The innate biological process of sleep, which occurs naturally, is fundamental to our health and well-being. Every night, we set out on a beautiful adventure that greatly impacts the quality of our lives, our health, and our energy levels.
Our bodies go into a state of repair and regeneration mode when we lose consciousness and drift off to dreamland. Our muscles relax when the brain waves slow down, which promotes regeneration. We seem to enter a cocoon-like state where our bodies and minds may relax and rejuvenate.
What is Sleep
Sleep is a natural biological process that plays a critical role in restoring and rejuvenating our bodies. During this active state of unconsciousness, brain activity, and temperature sink down, to allow for a complete reset, switching the body’s repair mode on. There are numerous strategies that help optimize sleep quality, which we’ll explore today.
The growing interest in optimizing sleep stems from the fact that deeper sleep can boost productivity, mood, and energy. Also, high-quality sleep is associated with longevity and vitality as well.
Why is Sleep Important
Why is sleep so important? During deep sleep, the body regenerates from all the stressors. Muscles and bones grow stronger, hormones are balanced, toxins are flushed out, neural links are reorganized, energy is recreated, etc.
Sleep helps conserve human energy, so we can have more of it and live longer. It supports the repair of cellular components, promoting a deep clean or a detox, if you will.
Moreover, sleep helps to balance our hormones, supports immune system function, and enables us to adapt to changes. We also know sleep supports metabolic health, as sleep deprivation leads to weight gain, increases the risk of insulin resistance and metabolic deficits.
4 Stages of Sleep
Sleep can be categorized into two main types, Non-Rapid Eye Movement (Non-REM) and Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, each with its specific effects and benefits for the body. A complete sleep cycle lasts for approximately 90-120 minutes, and ideally, we’d have 4-5 cycles a night.
Non-REM 1, the first phase which is the transition from wakefulness to sleep. During this phase, the brain operates at an alpha brain wave frequency, which is typically associated with wakeful relaxation. Non-REM 1 lasts for 1-7 minutes and is easily disrupted by distractions.
Non-REM 2 is also a light sleep phase characterized by even slower and mixed brain activity. It typically lasts for 10-25 minutes and constitutes around 50% of total sleep.
Non-REM 3 is the deepest and most restorative phase of sleep, also known as slow-wave sleep, which lasts for 20-40 minutes.
REM Sleep is the fourth and final stage of sleep, characterized by vivid dreaming and mixed brain activity that shifts from alpha to theta waves. This phase usually occurs after a complete sleep cycle and lasts for around 10-60 minutes.
Many aim at improving the 3rd phase, the deepest sleep known to be most restorative. But Matthew Walker, an expert on sleep is under the impression that all sleep phases are there for a reason and have unique benefits.
Why is sleep so important?
Sleep is vital for the overall functioning and maintenance of the body. It’s an essential process that helps regenerate, rejuvenate, and reset the body. Anything from resetting energy levels and flushing toxins out, to brain reorganization, skin repair, or muscle recovery happens during sleep.
What are the benefits of deep sleep?
The benefits of deep sleep include improved cognitive function, improved mood and hormone balance, reduced inflammation, faster recovery, greater metabolic health, sharper focus, better memory, emotional balance, etc. The sky is the limit.
How many hours of sleep do I need each night?
The average recommendation is 8 hours of sleep a night for adults. This varies between people and ages, but somewhere around the optimal for adults is around 7-9 hours a night. Children need more sleep, while older adults usually sleep less.
