Getting a Good Night’s Sleep
Sleep should be easy, shouldn’t it? It’s involuntary, like breathing. We don’t have to decide to sleep - we can literally do it with our eyes closed! So, what stops us getting the quantity and quality of sleep we need, and how can we solve our sleep problems?
Throughout the night, we pass through four or five sleep cycles of 100-120 minutes each. First, we go through stages 1, 2 and 3 of non-REM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep, remaining in stage 3 for a while before going back down through stages 2 and 1. Then we may wake up or have a short period of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep before progressing back up the NREM stages. Let’s look at what’s happening in your brain and body during these stages.
Non-REM (non rapid eye movement)
- Stage 1 (N1): Somnolence or ‘drowsy sleep’
During this stage, lasting just 5-10 minutes, you’re easy to wake up. Your muscles are still active and you have some awareness of sounds, but you’re unwilling to respond and your heart rate is slowing. Although you’re unlikely to dream, you might twitch or experience a falling sensation. You may even stir for a few moments – and if you don’t progress beyond this stage, you might not believe you ‘nodded off’! It’s difficult for experts to identify the exact moment we ‘go to sleep’, because really, there isn’t one; we gradually ‘drift off’ to sleep as our brain activity reduces.
- Stage 2 (N2): Light sleep
Your heart rate, temperature and muscle activity drop further and your awareness of the world has almost gone – but you can still be woken up quite easily. Your brain is starting to relax but has brief periods of information processing. You have more Stage 2 sleep than any other type, particularly if you’re a young adult.
- Stage Three (N3): Deep or Slow-Wave Sleep (SWS)
Now you’re in a deeper sleep, unaware of sounds and other stimuli. Your heart rate, breathing, blood pressure and brain temperature are at their lowest levels and you’re likely to feel disoriented if woken up. You may dream, although NREM dreams are usually less vivid and memorable than REM dreams. It’s also the stage when you’re most likely to experience sleepwalking, night terrors or bed-wetting. While children and adolescents tend to have more stage 3 sleep, the elderly may have much less.
REM (rapid eye movement) sleep: Now your brain is very active. Your breathing and blood pressure rise and your eyes move, but your body is still. This is when most of your dreams – and certainly your most memorable ones – occur. When this stage ends, the cycle restarts.
During the night, your periods of stage 3 NREM sleep will get shorter and your REM sleep will become longer.
The Enemies of Sleep
- Sleep disorders: night terrors, sleep walking, sleep talking, sleep paralysis, teeth grinding, restless limb syndrome and sleep apnoea
- Needing the toilet
- Pain from a medical condition e.g. arthritis
- Discomfort due to an uncomfortable or unsuitable bed, mattress or pillow
- Hormonal changes: women’s temperature control and production of melatonin (a hormone that affects our ‘body clock’) are affected by hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle, and pain or heavy bleeding can disrupt sleep too.
- Stress or depression
To help you sleep soundly:
- See your doctor if you’re suffering from any sleeping disorders, hormonal problems, depression, bladder control or frequent urination problems, and conditions that are causing you pain. They may be able to recommend a therapy or medication that will help.
- Help your body distinguish between day and night by getting some exercise, sunlight (or just daylight!) and fresh air every day. Your body needs this input to produce the correct hormones that regulate your body clock and make you sleepy at the right time. If mobility or the weather is an issue, try to spend time near a window.
- Prepare for bed properly by:
- Avoiding caffeine and large meals in the evening ((if you’re hungry, eat a small, easily-digestible snack)
- Avoiding blue light from phones, tablets and TVs for at least an hour before bed
- Avoid alcohol and nicotine – both can impair your quality and length of sleep
- Choosing relaxing activities in the hour before bedtime, such as reading and/or a warm bath
- Try drinking warm milk with a small carbohydrate-rich snack; the warmth is comforting, it will help to stave off hunger pangs and the snack may help the tryptophan (which helps with sleep) from the milk absorb into your system
- Invest in a comfy bed: Sleeping in an uncomfortable bed can not only damage your sleep, but affect how you feel the next day, too. However, there’s a host of products that can make bedtime more comfortable. Adjustable beds can make all the difference if a fully horizontal sleeping position isn’t right for you, and these days they don’t have to be clunky, impractical or look like a hospital bed – you can even buy adjustable divans and mattresses designed to bend with adjustable beds. Profiling beds can give you personalised comfort and orthopaedic mattresses provide great support, especially if you have back or joint problems such as arthritis. Orthopaedic pillows or memory foam pillows will ensure your head and neck are well supported, helping you not only get a good night’s sleep but avoid the headaches that can occur from neck tension, too.
- Cure snoring: Snoring isn’t always just an irritating noise – for some of us, it’s a sign that our airway is becoming partially blocked, reducing the oxygen our brain receives (sleep apnoea). Try nasal strips or sprays, which may work for you. If they don’t help, visit your doctor.
- Make your Bedroom a Haven: Ideally, your bedroom shouldn’t be your office or workspace too, although sometimes this is unavoidable. But do try to avoid using it as a dumping ground. As Barbara Hemphill famously said, ‘Clutter is delayed decisions,’ - filling your bedroom with homeless items that constantly remind you they need sorting isn’t relaxing. Ensure it’s well ventilated, not too hot or cold, and dark enough to encourage sleep by using a blackout blind or curtains, lining existing curtains or wearing an eye-mask. Earplugs are useful if you have noisy housemates or neighbours.
- Declutter your Brain: It can be hard to relax if our minds are full of to-do lists, worries, and Things We Mustn’t Forget. Try ‘downloading’ your brain before bedtime by jotting these items down – that way, you’re reassured that come tomorrow, you’ll know exactly what you need to do, without relying on your memory. Writing down your worries can be therapeutic too, especially if you can also jot down a possible positive action to tackle them.
Finally, try not to worry if you find it hard to drop off to sleep, as this can start a vicious circle. Think of your bed as somewhere to relax, rather than a place where you must ‘try’ to get some sleep.