When a gadget has been used for hours on end, it eventually gets drained and needs to be plugged in for recharge so that it can be used again.
Likewise, a human’s body and mind need time to recharge after functioning for many hours. According to the psychology of sleep, children up to 12 years of age require an average of 10 hours of sleep. Adolescents and adults need an average of 8 hours of sleep.
In some cultures, sleep is viewed as a sign of laziness and an obstruction to the development of the individual. On the other hand, the Japanese, Mexicans and Spanish realised the importance of good sleep and are very particular about their sleep schedules, naps and siestas.
Why does the body need sleep?
Remember those days when you pulled all-nighters to finish assignments and study? Followed by a hectic day packed with classes, socialising, more studying, chores and other things.
Do this for several days and it is likely to cause sleep deprivation and you will begin to notice certain issues, like:
- Lack of concentration
- Inability to understand basic concepts
- Refusal to communicate
- Higher irritability
- Reduced appetite
- Feeling drained out
Many of us do not give sleep the importance that it holds regarding the functioning of our brain and body. Sleep is one of the essential functions of our brain and body. It is often called the energy conservation and restoration process.
There are various theories in the psychology of explaining why we need sleep.
- Energy conservation: The energy conservation theory suggests that during the night, we are more vulnerable and hence, our body needs to stay still and conserve the energy for better functioning when we wake up.
- Restoration: The restoration theory suggests that the body repairs and rejuvenates during our time of sleep.
- Brain plasticity: The brain plasticity theory suggests that our brain reorganises and cleans itself while we give it some rest in our sleep.
Research shows that sleep has a significant impact on the human’s concentration, learning, memory, decision making, creativity, problem solving and information processing.
Functions of the brain during sleep
It is widely believed that the brain does not function when a human sleeps. If that were true, every function of the body would be impacted during our sleep hours! The brain indeed does function while we sleep.
During sleep hours, the neurons, that is, the nerve cells of the brain, reorganise themselves.
The glymphatic system works to clear out the waste from the central nervous system. It removes all the unnecessary data and byproducts from our brain.
At the same time, all the information stored in our short-term memory (STM) is converted to long-term memory (LTM) by the hippocampus and is stored in the cortex.
Sleep ensures that emotions are regulated. To be specific, the amygdala controls our emotional regulations. Getting enough sleep provides apt emotional responses. But sleep deprivation can result in an overflow of emotions. Therefore if you don’t sleep well, you will end up overreacting to stimuli.
All of the brain functions during our sleep time prepare our brain for a fresh start the next day.
Experience the difference between a challenging night and a good night’s sleep.
Modify your sleep hygiene with professional guidance.
Stages of sleep
If you have noticed, once the head hits the pillow, it takes some time for you to fall asleep. In the same way, you do not suddenly get up. It is a slow process of opening your eyes, waking up and being fully aware. This process of sleep has been divided into the following 4 stages of sleep.
→ N1 – Non REM (Upto 5 minutes)
N1 is the first stage of sleep. It is also known as dozing off stage. This stage generally takes up to 5 minutes. During this time, the body muscles begin to relax and the pace of brain functions begins to slow down. It is very easy for a person to be fully awake if the N1 is interrupted.
→ N2 – Non REM (Up to 25 minutes)
During the N2 stage, the body muscles have entirely relaxed. The pulse rate has slowed down. Eye movement stops and the brain shows different function patterns. The N2 stage lasts for up to 25 minutes. The duration increases with each cycle throughout the night.
→ N3 – Non REM
N3 stage is when the person is in a deep sleep. Recovery and growth of the body and brain take place during this stage. It isn’t easy to awaken a person during the N3 stage of sleep.
Even if the functions are at a slow rate, the brain is active.
→ Rapid Eye Movement/REM (10 minutes)
During this REM stage, the brain begins functioning as it does when we are awake. It is during this stage that the body experiences sleep paralysis. All the muscles temporarily freeze except those needed for breathing and eye movement. The eyes can be seen moving rapidly.
Dreams are seen in all the stages of sleep, but the clear dreams which one remembers are seen during the REM stage.
