The Mysteries of Sleep and How it Affects Our Health and Wellbeing

Everyone knows that getting a good night’s sleep is essential to health and wellbeing. But many of us don’t realize the incredible power that sleep has on the body and brain, and just how much it can impact our quality of life. Sleep research is a growing field, with scientists spending most of their waking hours trying to understand the mysteries of sleep and how it can improve our mental and physical health.

Until recently, most people believed that sleeping was a passive state during which the brain and body were mostly dormant. Now, we know that it’s a complex process during which the day’s events are processed and energy is restored. We also know that our bodies and minds go through a series of distinct phases of sleep. On average, we spend about one-quarter to one-third of our lives asleep.

Scientists have identified four stages of sleep: non-REM (non-dreaming) sleep, REM sleep (dreaming), deep sleep, and light sleep. Each phase has a different function in the body and mind. Non-REM sleep is characterized by a drop in body temperature, slowing of the heart rate and blood pressure, and cessation of eye movements. During this stage, the brain waves are relatively rapid, but as you continue to sleep, the waves become slower and eventually stop completely. As you enter REM sleep, your eyes move rapidly behind closed lids, and brain waves are similar to those during wakefulness. During this stage, your memories are encoded and stored in the brain.

Light sleep is the stage between non-REM and REM, during which you are still technically sleeping but your body and brain begin to wind down for the rest of the night. During this phase, the heart and blood pressure rates return to normal, the breathing becomes shallower, and the eye movements stop.

Deep sleep is the final stage of a full night of sleep. During this phase, the heart and breathing rates decrease even more, and the body begins to cool down. The eyes remain closed, but the brain’s activity increases until it reaches a level of synchrony with the lower-level activities of the body. This is considered the onset of REM sleep.

Without adequate sleep, we’re more likely to experience a range of problems from cardiovascular disease and diabetes to depression, obesity, and even cancer. Inadequate sleep can also affect how well we think, work, react, learn, and get along with others. It’s important to make time for the recommended hours of sleep each night and to stick with a bedtime routine that includes bathing, brushing teeth, reading, or other quiet activities that may help you fall asleep. Avoid bright lights and electronics, especially close to bedtime, as they can disrupt the sleep-wake cycle. And don’t go to bed unless you feel sleepy, as being tired will make it harder for your body to relax and fall into sleep. The more your body is used to the routine, the easier it will be for you to fall asleep each night.