People spend one third of their lives sleeping yet never spend much time considering what happens while you sleep. Although the idea of sleeping is such a common and simple concept, sleep is one of the most complex and mysterious processes that exist. Sleep is essential for proper body and brain function and if we don’t get enough sleep, we feel tired and unable to function normally.
Our bodies “power down” most systems while we sleep, however crucial activities are still taking place. The energy conservation we get from sleep allows cells to replenish energy stockpiles. Sleep also provides time for the body to heal from illnesses or injuries. Finally, while sleeping, the brain reorganizes information which makes it easier and more efficient for us to remember when we wake.
The amount of sleep people need can range widely depending on age and physical health. Newborns need between 14-17 hours of sleep, teenagers generally need 8-10 hours and adults over 18 years of age typically need 7-9 hours. Sleep requirements are highly individual and vary from person to person. People who are sick or recovering from an injury need more sleep. You can ask your physician for guidance on how much sleep is right for you, but if you’re not getting enough sleep, you’ll know it.
The stages of sleep include REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement). When we fall asleep, we go right into Stage 1 NREM. This is the lightest stage of sleep. The next phase is Stage 2 NREM, which is a deeper sleep where brain waves slow down and the body can start organizing memories and information. The next phase is Stage 3 NREM, which is the deepest stage of sleep. Babies and children need a lot of stage 3 sleep; people need less as they age. Stage 3 sleep is when the body repairs injuries and reinforces the immune system. It’s what we need to wake feeling rested. After Stage 3, the body enters REM sleep, when we start dreaming. The REM phase concludes one full cycle of sleep and the body will return to stage 1 or 2 next and start the sleep cycle all over again. Cycles of sleep can last from 90-120 minutes and people will go through 4-5 cycles per night.
There are many ways to ensure good quality sleep. The most important thing is to maintain a sleep schedule and go to bed at the same time every night. It helps to have a bedtime routine and avoid bright lights and electronics. Avoid eating or drinking alcohol too close to bedtime and get enough physical activity during the day. It also helps to maintain a healthy weight and not rely on sleep aids.
Common sleep disorders include those that fall into the following categories:
- Central disorder of hypersomnolence (feeling sleepy, even when you’ve had enough sleep), such as narcolepsy
- Insomnia (difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or getting good quality sleep)
- Parasomnias (abnormal sleep behavior), such as sleep walking or talking
- Sleep-disordered breathing, like sleep apnea
- Sleep related movement disorders, like restless leg syndrome
There are treatments and/or medications available for all these disorders. Contact your medical provider for guidance if you think you suffer from one of them.
Some commonly prescribed sedatives used to treat insomnia can cause a person to feel drowsy, experience cognitive impairments or become dependent on the drug. Acupuncture is a great treatment for insomnia because it doesn’t have the side effects of sleep medications. In fact, a review of 46 trials, including 3,811 patients with insomnia, showed that acupuncture significantly improved sleep quality and duration when compared to no treatment, medications or sham acupuncture.
How does acupuncture work to improve sleep? There are several theories regarding the mechanisms of action at play. Acupuncture dilates the blood vessels and increases blood flow, and also takes the body out of a sympathetic (fight-or-flight) state to create a state of calm. Other studies have shown that acupuncture helps release serotonin, a key chemical produced by the body that helps regulate sleep.
Lack of sleep can affect us in countless ways including slowed reflexes, difficulty concentrating, depression, anxiety, headaches, decreased immune system function and fatigue. If you are experiencing trouble sleeping, you are not alone. There is a whole industry dedicated to improving sleep and scientists continue to research and discover new aspects of sleep. Talk to your healthcare provider if you feel like you are tossing and turning instead of sleeping like a log.
The amount of sleep required by the average person is five minutes more. — Wilson Mizener