We spend a third of our lives sleeping. How well we sleep affects us all, but so few people understand even the basics of sleep. By understanding how sleep works, you know what it takes to create a good nights sleep. If you have an episode of insomnia, you can quickly discover the cause and take the right course of action.
In this article we’ll look over 5 sleep facts that you probably didn’t know about sleep. By the end of this article you’ll probably know more about sleep than most people will in their entire lifetime.
1. We have two completely different types of sleep
Sleep was once thought to be a state of inactivity where our bodies turn off for the night. But there’s actually a lot that happens to us whilst we sleep.
We have two completely different types of sleep. There are NREM, non rapid eye movement, and REM, rapid eye movement. We cycle between these stages of sleep every 90 minutes.
NREM sleep is what most people consider sleep to be like. Your mind and body relaxes and slows down. We start in light sleep and go all the way down to deep sleep. In the deepest stages of sleep the body carries out maintenance work on the body, including rearranging the neural pathways of the brain.
REM sleep usually occurs after NREM sleep. In this stage the brain is almost as active as if you were wide awake. It’s known as paradoxical sleep because brain scans of people in REM sleep look similar to brain scans of people when they’re awake. In REM sleep information is transferred from your short term memory into your long term memory. This is essential for learning new skills.
2. Not everyone needs the same amount of sleep
We all need sleep, but not everyone needs the same amount of sleep. It’s common to hear people saying that you need 8 hours of sleep per night, but this isn’t actually true. Getting 8 hours sleep is only a guideline amount for most adults. Some people need more and some people can get by on much less.
How much sleep you need depends on 3 factors:
Age – Our need for sleep slowly reduces as we age, leveling out after our teenage years where it stays the same. Babies need the most sleep. Teenagers need around 9 hours sleep.
Genetics – Some people need more or less sleep than others based on their genetic makeup. People who need much less sleep than most are known as short sleepers. These people are quite rare however, around 1% of the population.
Sleep quality – This is how much time you spend in the deeper stages of sleep. The better your sleep quality, the less time you need to spend sleeping. Having good sleep hygiene increases your sleep quality.
3. No one knows for sure why we need to sleep
It’s clear that we need sleep, but beside that need, why is sleep so important? Couldn’t we have been designed without it? Wouldn’t natural selection favor those who needed less sleep?
These are questions scientists have been trying to answer for thousands of years. There are a number of theories as to why we sleep, but even today no one knows for sure. Every animal appears to have some form of sleep process. It appears to be something no living thing can live without.
There probably isn’t one straightforward answer because sleep isn’t a one straightforward process. The answer as to why we sleep probably lies within the unique benefits the two types of sleep provide:
NREM sleep takes your body totally offline – Perhaps this is essential for growth, development and maintenance of the body.
REM sleep allows your mind to remain active whist your body sleeps – Perhaps this meditative state is the only way your body can process the information in your brain.
Perhaps the process of sleep is so unique that nothing else can replace it? The true answer as to why we sleep is one of life’s mysteries that we’ve yet to uncover.
4. We encounter unique sleep problems as we age
Our sleep requirements change as we age and with that change comes unique challenges. Here’s a list of common sleep problems by each age group:
Teenagers – Biologically inclined to stay up late and fall asleep late. This could develop into delayed sleep phase syndrome and cause you to oversleep. Falling asleep late and having to wake up early in the morning is a common cause of sleep deprivation in teenagers.
Adults – Extra commitments both at work and at home can generate a lot of stress and leave you unable to relax and drift off to sleep at night. Around a third of adults have insomnia.
Old age – Biologically inclined to fall asleep sooner in the evening and wake up earlier in the morning. Sleep quality tends to reduce, causing you to be more likely to wake up in the night and not be able to fall asleep again.
No matter how old you are, learning a few good sleep tips and sticking to them will help you sleep better.
5. We’re facing a sleep crisis
Over a third of us now have problems sleeping and this figure appears to be on the rise. So what is it about our culture that’s cultivating all these sleep problems?
A few years ago bedrooms were a place dedicated to falling asleep. But as TVs, smartphones and tablets are getting more popular and getting cheaper, they’re starting to invade our bedroom. We can now watch a movie, play games or check emails from the luxury of our beds. By using these devices you’re essentially staring into a box of light. This makes your circadian rhythm think it’s daytime and will keep you awake far past the time you would have normally fallen asleep.
Sleep research shows that half of us are kept awake by stress and anxiety. Our 24 hour work culture makes no room for sleep. The nighttime used to be a special time reserved for sleep, but now many of us are expected to be available any time of the day for work commitments.
With so many people becoming sleep deprived, learning how to sleep well provides you with a number of benefits that are becoming increasingly unique. In this tough competitive world, the benefits from sleeping well can make a huge difference.