The REM stage is a 10 minute period and is entered after about 90 minutes of sleep during the first cycle. As the night progresses, the duration of REM increases from 10 minutes to 60 minutes.
Initially, experts had divided the sleep cycle into five stages. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) has updated it to the above four stages since 2007.
The breakdown of the sleep cycle into stages has been termed sleep architecture.
Why do we get dreams and nightmares?
Dreams are believed to be subconscious portrayals of our thoughts, feelings, conversations, plans, activities and issues. The amygdala has been observed to be the most active part of the brain during dreams
Although researchers are still doubtful of the intent of dreams, there are some theories around it. Some say that dreams are a display of our emotions. Some say that dreams are an outlet for our inner creativity. Some also believe that dreams are a way of our subconscious mind to give us hints and guide us.
As Freud states in his ‘Theory of Dreams’, dreams are a portrayal of our desires, motivations, thoughts and wishes. He also mentioned that dreams have two categories, ones that are linked to real life and others that hold some hidden meaning or messages.
Our dreams are influenced by our daily routine, our thoughts, the people around us, our future plans, our current health, the things we saw or thought of just before falling asleep and the situations we find ourselves in.
The fear-filled, disturbing dreams are nightmares. They leave the sleeper restless and shaken. Often carrying a negative vibe, nightmares may even force the sleeper to wake up suddenly and leave them disoriented.
Nightmares are common among children of 3 to 6 years of age. They fade away with the progression of age. Rarely having nightmares is not a matter of concern, but frequent nightmares must be reported to an expert.
What is Sleep Paralysis?
Have you ever felt like you are falling into an abyss while you are asleep and you just cannot wake up or stir in your sleep? Or that you are having a nightmare, you want to react to the nightmare but your body is not responding? That is what sleep paralysis feels like.
Sleep paralysis is the temporary loss of muscle function during the unconscious state of sleep. This loss of muscle control is known as atonia. It is generally experienced at the start of sleep or just before waking up.
The word paralysis may make it sound like a severe physical emergency. But, sleep paralysis in itself has proven to be harmless. Although, its occurrence, along with other disorders like narcolepsy, may have some negative impact on the brain and mental health.
Some people experience sleep paralysis only once, which is an isolated episode but some experience it multiple times, which is recurrent sleep paralysis. Isolated instances may not need professional treatment. But recurrent episodes need a professional diagnosis and treatment to avoid neurological harm.
According to research, the occurrence of sleep paralysis is widespread. It begins during the teenage years. In the case of recurrent sleep paralysis, the episodes are more frequent 20s and 30s.
Symptoms of sleep paralysis
- Feeling fearful during ongoing sleep
- Feeling of being pushed down into the abyss
- Feeling suffocated
- Unable to speak or scream
Causes of sleep paralysis
- Reduced sleeping hours
- Inconsistent sleep schedule
- Mental health disorders such as anxiety, bipolar, major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder
- Ongoing sleep disorders such as insomnia, narcolepsy, obstructive sleep apnea and others
- Substance abuse
Any condition that affects the amount, quality and continuity of an individual’s sleep is known as a sleep disorder. Sleep disorders not only affect the person’s sleep, but they also hamper their regular schedule and functioning. They are sometimes the cause or symptom of other mental health disorders. Some of the common sleep disorders include:
Insomnia is the inability to fall or/and stay asleep.
It is the most commonly heard-of sleep disorder.For it to be diagnosed, the symptoms of insomnia have to be persistent for three months and more.
- Mental health problems
- Side effects of medications
- Nicotine addiction and many other external factors.
Insomnia is in itself, a disorder and a symptom of many disorders.
Insomnia that is short-termed, which is caused by things like recent trauma, stress or change in environment, is known as acute insomnia. Insomnia that is long-term is known as chronic insomnia.
The uncontrollable urge to sleep multiple times without any reference to the time of day is known as narcolepsy.
It begins during childhood, adolescence or early adulthood. These urges are also called sleep attacks.
This urge occurs without any regard to the current activity done by the person, the place they are in or the duration and quality of their sleep at night. Hence, narcolepsy severely hampers the individual’s personal, professional and social life.
3. Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea is the interruption in breathing during sleep. It may occur in the form of stifled breaths or long pauses during breathing. People with sleep apnea feel suffocated and have trouble staying asleep.
They wake up each time they feel breathless and this hampers their sleep cycle. Sleep apnea has also resulted in increased blood pressure and even heart attacks.
Obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea and complex sleep apnea are the three types of sleep apnea.
4. REM Sleep Behaviour Disorder
Rapid Eye Movement Sleep Behaviour Disorder occurs when a person lacks the sleep paralysis experienced during the REM stage of sleep.
It means that the person moves and acts out while continuing to sleep. The result of this disorder is that the person sleep-walks, sleep-talks, cries, does actions and even attacks during their sleep. This has proven to be harmful to the person themselves and others around them.
It is prevalent in all age groups but most prominently noticed in males above the age of 50 years.
5. Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)
The urge to move the leg during times of rest because of sensations like burning, crawling, and itching over the leg is known as restless leg syndrome.
Restless leg syndrome can affect any age group. But, it usually begins during teenage or early adulthood and continues well up till late old age. For it to be diagnosed, RLS must be persistent for a minimum of three months.
Restless Leg Syndrome can affect the person’s functionality and disturb their sleep during the night. It may occur during the daytime but mostly happens at nighttime.
What will happen if we don’t get enough sleep?
It has become a pattern for many to survive on minimum sleep for 3-4 hours, due to the stresses of their job, education or other commitments. What they fail to realise is that a consistent lack of proper sleep can affect their mental as well as physical functioning.
Research suggests that lack of proper sleep leads to reduced body and brain functioning, which includes the regular functions of all the systems of our body, along with brain functions like perception, coordination, memory storage, language and many others.
Chronic illnesses which affect the brain, heart, kidneys and blood flow are a common occurrence in people who do not get the right amount of sleep.
Sleep deprivation can lead to the following psychological issues:
- Low mood
- Memory issues
- Frequent mood changes
- Reduced control over motor functions
- Lack of concentration
Lack of sufficient and restful sleep has also been linked to major depression. Mental health and sleep go hand in hand. Mental health disorders affect sleep and reduced sleep leads to mental health disorders.
Sleep disorders, if severe, need professional consultation and treatment. The treatment includes various therapies and even medications if necessary. But just the therapy and pills are not enough.
You have to take certain steps to control and prevent your symptoms. What can those steps be?
1. Stick to your timings
- Keep a fixed sleep schedule. It might sound cliché, but having a fixed schedule conditions your body into the sleep cycle at those fixed timings. It reduces your efforts of putting yourself to sleep.
- It may be a habit to sleep late and awaken early for work days and sleep in during weekends. This lifestyle definitely contributes to the formation of the sleep disorder you are facing.
- Train your mind and body to rest at definite hours.
2. Restrict naps
- Power naps are assumed to be a great source of regenerating energy. However, too many power naps can mess up your night sleep. It is just like too many snacks before dinner messes up your intake of the main course. Also, naps during evenings can hamper the quality of your nighttime sleep.
3. Let the brain relax
- Once you are in bed, do not do things like watching tv, making to-do lists, planning your vacation, making phone calls, office work, etc. Such activities increase the rate of your brain functioning.
- Suddenly bringing a full speed car to a halt is dangerous. Likewise, going to sleep with a high speed functioning bed is difficult.
- Let your brain calm down before it gets ready to rest.
- Exercising your body is beneficial for sleep. It tires the body and reminds it of the need to rest.
- Keep in mind that a workout should be done three to four hours before you get into bed.
- Your body should be in rest mode before it is put onto the bed.
5. Prepare your room
- It might seem unnecessary but make sure your bed and the room are comfortable for you to sleep on. Dim the lights, even play some soft music if it pleases you. Set the mood of the room so that your sleep can be peaceful.
Ananda’s other blogs about sleep
Ananda also has two other blogs related to sleep – check out our blogs “How is Sleep and Mood Related?” and “Early to bed, Early to Rise” which explain the importance of sleep for mental health and provide tips to regulate sleep schedules.