The proven health benefits of a consistent sleep routine go far beyond simply feeling rested. Getting enough quality sleep has been shown to improve your concentration, memory, mood and energy levels, as well as helping with weight control, immunity and even increasing your life span.
But it can be difficult to fit in enough sleep between work, family and the rest of life. The good news is that your body has natural systems in place to ensure you get a good nightís sleep. Working with your own bodyís rhythms can be key to developing a good sleep routine and enjoying the benefits.
The Biology of Sleep
The two main phases of sleep are rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) sleep.
REM sleep is also known as ďactive sleepĒ and itís thought to be the phase where the majority of dreams happen. Itís biologically more similar to our natural waking state.
NREM sleep consists of the deeper phases of sleep where your brain waves slow down and there is less evidence of dreaming. Many of the bodyís repair functions take place during these deeper cycles.
You alternate between REM and NREM sleep in regular cycles throughout the night. Most slow-wave NREM sleep occurs in the first part of the night and REM cycles tend to become longer as the night goes on and closer to the time you wake up.
Where Sleep Gets Off Track
Our REM and NREM cycles are largely regulated by our internal biological clock, also known as our circadian rhythm. This internal clock typically works on a 24-hour cycle. It oversees our sleeping and waking times as well as the biological functions that happen during sleep.
This is where the importance of a regular sleep schedule comes in. Circadian rhythms function best when you have a routine. If you have an irregular sleep pattern, such as sleeping in on weekends, it throws out your natural circadian rhythms.
Many health risks have been linked to irregular sleep patterns. For instance, the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism published a study that looked at 447 adults who worked outside their homes. They found that the participants who had a greater change between their sleep schedules on working and non-working days were more likely to have poor cholesterol levels, larger waist circumference, higher body mass index and greater insulin resistance compared to those with more regular sleep routines.
A Better Way to Sleep
When you establish a regular sleep pattern, it allows your circadian rhythm to operate at its peak.
An important function of your circadian clock is to ensure hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released about an hour before you need to wake up. This gently prepares your body for wakefulness and youíll naturally be ready when the alarm clock goes off. Some people who are well-established in a routine can even wake up consistently on time without an alarm clock.
Your body will also naturally move into a REM state before waking up. If your circadian rhythm is thrown off due to irregular sleep times, your alarm could ring in the middle of a deep NREM sleep phase. This has been shown to lead to greater grogginess that can last throughout the day.
This is also why hitting the snooze button on your alarm is not recommended. The short bursts of sleep you have in between the alarms will typically stay in REM sleep. These are not as restful as deep NREM sleep. They also disrupt your overall circadian rhythm and confuse your body further.
The healthiest option is to set a sleeping schedule and stick to it as best you can. This will ensure you get enough sleep and that itís good quality.
Find a Pattern that Works for You
Each of our biological clocks are unique. There is no universal schedule that fits everyone.
In general, people tend to have three main types of sleep cycles.
Monophasic. This is the sleep cycle that we most often hear about. Itís when you sleep for one, continuous block of sleep. Itís recommended to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep per sleep period.
Biphasic. Some suggest this is closer to our natural sleep pattern. It’s when a person sleeps for two approximately 4-hour blocks of time separated by an hour or more of wakefulness. A total of 7 to 9 hours of sleep is still recommended, but there can be some flexibility around when you schedule your shorter blocks of sleep.
Polyphasic. This is a more modern approach to sleep cycles, where sleep periods are broken up into shorter naps throughout the night and day. For instance, the inventor and philosopher Buckminster Fuller experimented with polyphasic sleep in the mid-1900s. He took 30 minute naps every six hours, for a total of 2 hours of sleep per day.
This is not recommended for everyone, but itís viewed by some as a way to reduce the amount you sleep and increase your productive waking hours. The Polyphasic Society has more information about different types of sleep cycles on their website.
Try experimenting with your sleep cycles and see which style suits you best. Once youíve chosen a schedule, the most important factor is to stay consistent. The regularity of your sleep routine is what will help your biological clock function at its peak.
Have you figured out a sleep pattern that works well for you? Please share any of your thoughts and findings in the comments!