Are you struggling to get a good night’s sleep? Think about all the factors that can interfere with a good night’s sleep — from work stress and family responsibilities to unexpected challenges, such as illnesses. It’s no wonder that quality sleep is sometimes elusive.
What happens in the brain during sleep?
You may think nothing’s happening when you sleep. But parts of your brain are quite active during sleep. And enough sleep (or lack of it) affects your physical and mental health. When you sleep, your body has a chance to rest and restore energy. A good night’s sleep can help you cope with stress, solve problems or recover from illness. Not getting enough sleep can lead to many health concerns, affecting how you think and feel.
Researchers continue to study sleep and its effect on us. While we’ve learned a lot about sleep, there’s still much that’s unknown.
We know that brain chemicals are very involved in our sleep cycle. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that help the nerves communicate. They control whether we’re awake or asleep, depending on which neurons (nerve cells) they’re acting on:
- Neurons in the brainstem (where the brain and spinal cord meet) produce neurotransmitters called serotonin and norepinephrine. These chemicals keep our brain active when we’re awake.
- Neurons located at the base of the brain are responsible for us falling asleep. It seems these neurons turn off the signals that keep us awake.
Why do we need sleep?
Sleep helps us in many ways. We need it for:
- Deep sleep (sleep that’s harder to wake from) supports growth in children and young adults. The body releases growth hormone during this type of sleep and also increases production of proteins, which we need for cell growth and to repair damage.
- Nervous system function: A lack of sleep affects our memory, performance and ability to think clearly. If a person is severely sleep deprived, they may even experience neurological problems such as mood swings and hallucinations. Sleep also helps our nerve cells. They can repair themselves, so they function at their best. And certain nerve connections get a chance to turn on, strengthening our brain and thinking ability.
- Survival: Researchers don’t fully understand why sleep is so essential. But studies in animals have shown that getting deprived of sleep can shorten life spans. Lack of sleep may harm the immune system, which protects us from infections.
- Well-being: People who don’t get enough sleep are at higher risk for developing various health conditions including obesity, diabetes and heart problems.
What are the stages of sleep?
During the night, you cycle through two types of sleep: non-rapid eye movement (NON-REM) sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Your brain and body act differently during these different phases.
- NON-REM sleep happens first and includes three stages. The last two stages of NON-REM sleep is when you sleep deeply. It’s hard to wake up from this stage of sleep.
- REM sleep happens about an hour to an hour and a half after falling asleep. REM sleep is when you tend to have vivid dreams.
As you sleep, your body cycles through NON-REM and REM sleep. You usually start the sleep cycle with stage 1 of non-rem sleep. You pass through the other stages of non-rem sleep, followed by a short period of rem sleep. Then the cycle begins again at stage 1.
A full sleep cycle takes about 90 to 110 minutes. Your first rem period is short. As the night goes on, you’ll have longer rem sleep and less deep sleep.
What affects sleep quality?
Chemical signals in the brain influence our sleep and wake cycles. Anything that shifts the balance of these neurotransmitters can make us feel drowsier or more awake. For example:
- Alcohol may help people fall into a light sleep. But it reduces the deeper stages of sleep and REM sleep and leads to more disrupted sleep.
- Caffeine and pseudoephedrine (drug ingredient) can stimulate the brain. They may cause insomnia, an inability to sleep. Watch out for caffeinated drinks such as coffee, and drugs such as diet pills and decongestants.
- Medications such as antidepressants can cause less REM sleep.
- People who smoke heavily often sleep lightly and have less REM sleep. They may wake up after a few hours because they experience nicotine withdrawal.
- Very hot or cold temperatures can disrupt REM sleep. We’re less able to regulate body temperature during REM sleep.
How much sleep do you need?
Many factors affect how much sleep you need. Age is a big factor:
- Infants need about 16 hours a day.
- Toddlers and preschoolers need about 12 hours.
- Teenagers need about nine hours.
- Adults need seven to eight (though some are fine with five and others need closer to 10).
- Pregnant people often need more sleep during the first trimester.
How sleeping positions affects your health
Most adults settle into bed without giving a second thought to how they’re situated. It’s such a routine habit that many do not consider the health effects of sleeping one way or another. Yet, sleep researchers and doctors say that our sleeping position matters.
Sleeping on your stomach, back or side can make a difference in terms of snoring, symptoms of sleep apnea, neck and back pain, and other medical conditions.The majority of people sleep on their side or back and the smallest percentage of people sleep in a stomach position.
Let’s see the various kinds of sleeping positions and the ones that are good or bad for you:
Worst: sleeping on your stomach
If you like to sleep face down, you’re not alone, but you’re in the minority. About 7% of adults sleep on their stomach, or in the prone position. It may help decrease the sound of snoring, but in general, stomach sleeping is not recommended.
With your head raised on the pillow, it can be difficult to keep the spine in a neutral position. Sleeping on your stomach puts a strain on the back and neck. With the middle of your body being the heaviest part, it causes the spine to overarch. With time this can lead to pain and nerve issues. You may notice numbness or a tingling sensation in the extremities. Additionally, turning the head to one side while lying down can limit blood circulation and reduce the size of the airway.
