On one of my recent podcasts, I interviewed the noted sleep and dream researcher Dr. Rubin Naiman. He stopped me in my tracks when he posited that we humans are awake-centric. By that he meant that we hold our daytime consciousness as being more important than sleep. My inner reaction was, “Of course we do. We live our lives in the waking world. It’s where we work, play, interact with people, take care of our bodily functions. Why was he diminishing what we all would consider life itself?”

    As he continued to talk, his deeper meaning became clear. It wasn’t so much the emphasis we put on our waking hours that distressed him; it was the neglect we put on all those hours we spend sleeping. Most people think of those hours as nothing time, when our bodies are simply getting much needed rest for the coming day. While the part about rest is true, so much more goes on during sleep.

    Think of it this way. Someone looking at the ocean might see nothing but water and assume that’s all there is. Maybe, upon reflection, they’ll think of the fish that swim in it. But they won’t stop to consider that there’s an entire ecosystem hidden underneath the waves. The coral and rocks that serve as havens for microscopic bits that are successively eaten by larger beings up the food chain. The families of species that migrate across the oceans on a clockwork basis year after year on the same schedule they have for eons. The mountain ranges, some larger than those visible on the continents, that rise up from the ocean’s depths. Someone without the curiosity to explore or to question would never realize that any of that was going on in this watery world.

    The same could be said about those hours we spend under the covers. We tend to group it all into one word—sleep—but that process consists of five steps, each with its own purpose. The first stage, hypnogogia, lasts for a few minutes and it’s that groggy state where wakefulness ends, and sleep begins.  Stage two sleep, the longest stage in the sleep cycle, takes up about half of our sleep. This is where the body functions continue to slow down with both the muscles and the brain waves relaxing. Stages three and four are considered deep sleep and can last anywhere from forty to ninety minutes during the first cycle and for shorter periods of time during the subsequent cycles of sleep. In this stage, the body functions are at their lowest. Breathing is shallow and heartbeats are lower than at any time during the day. The last stage, five, is more commonly known as the REM cycle, which begins about ninety minutes after the beginning of sleep. As both heartbeat and breathing rise to near wakeful rates, limbs tend to enter a state called sleep paralysis. REM stands for rapid eye movement, as for the first time in the sleep cycle the visual cortex becomes engaged and eyes will move from side to side. This is the state most associated with dreams, although some dreams can happen during other parts of sleep as well. The REM stage is shorter during the early parts of sleep, with the longest amount taking place in the final hours of sleep. The sleep cycle continues throughout the night until the hypnopompic state, the state of consciousness leading out of sleep.

     Sleep problems arise when this natural cycle is interrupted. The causes can be many, but the effects of lack of or not enough sleep are acute, including health problems like diabetes, weight gain, high blood pressure or the increased chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease. When a person with a sleeping disorder does fall asleep, often that sleep is limited to the deep sleep stage, as this is the stage most vital to survival, the time that enables the body to regenerate cells and muscle mass.  They most likely are not experiencing REM sleep. Aside from this being the prime time for dreaming, REM sleep also helps the body improve its memory function, its ability to process emotions and regulate moods. The dreams associated with the REM cycle also produce their own benefits that cannot be ignored, with the results varying from person to person.

    It’s clear from this that all sleep is vital to our well-being. So, what can we do to improve our sleep and make sure our bodies go through all these stages every night? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Go to bed the same time every night – regularity reinforces the sleep habit
  • Don’t have electronics in your bedroom – the light emitted from tablets, phones and TV sets interferes with brain waves and may make it more difficult to go to and stay asleep
  • Sleep in a dark room – any kind of light can hinder deep sleep
  • Embrace aromatherapy – scents like lavender, rose, chamomile, bergamot and jasmine calm the senses and promote relaxation
  • Eat early – heavy food before bedtime might may you tired but will keep you from sleeping through the night
  • Shun the intoxicants – sorry folks, alcohol and cannabis are prime culprits for disturbing the sleep cycle

    As you can see, sleep is not a vast wasteland where nothing happens. Like the ocean, it needs to be tended to reap the greatest rewards. But when you do, the benefits of improved physical and mental health are there for the taking.