Benefits of Deep Sleep
Since sleep is absolutely essential and vital to survival, talking about the benefits of sleep seems a bit odd. Instead, we’ll focus on the benefits of deep sleep, to motivate our readers to look for ways to optimize their sleep. Let’s get to the list:
- Cognitive Performance: sleep helps reorganize neural pathways, consolidate memory (K-complex), and replenish energy by resetting adenosine build-up. Sleep improves vigilance, reaction time, attention, and alertness. (2) (7) (8) (9)
- Heart Health: sleep deprivation is associated with higher inflammatory markers, coronary disease risk, and hypertension. (10) There’s a U shape curve with the optimal sleep duration hovering around 8 hours. (11)
- Weight Loss: sleep controls appetite and reduces hunger hormones. It also decreases cortisol, a known stress hormone. Poor sleep leads to metabolic deficits which tend to result in overeating and weight gain. (12) (13) (14)
- Exercise and Recovery: it’s during deep sleep that the muscles recover and energy is replenished. With proper nutrition, fuel like glycogen is replenished leading to greater strength and endurance performance. (15) (16) (17)
- Insulin Sensitivity: quality sleep supports energy metabolism and improves insulin sensitivity. (18) A correlation between poor sleep and insulin resistance exists. (19)
- Memory Recall: sleep helps reorganize neural structures and consolidate memory. (20) It also clears junk, like plaque accumulated in the brain, reducing neural inflammation and thus promoting neuroprotection. (21)
- Balance Mood: imbalance of hormones like dopamine, serotonin, and cortisol disrupts mood. Poor sleep is associated with poor mood, showing increased symptoms of emotional imbalance, depression, and stress. (22) (23) (24)
Blue Blocking Glasses Improve Sleep
Blue light is a type of light that has a shorter wavelength, ranging between 450-500 nm, and is emitted by various sources such as the sun, tech devices like phones and tablets, and LED light bulbs.
Exposure to blue light can enhance alertness and concentration, which is beneficial during the daytime but can negatively impact sleep quality at night as it suppresses the hormone melatonin.
The sleep-wake cycle is regulated by an internal clock, which is primarily influenced by light exposure. (25) To improve sleep quality, especially at night, it’s recommended to limit our exposure to blue light.
Blue blockers reduce the suppression of melatonin occurring after blue light exposure at night. Darkness increases this main sleep hormone, aiding in regeneration.
Wearing blue light blocking glasses a few hours before bedtime can help improve sleep quality, reduce the time it takes to fall asleep and enhance mood, thus promoting overall health. (26) (27) (28) (29)
Additionally, switching to dimmable, natural light bulbs that emit orange light and even red light-emitting bulbs an hour before bedtime can also reduce blue light, thus improving sleep quality.
7 Ways to Optimize Your Sleep Environment
Optimizing one’s sleep environment is the most practical way to fall into deep and restful sleep. From things like limiting caffeine and light exposure, to essential oils and natural sleep aids, here are our top picks to make your bedroom a peaceful haven:
- Dark Room: whether by wearing a sleeping mask, pulling the shades down, or investing in blackout curtains, darkness is a must. The room should be pitch-black so we secrete more melatonin.
- Cool Temperature: cooling off helps us enjoy a deeper sleep and fall asleep faster. The cooler the environment, the easier it is for our body to lower its temperature. The optimal sleeping T hovers around 60-67°F (15-19°C).
- Quality Mattress: research shows greater sleep is associated with a mattress with moderate firmness, assessed subjectively. As each person has different body characteristics, there’s not a one-size-fits-all for this.
- Essential Oils: it isn’t a wo-wo topic anymore. Using diffusers spraying lavender in your bedroom has been shown to improve subjective sleep, heart rate variability, reduce stress and increase energy the next day.
- Red Lights: red lights are less stimulatory than the blue ones we use. Whether it’s an infrared sauna, or changing your LED’s to red-light bulbs, this change can greatly enhance one’s sleep.
- Remove electronics: removing phones, routers, or anything that emits WiFi, 5G, Bluetooth, and other EMF-related pollution can enhance sleep. These are associated with greater fatigue, stress, anxiety, and brain fog, which we do not want.
- White Noise Machine: WNM mainly works if you live in a noisy environment, as it generates a soothing sound at a predictable frequency that blocks external noise.
Natural Supplements for Sleep
Melatonin can be easily misused and abused, leading to developing even more sleeping issues. While in some cases can be necessary, generally melatonin doses like 3g which are commonly sold can be disruptive in the long run as the body builds tolerance and secretes less of its own melatonin as a result.
Here are some natural alternatives to take a look at:
L-theanine: an amino acid found in green tea known for its relaxation-promoting and anxiety-reducing effects. It can affect levels of dopamine and serotonin, two key hormones regulating mood. L-theanine increases alpha brain waves, helping people feel calm, relaxed, and alert.
GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that promotes calm and aids in the control of brain activity. In order to promote relaxation and induce sleep, it works by blocking specific brain signals that result in excitation and anxiety, thus preventing overstimulation.
Magnesium is an essential mineral important for facilitating rest and sleep. It functions by controlling GABA synthesis while lowering cortisol levels. Magnesium also helps muscles relax, which can reduce stress and enhance sleep.
Valerian Root; From ancient times, valerian root has been utilized as a herbal sleep aid as it raises GABA levels and reduces brain activity. It has ingredients that support sleep induction, anxiety reduction, and relaxation.
Glycine: an amino acid that helps lower core body temperature, encouraging relaxation while boosting sleep quality. It can ease muscle cramps and potentially lengthen slow-wave sleep.
How Sleep Trackers Work
Sleep trackers are specific devices created to measure your sleep quality. Having access to your sleep data can allow you to make an informed decision to enhance your sleep. These are devices like a smartwatch, a fitness band, or even specific sleep trackers like the Aura ring, Whoop band, or MUSE that connect via Bluetooth to a phone to showcase the data.
They work by measuring sleep patterns, movements, oxygen saturation, and other physiological metrics like heart rate variability.
Sleep quality: most trackers give an overall score of how restful your sleep was based on HRV, breathing patterns, and sleep phases. Collecting all this data, the algorithm processes this to come up with an overall sleep score.
Sleep patterns: refer to the consistency or regularity of your sleep. This is your real sleep schedule when you go to bed and fall asleep, as well as when you wake up and get out of bed, which is not the same thing.
Sleep phases: trackers can give you an outlook of how much time you spent in each of the four sleep phases (N1, Light, Deep, REM) by combining heart rate, HRV, and breathing patterns.
By using a sleep tracker, you can get personalized suggestions to improve your sleep backed by real data. You can see how’s your sleep when you travel or drink on weekends, or work extra hours in a stressful situation. You can test whether a sleep aid, a breathing routine, or blocking blue light objectively improves your sleep, as measured by your sleep tracker. The point of it is to find ways to improve your sleep.
How to improve sleep quality?
Improving sleep quality has to do with our sleep hygiene. One major way is to optimize our sleeping environment, making sure we sleep in a cool, dark, and quiet room. Ditching electronics and wearing blue blockers help a lot. Then breathing techniques, stretching, and natural sleep aids come in.
Are blue light glasses effective for sleep?
Yes, blue light glasses block blue light emitted from devices like phones, tablets, or LED lights. This light disrupts sleep as it suppresses melatonin secretion, the main sleep hormone. Blue blockers help our hypothalamus understand where we are in the sleep-wake cycle, or better said when it’s daytime vs. nighttime.
What are the best natural sleep aids?
Most natural sleep aids work to stimulate the inhibitory system, which has to do with the potent neurotransmitter GABA – helping us ease off to sleep. Such include GABA itself, as well as Lavender, 5-HTP, Glycine, L-theanine, and Magnesium.
- Sleep is a natural biological process of repair and regeneration. It’s vital as it supports physiological functions, overall health, and well-being.
- The importance of sleep extends beyond focus and concentration. It improves muscle recovery, balances hormones, protects the brain, resets energy levels, and improves metabolic health.
- Sleep goes through four stages known as Non-REM 1, NR-2 or light sleep, NR-3 or deep sleep, and REM sleep where vivid dreaming happens. Each one is important and has its own unique benefits.
- 7 Tips to optimize your sleeping environment: dark rook (blackout curtains), cool temperature (15-19°C), add lavender oil, medium mattress firmness, remove electronics, natural sleep aids, white noise machine, and red lights.
- Blocking blue light at night prevents sleep disruption and melatonin suppression. Avoiding LED, phones or tablets or using blue light-blocking glasses helps us get a deeper, restful sleep.
- Some natural sleep aids that work to improve sleep include L-theanine, Glycine, GABA, Lavander, and Magnesium. The main effect is inhibitory, reducing brain activity and stress while enhancing muscle relaxation.
- Sleep trackers measure sleep patterns, phases, sleep schedule, and overall sleep quality. Such information can give us insight into how to enhance our sleep to get the most out of it.