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How to Fall in Love with Sleep...

Sleep science started its journey in 1875 with the discovery of electrical activity in the brains of animals. In 1929, with the development of an electroencephalogram (EEG) human studies were able to recognise patterns within a sleep cycle. A few decades later, the term NREM - Non Rapid Eye Movement, along with REM - Rapid Eye Movement, was established.

It's only in the last 20 years however that sleep science has made us far more aware of the importance of our sleep cycles and the length/quality of our sleep for health.

When you look at life style practices, sleep fairs pretty poorly in our list of priorities. Socially, culturely and economically we primarily exists to ensure we are always on the run from better sleep. From alarm clocks, light pollution, poor eating/drinking habits, to overall levels of stress - Our sleep quality is suffering.

Many direct health conditions are associated with poor sleep - sleep apnea, narcolepsy, insommnia etc - but what's becoming even more apparent is that people who sleep less, are also likely to suffer from a number of life threatening conditions from diabetes to renal disease. I always rememember how Margaret Thatcher was reported to only sleep 4 hours a night. I'm not saying that was reflected in her judgement! But it certainly did reflect on the last 12 years of her life where she suffered from Dementia. Studies have shown that getting less than 6 hours sleep a night can increase the risk of getting Dementia. It's also been associated with a build up of a protein in the brain called beta-amyloid thats associated with impaired brain function and Alzheimer's disease. (1)

I became conscious of all of this as I am what you might call 'A Light Sleeper'. What I am also very aware of, working with so many women through childbirth, is that sleep is not something you can, in many stages of your life, simply get more of.

Research shows that women on average get less sleep than men, Despite getting more hours in bed, our sleep quality is often poorer. Hormonal changes definitely play their part - There's an even higher percetage of women suffering from sleep disorders through the peri menopause and menopause period.

The term sleep hygeine has become particularly familiar of late, and no doubt, on reading this on your phone, the algorythms will have already kicked in and you will soon be bombared by a host of sleep strategy products and services!

But can they really fix our sleep?

On my own experimental journey with sleep I have pretty much tried them all with varying success.

The fact of it is, our sleep is dictated by things that are far more powerful than a set of rules, rituals, potions and lotions...

"Current sleep hygiene practices fail to consider critical factors that can affect sleep, such as emotional stress (worries, stress, anxiety, anger, and fear); daytime exposure to light (that regulates the sleep-wake cycle); and human’s deep-seated habits where motivating change takes time and may necessitate behavioral therapy." (2)

One of the great factors about new research however is that we now recognise sleep, like we recognise exercise, as a medicine that, when we get enough of it, becomes both preventative and healing. Learning some of the science behind this undoutedly leads to not only better understanding but also to better connection - all of which is a powerful motivational tool.

I am always talking to my pregnant and postnatal clients about the importance of sleep and to get it whenever, however. Even when you can't get much of it, you have to start forming a relationship with sleep that means, when you are able to get more, you can. This is behavioural change that can take years to establish. Whilst we want to have good sleep where we are right now, we want to have good sleep even more when we are older - Good sleep is a long game. The classic one I hear from so many women is that, as soon as the kids are in bed, they start their evening, feeling that genuine and important need to wind down. Often though this ends up being less of a wind down and more of a 'tick off the to do list' - either way it leads to later bed times and less sleep. I totally get this and I spend a lot of time, with my clients, working out how to manage time so that they can lay down sleep priorities for the future.

A recent study has hit the headlines talking about the benefits of napping which has been associated with bigger brain volume (3). Whilst this area needs more study, it shows there is some flexibility around sleep and how important it is to find out what works for you. One factor that many studies highlight is the importance of quality over quantity.

So how do we know if we are getting qualitative sleep?

Understanding your Sleep Cycle is key....

Sleep cycles can last for anything around 90 - 120 mins and, for a good nights sleep, we need to be getting at least 4 cycles.

Classifications for sleep change - we are still learning so much about what happens as we sleep. This however is the latest interpretation of current research..... (5)

The Precursor stage to the above diagram is the falling asleep stage or Stage W. Here our eyes can be open or closed and it's at this point that there is change in brain wave activity, inducing sleep. This shift is important for anyone who struggles to fall asleep and it's important to know that this is regulated by our circadian rhythm. Our circadian rhythm responds to light and dark and affects most living things, incuding animals, plants and microbes. Artificial light, particularly 'blue light' is known to disrupt our circadian rhythmn which is controlled by a group of nerve cells in the hypothalamus called the suprachiaasmatic nucleus (SCN). It's from here that we produce melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy. Less light, signals the SCN to produce melatonin, making you drowsy.

