian root has been used for centuries as a natural sleep aid. Supplementing with it may improve sleep quality and reduce the time it takes to fall asleep15 16.

Precautions and Considerations

While sleep hygiene, sleep-tracking technology, and supplements can be helpful tools for optimising sleep, you should approach them cautiously. Please keep the following considerations in mind:

Consult a healthcare professional: Before making any significant changes to your sleep routine or taking supplements, you should consult a healthcare professional, especially if you have any underlying health conditions.

Be mindful of potential side effects: Supplements, like any medication, can have possible side effects.

Listen to your body: Everyone’s sleep needs are different, so listen to your body and adjust your sleep routine as needed.

TLDR;

Optimising sleep is crucial for maintaining overall health and well-being. Implementing good sleep hygiene practices, using sleep tracking technology, and supplementing with certain compounds can improve sleep quality and duration. However, always approach changes to your health with caution.

Further Reading Suggestions

“Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker: This book explores the science of sleep and its importance for health and well-being and provides tips and strategies for optimising sleep.

“The Sleep Solution” by W. Chris Winter, MD: This book provides evidence-based strategies for improving sleep, including tips for sleep hygiene and advice on sleep medications and supplements.

SleepFoundation.org: This website provides a wealth of information on sleep, including sleep hygiene tips, sleep disorders, and sleep tracking technology.

National Sleep Foundation: This organisation promotes healthy sleep and provides various resources on sleep hygiene, disorders, and research.

www.hubermanlab.com/sleep-toolkit

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK526132 ↩︎
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4660253 ↩︎
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30340875 ↩︎
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6024010 ↩︎
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7915148/ ↩︎
  6. https://www.frontiersin.org/journals/psychology/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1185896/full ↩︎
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6286721 ↩︎
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9896248 ↩︎
  9. https://www.mdpi.com/2673-947X/2/3/13 ↩︎
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4400203 ↩︎
  11. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33417003 ↩︎
  12. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0063773 ↩︎
  13. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35184264 ↩︎
  14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3703169 ↩︎
  15. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4394901 ↩︎
  16. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7585905 ↩︎

[NB. All images created using MidJourney]

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