The Sleep in America poll revealed nearly seven out of ten Americans said they experience frequent sleep problems, although most have not been diagnosed. – The National Sleep FoundationMany people feel they only need 3-4 hours of sleep to function. While it is true that each individual has his/her own sleep requirement, sleep is vital to proper health and most people should get at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night to function optimally.People look at sleep as a passive activity, but the brain is actually very active during this time. Sleep affects our daily function, both physically and mentally. Nerve-signals, known as neurotransmitters, control whether our body is asleep or awake. Neurons in the brain stem and spinal chord produce these neurotransmitters (serotonin and norepinephrine). Evidence indicates some neural connections may be remodeled during sleep.
The sleep cycle is composed of five different phases. There are 4 stages that lead into REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Stage 3 and 4 are known as deep sleep and it is often difficult to wake someone up during this time. REM sleep is when our breathing becomes shallow and irregular, our blood pressure rises, and our heart rate increases. This phase of sleep stimulates the brain region used in learning.
Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found that a function of sleep is to help consolidate the effects of waking experiences on cortical plasticity, converting memory into more permanent and /or enhanced forms. Marcos G. Frank, PhD., postdoctoral fellow says, “if you reviewed your notes thoroughly until you were tired and then slept, you’d achieve as much plasticity, or ‘learning,’ in the brain as if you’d pulled an all-nighter repeating your review of the material.”
Achieving proper sleep, which consists of the full sleep cycle, is important for optimal brain function. Additional studies have showed that people who were taught a skill then deprived of REM sleep could not recall what they had learned, while those deprived of non-REM sleep could.
Here are a few sleep tips recommended by the National Sleep Foundation
- Maintain a regular bed and wake time (follow this schedule on weekends as well)
- Establish a regular bedtime routine (e.g. hot bath or soaking in a tub)
- Create a sleep conducive environment (dark, quiet, and comfortable)
- Use your bedroom only for sleep and sex (leave work material, computers, and televisions out of the room)
- Eat meals at least 2-3 hours before bedtime
- Exercise regularly (exercise contributes to sounder sleep)
- Avoid smoking close to bedtime (can lead to poor sleep)
- Avoid caffeine close to bedtime (can keep you awake)
- Avoid alcohol close to bedtime (can disrupt sleep later in the night)