N1 or Light Sleep (represents 5% of your sleep cycle*) is the shortest sleep stage, lasting 1 - 5 minutes. It's also the lightest stage of our sleep and where our brain begins to switch with more than 50% of your brain wave activity, moving from wake to sleep - Ever fallen asleep and then something abruptly wakes you? Chances are you will only have been in light sleep for a few seconds as it's within this stage that this is likely to occur.

N2, (45% of your sleep cycle*) which previously has been subdivided and recorded as moderate sleep, is now classified as deeper sleep, recognising how, through this stage our heart rates drops and it's characterised by the presence of 'sleep spindles' which numerous studies have suggested play an important role in memory. This stage lasts for 25 minutes in the first cycle but lengthens with each successive cycle. It's at this stage that conditions like teeth grinding can occur. This is also the stage at which snoring and sleep apnea is most prevalent. Sleep disruption at this point can not only prevent you from getting the most out of this stage but also stops you going into N3....

N3 (25% of your sleep cycle*) is our Deepest sleep stage or often known as NREM or non rapid eye movement stage. Ahh how I love this stage! For this is the most important for our exercise. There's another shift in brain wave activity here and it's this stage that's most difficult to wake from, in fact some people can sleep through noises greater that 100 decibels here! As we age we tend to spend less time in N3 and more in N2. If we are woken up in N3 we tend to have brain fogginess and mentally impaired performance for the next 30 minutes to an hour. This is why an alarm clock going off when we are in this stage can be detremental and also means we haven't got to the final sleep stage - REM. If this is happening to you, you want to really consider working more with your own circadian rhythm so you can wake up more naturally. Getting to this stage of sleep is so important because it's the stage at which we repair and regrow tissues, bones, muscles and strengthen our immune system. This is the stage that is so important for our entire body's health. Progressive exercise that promotes active muscle, bone and immune health can only truly exist along side NREM sleep.

The final stage of sleep is REM (25% of your sleep cycle*) or rapid eye movement sleep. Here our brain wave activity returns to that similar to when we are awake. Our muscles and most automic movement is still nonactive other than our diaphragm - our breathing muscle, and our eyes, which remain active. This is also our dreaming stage with our brains being most active than at any other point in the sleep cycle. It also gets longer with each successive cycle. REM sleep is perhaps the most fascinating and questioned element of our sleep in terms of its function and role. To date it's been identified that REM sleep is involved in the regulation of neural ciruits behind memory function, has a role in various physiological and psychological functions as well as developmental functions - babies spend most of their time in REM sleep and don't establish a true circadian rhythm until they are beyond toddler years, Children up to 9 years of age spend longer in deep sleep and REM sleep. Night terrors often occuring at this time.

Each sleep stage has a reason and a function and even if we still lack a full understanding, I hope my little delve into its wonderfulness has sparked your interest.

I still struggle with my sleep. But one of the biggest things I've learnt is that if I worry about that - it stops me sleeping - so let's not do that! With the knowledge I have gained however I have slowly been able to address various aspects of my sleep - from teeth grinding to snoring, anxiety attacks, and most recently going on a course with Dr Louise Oliver which helps you to breathe through your nose and with less disturbance through the night. Most of all I have learnt as much as I can about the power of sleep. How to prioritise it, not to worry about it when you can't get enough and how to absolutely fall in love with this most gorgeous, life giving thing we do every 24 hours!

If you awake feeling unrefreshed, have trouble staying awake during the day or struggle with exercise, weight gain, depression and many other health aspects, it's really worth looking at how you sleep. Menopause symptoms are undoubtedly worse when you don't sleep well. Something as simple as working on your breathing and doing breath work before you go to sleep is just one of the steps I encourage you to adopt via my courses.

Movement should never be seen as something that can counteract unhealthy life practices, whether that's poor sleep, poor eating/drinking habits or high levels of stress. It's important to take these aspects one at a time and consider how you can make them work together, rather than in opposites, And when you do, Well then that's when the magic starts to happen!

If you'd like me to help guide you, I am currently offering free phone call consultations. These are valuable sessions on their own but where we can also discuss the various programmes I offer to see what can suit you. Send us a message here and we will get back to you to arrange a time to chat.

Here's to you and me sleeping very well tonight!

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