If you find it difficult to change your sleeping position, try to modify it. Keep the neck straight and prop only the forehead on the bottom edge of the pillow. In this way, the spine will be in a more neutral position while allowing room to breathe freely. You can also try elevating the pelvis with a thin pillow to help alleviate the pressure on the lower back.
Bad: sleeping in the fetal position
It’s important to note that the fetal position is not recommended. Though the body is situated on the side, the extreme curvature of the spine can cause strain and discomfort in the neck and back. Being tightly curled while sleeping can also limit space for the diaphragm and restrict breathing.
Better: sleeping on your back
The supine position is the second most common sleeping position. Sleeping with your back flat on the bed enables the spine to stay in a more natural position. This prevents some of the neck, shoulder and back pain experienced with other postures. By elevating the head with a pillow, it can also be helpful in reducing problems associated with acid reflux.
However, this position exacerbates snoring and obstructive sleep apnea. This is because as the tongue and soft tissues in the throat relax, gravity will pull them down into the airway. If you have been diagnosed with this sleep disorder, you should talk to your clinician about how to best modify your sleeping habits.
If you enjoy sleeping on your back but notice that it leads to lower back pain, try modifying the position. Use a low pillow or cervical cushion to support the neck and a medium-sized pillow or large neck roll for propping up the knees. This will help reduce discomfort and strain on the lower back.
Best: sleeping on your side
The majority of people find this sleeping position to be the most comfortable, and for good reason. This posture is recommended by physicians and sleep specialists because it has a number of benefits. With the right mattress, the spine can remain elongated and relatively neutral while on your side. This helps prevent undue neck, back, and shoulder pain.
Anyone who struggles with loud snoring or sleep apnea is advised to sleep on their side because the airway is less likely to become restricted even when the body is relaxed. Studies have shown that it can decrease the number of apneas at night and provide better quality, more restful sleep. The lateral position is also recommended for people with arthritis, acid reflux, neck and back problems. For women who are pregnant, sleeping on the left side of the body is best, especially in the second and third trimesters. This is due to enhanced blood flow to the placenta and improved kidney function, which helps decrease swelling in the mother’s legs and feet.
Side sleeping is best when the chest and legs are kept relatively straight, with the spine in an elongated, yet natural alignment. You should use a firm, medium-height pillow or ergonomic cushion to support the head and neck. To ease pressure on the lower back, you may be more comfortable with a pillow between your legs. This provides more support for the hips, pelvis and the lower back.
While you might not be able to control the factors that interfere with your sleep, you can adopt habits that encourage better sleep. Start with these simple tips.
- Stick to a sleep schedule
Set aside no more than eight hours for sleep. The recommended amount of sleep for a healthy adult is at least seven hours. Most people don’t need more than eight hours in bed to achieve this goal.
Go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Try to limit the difference in your sleep schedule on weeknights and weekends to no more than one hour. Being consistent reinforces your body’s sleep-wake cycle.
If you don’t fall asleep within about 20 minutes, leave your bedroom and do something relaxing. Read or listen to soothing music. Go back to bed when you’re tired. Repeat as needed.
- Pay attention to what you eat and drink
Don’t go to bed hungry or stuffed. In particular, avoid heavy or large meals within a couple of hours of bedtime. Your discomfort might keep you up.
Nicotine, caffeine and alcohol deserve caution, too. The stimulating effects of nicotine and caffeine take hours to wear off and can wreak havoc on quality sleep. And even though alcohol might make you feel sleepy, it can disrupt sleep later in the night.
- Create a restful environment
Create a room that’s ideal for sleeping. Often, this means cool, dark and quiet. Exposure to light might make it more challenging to fall asleep. Avoid prolonged use of light-emitting screens just before bedtime. Consider using room-darkening shades, earplugs, a fan or other devices to create an environment that suits your needs.
Doing calming activities before bedtime, such as taking a bath or meditation, might promote better sleep.
- Limit daytime naps
According to sleep experts, napping can be a good way for people who don’t sleep well at night to catch up. They do caution, however, that people with insomnia may make their nighttime sleep problem worse by sleeping during the day. Otherwise, they generally recommend naps for people who feel they benefit from them. Long daytime naps can interfere with nighttime sleep. If you choose to nap, limit yourself to up to 30 minutes and avoid doing so late in the day. If you work nights, however, you might need to nap late in the day before work to help make up your sleep debt.
- Include physical activity in your daily routine
Regular physical activity can promote better sleep. Avoid being active too close to bedtime, however. Spending time outside every day might be helpful, too.
- Manage worries
Try to resolve your worries or concerns before bedtime. Jot down what’s on your mind and then set it aside for tomorrow.
Stress management might help. Start with the basics, such as getting organized, setting priorities and delegating tasks. Meditation can also help ease anxiety.
- Know when to contact your doctor
Nearly everyone has an occasional sleepless night, but if you often have trouble sleeping, contact your doctor. Identifying and treating any underlying causes can help you get the better sleep you deserve.