How To Hack Your Sleep For Better Rest By Understanding Your "Sleep-Wake" Cycle

How To Hack Your Sleep For Better Rest By Understanding Your "Sleep-Wake" Cycle Hero Image
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"We should all aim for at least eight hours of sleep each night." We know, we know—you've heard it a thousand times. Such a simple rule, and yet such a hard habit to establish.

What many of us don't realize is that a good night's sleep is more than just going unconscious for eight hours. A lot happens during that time—it's actually an intricate sequence of events. For starters, not everyone needs the same amount of sleep, and there are even different types and stages of sleep to worry about. We also have to pay attention to our bodies' natural rhythms and the hormones that determine whether or not we can get high-quality rest. In other words, it's not just about lying down eight hours before you have to wake up in the morning.

Sleep deprivation can lead to a host of health problems.

Sleep is the foundation of good health, and sleep deprivation can be associated with things like poor cognitive functioning (think: slower memory, recall, and mental agility), decreased immunity, and a shorter attention span. Lack of sleep is also directly linked to diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, illnesses that are all on the rise and that we should all be doing our best to avoid!

This might seem overwhelming—even a little scary—but don't worry. Just taking the first steps to understanding what good sleep is and what you can do to improve it will set you on the path for better health, and you'll feel more rested, too.

Master the art of a healthy sleep-wake cycle.

Basically, there are two types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM (NREM) sleep. In NREM sleep our physiological processes slow down and it consists of four different phases:

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Stage 1 REM sleep is when we can experience muscle jerking and drowsiness and usually lasts about five or ten minutes.

Stage 2 NREM sleep is characterized by decreased body temperature and a slowing heart rate as the body prepares for deep sleep.

Stage 3 and 4 sleep are also known as slow wave or delta sleep. This is when our body truly rests, repairing our tissues and building muscle, and strengthening our immune system. People under 30 get about two hours of this type of sleep each night, and we get less and less of this type of sleep as we age.

REM sleep starts about 90 minutes after we fall asleep and is widely considered "active sleep." Brain cells are firing, breathing is rapid, our eyes move around. This is normally when we dream. This type of sleep replenishes our neurotransmitters and helps us convert short-term memories into long-term ones. If you wake up during REM sleep, you can feel super groggy and it can take you a while to adjust.

Every single night we alternate between NREM sleep and REM sleep phases; the full cycle takes about an hour and a half, repeating itself about four to six times each night. Allowing this cycle to flow naturally, without disruption, is the best way to ensure restful sleep.

Our bodies were the original alarm clocks.

As humans, we are designed to have about eight hours of sleep and 16 hours of activity each day. This is determined by our circadian rhythms, which control changes in body temperature, hormones (like melatonin), and other factors that determine how we feel at any given moment. Interestingly, light is one of the most important factors in setting the rhythm of our biological clock.

For example, your body's natural melatonin production depletes as the sun comes up, allowing you to wake up naturally. In fact, a splash of bright sunlight can do wonders in helping you wake up quickly, so consider opening the curtains or blinds the moment you get up.

Alternatively, when the sun goes down we start producing melatonin, which makes us tired and ready for sleep, but any bright light will suppress melatonin production. This is why using electronics after dark can seriously disrupt our sleep habits. The blue light emanating from our iPhones and computers is actually designed to boost attention and reaction time—this sends mixed signals to your body and brain, that will think it's still the middle of the day. We know it's unreasonable to expect you to completely abandon electronics after dark, which is where supplementing with melatonin might work for you.

Get melatonin to work for you.

One of the best ways to regulate your circadian rhythms is to get more in touch with nature. That means going to bed early, rising with the sun, and avoiding harsh light in the evening—especially in the two hours before bed. It's been shown that even just a weekend of natural light can shift melatonin by almost an hour and a half, supporting an earlier bedtime.

No time for a camping trip? Research has shown that melatonin supplementation can be helpful, especially when your biological clock gets a little bit out of whack from jet lag, binge watching a TV show, or an unavoidable all-nighter. Natrol melatonin is a 100% drug-free sleep aid to help in those nights of occasional sleeplessness, helping you to fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer and wake up feeling refreshed. And even though an hour doesn't seem like much, it's been shown that when we shift the clocks for daylight saving time our bodies can have a really hard time adjusting. Melatonin can help you reset your cycle and seamlessly adapt to change.

Our sleep-wake cycle is intricate, but with some little extra attention we can hack our circadian rhythms and get a better night's sleep—naturally.