As you may or may not know: sleep is wonderful. Strangely enough, we don’t get enough of it all. I’ve mentioned the importance of sleep before. Today I’d like to delve a little deeper into the science of the sleep cycle — I’m on the lookout for balrogs and seeking mithril.
Part 1 of this article can be found here: Afraid to Fall Asleep? How Sleep Aids the Body in Growth and Regeneration
The Balrog: Sleep Deprivation
Sleep deprivation causes and/or contributes to many ill effects including: depression, industrial and automotive accidents, delayed learning capabilities, slowed memory retention and intelligence, diminished sex drive, advanced aging of the skin, weight gain, and impaired judgement in regards to how much sleep you’ve gotten and need! A consistent sleep cycle can help you avoid sleep deprivation.
Sleep-deprived people seem to be especially prone to poor judgment when it comes to assessing what lack of sleep is doing to them. In our increasingly fast-paced world, functioning on less sleep has become a kind of badge of honor. But sleep specialists say if you think you’re doing fine on less sleep, you’re probably wrong. And if you work in a profession where it’s important to be able to judge your level of functioning, this can be a big problem.
That’s a really big problem. Sleep deprivation can also contribute to some serious health conditions such as heart disease, heart failure, heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes. This gives reason to the CDC declaring sleep deprivation to be a public health epidemic in the United States. Between 50-70 million adults have a disrupted sleep cycle and suffer from a sleep or wakefulness disorder.
The Mithril: Sleep Cycle Cure
The solution to sleep deprivation is so incredibly simple. All that you have to do is get the right amount of sleep. Knowing exactly what “the right amount” is happens to be a bit more complex. Luckily sleep scientists around the world have been attempting to understand the elusive sleep cycle and their efforts have been deliciously fruitful.
The amount of sleep and best times for sleep are dictated by circadian rhythm. Unlike the burrowing insects who lay dormant for up to 17 years, circadian rhythm is a twenty four hour sleep cycle dictated by circadian clocks. These clocks are biological mechanisms which are synchronized with the day-night cycle. The human sleep cycle is coordinated with the rotation of the Earth.
Circadian rhythms are important in determining human sleep patterns. The body’s master clock, or SCN, controls the production of melatonin, a hormone that makes you sleepy. Since it is located just above the optic nerves, which relay information from the eyes to the brain, the SCN receives information about incoming light. When there is less light—like at night—the SCN tells the brain to make more melatonin so you get drowsy.
So darkness triggers the body to utilize hormones in order to induce sleep. Once asleep the body and mind go through a series of sleep cycles. These rotate between deeper and more alert states. It is vitally important that you sleep enough for your body to get through several of these sleep cycles. If you don’t, you’re body will log this sleep debt which will need to be repaid later:
Sleep debt is the difference between the amount of sleep you need and the hours you actually get. Every time you sacrifice on sleep, you add to the debt. Eventually, the debt will have to be repaid; it won’t go away on its own. If you lose an hour of sleep, you must make up that extra hour somewhere down the line in order to bring your “account” back into balance.
The NIGMS (either the best, or worst acronym ever) gives a guide for maintaining proper sleeping habits so as to avoid the sleep debt. Follow these steps to set your sleep cycle to regular:
Aim for at least seven and a half hours of sleep every night. Make sure you don’t fall farther in debt by blocking off enough time for sleep each night. Consistency is the key;
Settle short-term sleep debt with an extra hour or two per night. If you lost 10 hours of sleep, pay the debt back in nightly one or two-hour installments;
Keep a sleep diary. Record when you go to bed, when you get up, your total hours of sleep, and how you feel during the day. As you keep track of your sleep, you’ll discover your natural patterns and get to know your sleep needs;
Take a sleep vacation to pay off a long-term sleep debt. Pick a two-week period when you have a flexible schedule. Go to bed at the same time every night and allow yourself to sleep until you wake up naturally. No alarm clocks! If you continue to keep the same bedtime and wake up naturally, you’ll eventually dig your way out of debt and arrive at the sleep schedule that’s ideal for you;
Make sleep a priority. Just as you schedule time for work and other commitments, you should schedule enough time for sleep. Instead of cutting back on sleep in order to tackle the rest of your daily tasks, put sleep at the top of your to-do list.
Doing these activities will help restore your body’s sleep cycle properly giving you the energy and fortitude of will to achieve your daily goals. The importance of sleep is probably something that you’ve heard about on and off your entire life and for good reason! Sleep is something that your body absolutely needs to be healthy. Your sleep cycle is important to your daily functioning.