Let’s first discuss the sleep-wake cycle before we move into basic sleep health. Sleep can be broken down into stages and we cycle through each stage when we go to bed.
Stage 1 is light sleep; this is when we can be easily woken, often referred to as the dozing off stage. Stage 2 is where our bodily functions begin to slow down, like our heart rate, breathing, and brain waves. In stage 2 our core body temperature also drops. The 3rd and 4th stages are extensions of each other.
Stage 3 & 4 is the NREM (Non-Rapid Eye Movement) stage where the body enters deep sleep and the muscles and tissue begin to recover and repair. The immune system is activated and on a cellular level begins to modulate immune defence against infecting pathogens. The NREM sleep stage is fundamental for brain growth and development, cognitive function, memory consolidation, creativity, problem solving and emotional regulation.
Stage 5 is REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement) this is further deepening of the subconscious where we enter dream states. The brain is very active and continues processing information from stages 3 & 4 but in stage 5 the body is immobilized and the eyes rapidly move.
Part of the sleep-wake cycle is circadian rhythm function. Circadian rhythm is a biological clock-like process controlled in the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus part of the brain that sends messages to our body systems, telling us when it is time to sleep and time to wake up. Circadian rhythm changes are governed by multiple factors such as darkness, brightness, environment, genetics, hormones, and medications. An example of this is when our body temperature drops in the evening bringing on a feeling of tiredness and raises again in the morning to promote wakefulness.
So with the sleep cycle explained here’s a few basic dietary and lifestyle interventions you can make to help support the natural rhythm of your sleep-wake cycle.
- Listen to your body – if you are dozing off in the lounge chair it’s past your bedtime. If you are regularly needing to take naps during the day then you more than likely are not getting enough NREM and REM sleep. If you are waking up just before your alarm in the morning then you know you have had the right sleep duration. By listening to your own body signals you can determine the natural rhythm of your sleep-wake cycle.
- Avoid caffeine 6 hours before your bedtime – caffeine disrupts the time your circadian rhythm signals kick in and, like most stimulating drugs takes time to eliminate from the body. It can remain in the body from 3-5 hours after ingestion. You may find caffeine doesn’t effect your ability to get to sleep, but it can prevent the body from reaching the deep sleep stages
- Avoid blue light from electronic devices and fluorescent lights – power down technology 1-2 hours before bed and opt for dim warm light from lamps. Signals from the optic nerve can dictate the timing of circadian rhythms. Blue light has been shown to stimulate wakefulness, while low warm light signals darkness and sleepiness. Exposure to electronic devices and blue light can interfere with the amount of time the body spends in NREM and REM sleep
- Don’t be afraid to speak up if you’re having issues with your sleep – talk to someone about it, seek professional advice. Sleep health is important to so many modalities of allopathic and complementary medicine. Pain, anxiety, dental problems, respiratory conditions, poor nutrition, and work lifestyle can all be reasons behind a bad night’s sleep. There are so many solutions to a variety of sleep concerns whether it is tea, ear plugs, snoring aids, dental appliances, herbal tonics, nutritional supplements, or meditation, they are there for your use and I encourage you to speak up if you would like to know more.