The benefits of a good night’s sleep are so numerous that they almost seem like magic. Getting enough quality sleep regularly can prevent disease, improve mental health and keep your body running at peak performance. Sadly, for many of us, the fast pace of modern life makes it difficult to get the sleep that’s best for our health and well-being.
A lack of quality sleep can leave you feeling irritable and tired, but the impact of long-term sleep deprivation is far more serious. Research has shown that sleeping less than the recommended number of hours a night may increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and even Alzheimer’s disease.
While it used to be thought that sleep was a “dormant state” in which the brain shuts down and takes a rest, scientists now know that’s not exactly true. In fact, the human brain remains active during many parts of sleep, including REM (rapid eye movement) and non-rapid eye movement sleep. In the past, this activity was thought to be an evolutionary response to a greater threat of predator attack at night, but it also appears to play an important role in maintaining cognitive functions, such as learning and memory.
During sleep, the body also releases hormones that regulate hunger, appetite and metabolism. Scientists believe that this may be one reason why people feel hungry when they are not getting enough sleep or are not waking up on time.
Some researchers have also found that a person’s “drive to sleep” is increased when they are sick or following certain types of physically or mentally taxing activities. These are believed to be responses to the body’s need to conserve energy for the next day and to clear away toxic waste products from the brain.
Sleep is an important part of the circadian rhythm, a series of bodily cycles that control growth, reproduction, the body’s internal clock and the daily cycle of wakefulness and sleepiness. Circadian rhythms work on a daily schedule and are set by the body’s natural 24-hour biological clock, which is located in the hypothalamus.
Scientists have identified a range of distinct sleep stages that are controlled by the circadian clock, and each phase requires a different type of brain activity to operate. Sleep cycles typically last around 90 minutes to two hours, with each stage lasting for about four minutes.
For the vast majority of people, the preferred sleeping position is on their side. However, those who choose to sleep on their stomach face a greater risk of pain and discomfort in the neck area. Shelby Harris, a sleep medicine expert at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, recommends that those who select this sleeping position use a pillow that’s thick enough to support the neck and avoids putting pressure on the abdomen.
Regular exercise helps people fall asleep more easily and stay asleep through the night. It can also reduce the symptoms of conditions, such as insomnia and sleep apnea.