Dr. Doni explores how timing is crucial to restful sleep and gives 5 tips to help you fall asleep—and stay asleep—until morning.
We need between 7.5 and 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night. This is based on the time it takes us to go through the sleep cycle and the number of times we can complete the cycle in the course of the night.
During any period of sleep we go through a one and a half hour cycle made up of four different stages. If our sleep is interrupted at any point during that cycle we return to the beginning stage which means that, if you wake several times at night, you may never get to the final stages of deep, restful sleep and will wake feeling tired. Let’s look at the four stages of the sleep cycle in more detail.
The Four Stages of the Sleep Cycle
This stage lasts between 5 and 10 minutes. Your eyes are closed but you could be easily awakened and are not well rested during this stage.
Stage 2 (light sleep)
In this stage your heart rate slows and your body temperature decreases as your body prepares for deeper sleep.
Stage 3 (deep sleep)
This is when you are deeply asleep, it would be hard for someone to wake you from this stage and you would feel a bit disorientated if you were woken at this point. This is the most restorative sleep for your body, including tissue repair and immune system function.
Stage 4 (REM sleep)
The transition from stage 3 (deep sleep) back to stage 2 sleep is called rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. During this stage your heart rate and breathing quicken and it is when you dream as your brain is also more active. During your first sleep cycle of the night you may only spend 10 minutes in REM sleep but this gets longer and longer in subsequent cycles until you spend up to an hour in REM sleep during the final sleep cycle of the night.
Each of these cycles lasts around 90 minutes so if you sleep for 7.5 hours, you’ll get in five sleep cycles during the night, and in 9 hours you’ll have 6 cycles. A sleep cycle includes the time it takes to fall to sleep, move through light sleep into deep sleep then REM sleep, and back to light sleep.
If you are wondering how well you are sleeping, you might want to try one of the latest technical ways to measure your sleep. You can use your iPhone or smartphone and a sleep app such as Sleep Cycle, SleepBot, or Sleep by MotionX. You just put your smartphone on your mattress while you sleep (and make sure that it is plugged in or charged) and it will monitor your sleep and movements. Another option is to use a health wristband such as Fitbit or JawBone that tracks your movement and hours of sleep. Both the apps and wristbands can also wake you at the perfect time – at the end of sleep cycle.
Not getting enough sleep can have significant consequences. Everything from decreased ability to fend off infections (colds, flus and others), to increased risk of weight gain, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer have been associated with a lack of sleep. So it’s extremely important that we get you sleeping better if you are not getting enough, good quality sleep.
Five Tips for Better Sleep
Tip 1 – Determine your best bed time
To give yourself the best chance of getting at 7.5 hours sleep, you need to go to bed at the right time. There’s no point expecting 7.5 hours sleep if you have to be up at 6.30 am but don’t go to bed until midnight. So, count backwards from the time you need to get up to determine what time you need to go to bed. For example, if you need to wake up at 6:30 am, then you’ll need to be asleep by 11 pm. This may mean you need to be in bed by 10.30 pm to give yourself time to read or settle down.
Tip 2 – Optimize your exposure to melatonin
Melatonin, the hormone that helps you sleep, is at its highest levels at 10 pm. Melatonin production is responsive to your exposure to darkness. So if you are exposed to lights or even lights on a computer, phone or TV, then your melatonin level could be less then optimal. Making sure you are not exposed to light while you sleep helps a great deal. Then, if you need to use your devices at night, use an app or software that blocks blue-light. You can also get blue-light blocking glasses. Learn more about how to optimize melatonin here.
Tip 3 – Minimize disturbances
As we have seen, if you are awakened during the night your sleep cycle will be disrupted and you won’t get enough deep, restorative sleep. If this is the case, you need to start strategizing ways to prevent that from happening if at all possible. Is your cat or dog waking you? Is there noise or light that is waking you up? What steps can you take to minimize these disruptions? Perhaps you need to make some adjustments or communicate with others in your living space to figure out how you can make sure your sleep is uninterrupted.
Tip 4 – Get comfortable
We are going to talk more about your sleeping environment next week, but the first step is to make sure your bed is comfortable. Do you need a new mattress? Does your pillow work well for your head and neck? Is your bedding cozy, clean and hypo-allergenic? Can you make your sleeping room dark and the right temperature for you? Is your room cluttered?
Tip 5 – Calm your mind
If you find it difficult to switch off when you go to bed and your mind just keeps going over and over things you might find this simple relaxation technique helps. Think about each of your body parts starting from your toes and working up. Breathe in while you wiggle your toes; breathe out as you release any worries or thoughts. Breathe in as you gently squeeze the muscles in your legs; breathe out as you relax your muscles and let go of any tension you are holding on to. Continue this as you work up your body to your head, and if you notice any thoughts, remind yourself that you can handle them tomorrow (you can even write them on a notepad to remind you if that helps). Allow your focus to be on your dreams.
What to do after you’ve got your bedtime routine sorted out?
If you do all 5 of these things and you are still not sleeping well, then we need to dig deeper to understand what is disrupting your sleep. It could be hormones, or blood sugar fluctuations, or neurotransmitter imbalances, or all of the above. Or it could be related to pain or inflammation in your body. Whatever the cause, we need to get to the bottom of it and address it so that you can benefit from those midnight hours. Read more articles in this blog series about sleep here.
I’ve also decided to write a book about natural approaches for insomnia. You can sign up to receive notice when the book is available here.
6th November 2014