A lot of us like to think of ourselves as sleep warriors. ‘I don’t need eight hours of sleep,’ we declare proudly, while we scroll through Instagram, munching on a pizza slice 30 minutes before bed.
That’s all well and good, but we don’t sleep to get by, we sleep to thrive. Here are five things you need to know about sleep to help you hack your sleep and improve your physical and mental health!
We need eight hours of sleep
You may have already heard the elusive number eight being thrown around when talking about how much sleep we need. You might be one of those people who say they manage off of less.
The reality is my friend, we sleep to thrive, and we simply cannot thrive on less than seven hours of sleep per night (unless you’re a unicorn).
We go through four sleep stages while we sleep, and we should go through this sleep cycle five times each night.
We start in NREM (non-rapid eye movement) 1, otherwise known as light sleep. This is when our metabolism slows down and brain wave activity dips. This stage facilitates new ideas.
Then, we head into NREM 2, spending between 40%–60% of our sleep cycle in this stage. The body temperature lowers, the heart rate decreases and activity in the body and brain decreases.
NREM 3 is the next stage of our sleep cycle, otherwise known as deep sleep. This is the most beneficial stage of our sleep cycle, as this is when we benefit from sleep’s restorative properties the most.
Then, we head into REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which contrary to our other sleep stages, sees an increase in rapid eye movement, quick shallow breathing, an increase in heart rate and an increase in blood pressure. This is the stage when we experience, often very vivid, dreams. Waking up from this stage can make us feel really groggy for minutes to hours, so it’s best to sleep through it if we can.
To really benefit from sleeps restorative qualities, we should be going through this sleep cycle five times per night. It takes on average 1.5 hours to run through all four sleep stages once, which means if we allow enough time to go through this cycle five times, we need to be planning for at least 7.5 hours of sleep each night.
This is where we get our number eight from. Aiming for eight to nine hours of sleep each night is optimal, as it allows a bit of time for us to fall asleep.
Light really messes with our sleep
Let’s go back in time to the pre-electricity days. Our bodies are designed to sleep when it’s dark and wake when it’s light. The term ‘midnight’ literally means the middle of the night, because it used to be our middle of the night.
We naturally get sleepy when the sun sets and we naturally awake when the sun rises, so long as we don’t have any other light interfering, like screens.
Melatonin is our natural sleep hormone. It’s produced and released when we experience darkness. Melatonin production and release stop when we experience light.
Melatonin doesn’t just help us get to sleep, it helps us stay asleep and improves our quality of sleep.
Turning off our screens a couple of hours before bedtime is a great way to naturally improve melatonin production and in turn, improve our sleep quantity and quality!
The idea of no screens or lights before bed can be daunting though, so be sure to slowly reduce screen time, and in the meantime, you can always opt for blue light screen protectors that block the blue light from device screens that interfere with melatonin production.
Naps cannot fully replace lost sleep
Don’t freak out. I’m not saying you can’t nap. You just can’t rely on naps to replace lost sleep. We previously explained the sleep stages and that we should go through five cycles of our sleep stages per night. This means in succession, one after the other. If we get five hours of sleep and haven’t been able to run through all five sleep cycles, by all means, having a nap during the day can be helpful, however, this doesn’t pay off the debt of the lost sleep the previous night. We never can fully pay off that lost sleep debt.
It is much more restorative and beneficial to experience our sleep cycles in succession rather than interrupted. Nap to your hearts content if you’ve lost out on some quality sleep, but we shouldn’t be relying on naps.
- Priority 1: Getting eight hours of sleep per night
- Priority 2: Identifying why we lost sleep and trying to improve our sleep routine to ensure the eight hours are accessible and having a nap when we don’t manage the eight hours.
What we eat can affect our sleep
It makes sense when we think about it. You wouldn’t want a coffee as you lay in bed switching off. Other foods have similar effects on our body, giving us energy and indicating to our body that we’re ready to move! Which we don’t want just before bed.
A good rule of thumb is to stop our food consumption at least three hours before bedtime, with four being optimal (unless you have an existing health issue that requires more frequent meals, like diabetes).
Some main culprits of foods to stay away from at dinner are:
- Red meat. The high-fat content of red meat can lead to acid reflux, as it requires acid to be released in the stomach, which just before bedtime can be quite uncomfortable.
- Pizza. The acidity of the tomatoes plus the high-fat contents of the cheese mixed together can cause heartburn and acid reflux, two big no-nos before bedtime.
- Fermented foods. Like sour cream, aged cheeses and yoghurts. Fermented foods contain an amino acid called tyramine, which is known to stimulate the brain, which is the opposite effect we’re looking for before bed.
Sometimes, we need more sleep
If you’re ill or sick or recovering from a marathon or a festival (maybe one day soon) or you’re a teenager going through puberty or you’re a baby who’s trying desperately to figure out the one foot in front of the other thing, you’re going to need more sleep!
Honour what your body needs. Rest is imperative when we’re recovering from mental or physical trauma, just as rest is imperative when we’re growing and developing.
If you’re concerned you’re not getting enough quality sleep, be sure to speak with your healthcare provider.
Gabie Lazareff is a certified health coach, yoga teacher, and freelance nutrition and wellness writer. She’s on a mission to spread the word about the importance of sleep in order for us not just to survive, but to thrive.