Sleep – a powerful experience

Humans spend approximately a third of their lives asleep. For the average person, that’s over 25 years of their life.

It may be surprising to learn that your brain is more active when you are asleep than when you are awake. This is because the brain uses sleep to consolidate information learnt during the day, make decisions, practice tasks, clear out toxins and replenish brain cells. Thus, adequate good quality sleep is vital for healthy functioning.

During the night, you have between 4 – 6 sleep cycles each around 90 minutes long. Each cycle comprises five different stages of sleep with different characteristics. Non-REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep occurs early in the sleep cycle with sleep deepening as you move into REM sleep. More information on the stages of sleep can be found on the following link – When you are in REM or deep sleep, your body produces a combination of chemicals which paralyse your body so that you don’t act out your dreams. It is thought that these chemicals may be less effective in people who sleep walk.

Dreaming is an important way your brain makes sense of the world. Even if you don’t remember dreaming, you will dream for approximately 1-2 hrs per night. Most people have between 4 – 7 dreams each night. If you remember dreaming, you will generally only recall a very small amount – around 10% of your dream. Dreams can assist with problem solving which is why when you ‘sleep on an issue’ you might wake up with a solution.

The amount of sleep needed varies between each person and, in general, ranges from 7 – 10 hours per night. Contrary to popular opinion, occasional episodes of reduced sleep does not significantly impair functioning. However, if you don’t sleep well or don’t get enough sleep for long periods of time your psychological and physical health can be badly affected.

There are a number of things you can do to improve your chances of having a good night’s sleep. These include:
– Having a regular sleep routine – go to bed and get up around the same time each day
– Doing some quiet activities before you go to sleep e.g., deep breathing, reading, crosswords,  to allow your brain to relax
– Turning off all technology and screens at least half an hour before preparing to go to bed. Computer and device screens can interrupt the production of melatonin which is necessary to get to sleep
– Avoiding heavy exercise and stimulants such as nicotine, alcohol and coffee late in the afternoon or evening as these can keep you awake. Regular vigorous exercise in the mornings to mid-afternoon can assist you to sleep well
– Getting some fresh air and sunlight each day helps your body maintain the correct balance of hormones for good sleep
– Eating healthy food and avoiding heavy meals close to bedtime will help your digestion to function well rather than causing discomfort overnight.

Some people, however, will still experience difficulty going to sleep or will sleep poorly. If so, your psychologist can help you develop skills and strategies to assist you to sleep well.

Dr Shari Walsh
Principal Psychologist, Growth Psychology

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