SLEEP AND ITS CYCLES
When we sleep we go through a 4-stage cycle.
1. We are relaxed and ‘sleepy’. Muscle jerks may be experienced.
2. Sleep is deeper although you may feel awake. Eye movement stops, and our brain waves become slower, with occasional bursts of rapid waves called sleep spindles. We spend around 50% of our sleep in this stage.
3. Sleep is deep with very little physiological (body) activity. Slow brain waves called delta waves begin to appear between the faster waves.
4. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is the dream state in which we spend around 20% of our total sleep time.
The first REM sleep period usually occurs about 70 to 90 minutes after we fall asleep, with a complete sleep cycle lasting 90 to 110 minutes on average. The first sleep cycles each night contain relatively short REM periods and long periods of deep sleep but, as the night progresses, REM sleep periods increase in length while deep sleep decreases. By morning, people spend nearly all their sleep time in stages one, two and REM.
It is very difficult to wake someone during stages three and four, which together are called deep sleep.
Snoring is more common amongst men, overweight people and the elderly and is caused when the flow of air through the nasal passageway and/or mouth is obstructed. Obstructions in the nasal airways can be caused by allergies, polyps, infected sinuses or deformities in the nose. Snoring can also be caused by poor muscle tone in the throat and tongue; bulky throat tissue (caused by being overweight); a soft palate; and a long uvula (that small, fleshy mass of tissue hanging down from the middle of the soft palate). Sleep apnoea is a health risk associated with snoring.2
This is a condition in which the sleeper stops breathing for a period, then wakes with a snort, gasping for air. This may happen hundreds of times in the night, leaving the sufferer sleepy during the day. It also puts a strain on the heart. It usually affects overweight individuals, and is made worse by too much alcohol.
People with narcolepsy fall asleep uncontrollably and repeatedly during the day. They may not be aware of it, and it may be mistaken for petit mal epilepsy with ‘absences’.
Insomnia and its causes
Insomnia is the inability to fall asleep or to stay asleep as long as is necessary. Noise, worry and physical discomfort are obvious causes, but some people may not be aware of the use of stimulants before bed. Coffee, tea, chocolate, energy/sports drinks, soft drinks as well as over-the-counter medications such as pain relievers, appetite suppressants and cold medicines all contain caffeine. Caffeine and MSG both enhance alertness, activate stress hormones, and elevate heart rate and blood pressure, reducing the chances of falling asleep easily. Alcohol is probably the substance used most often for sleep, but even small to medium intakes of alcohol can suppress melatonin (the hormone that helps regulate sleep), interfere with restorative sleep cycles, and prevent dreaming.
- Avoid sugary snacks before bed, as these will raise your blood sugar. Later, when blood sugar drops too low (hypoglycemia), you may wake up and be unable to fall back asleep. Try to eat your last meal two hours before retiring, but if this is not possible limit your food intake to fruit, lightly cooked vegetables and milk.
- Avoid heavy meals with spices as this may cause indigestion.
Exercise plays an important role in getting some healthy shut eye, as does time spent in the fresh air. If you cannot exercise regularly, try some yoga moves or Pilates to loosen up before retiring.
NATURAL SUPPLEMENTS TO AID SLEEP
Several natural supplements have been shown to induce sleep and improve its quality.
- Melatonin, a hormone released by the brain as darkness draws in, makes us sleepy. A 3mg dose can be very helpful, especially if your circadian rhythms are disrupted.
- 5-HTP is a serotonin precursor, i.e. it is a building block for serotonin. Doses of 100 to 200 mg, or 2mg/kg body weight for children, can be a useful sleep aid. Tryptophan 1 to 4 mg has a similar effect. Both should be taken with a small amount of carbohydrate in order to help the brain absorb them. Please talk to your doctor first about these if you are taking any form of antidepressant medicines.
- Calcium and magnesium supplements taken in the evening can help relax muscles, and have been shown in some studies to help restless leg syndrome.
- Valerian root in a 600 mg dose is a natural relaxant. It has been shown to be equal to valium in efficacy without the addiction side effects.
- Passion flower is a known sedative in doses of 100 to 200mg.
- St John’s Wort is a natural serotonin regulator and antidepressant, which will help sleep in the long term, but is better taken in the morning.
- Hops in a 200 mg dose are also useful.
- Chamomile tea is a natural relaxant, and lavender aromatherapy oil, in your bath or sprinkled on the pillow, will help you relax.
- Research3 has shown that vitamin E prevents memory impairment caused by sleep deprivation.
- Homeopathic remedies can be useful as a sleep aid. You can use a single remedy, but consult a homeopath first.
CREATE A SLEEP HAVEN
Practice ‘sleep hygiene’ to help yourself sleep better:
- Make your bedroom a peaceful sleep sanctuary: remove the TV, computer, and any unnecessary sources of light, such as the clock radio and any night lights, as our bodies are naturally programmed to sleep when it is dark and waken when it is light.
- The nature of our bedding can play a role in both our comfort and health. Cotton is the most comfortable as it absorbs sweat and helps prevent over-heating, which can lead to restless sleep. Brushed cotton is a popular option in winter. Down pillows and duvets are other natural options that regulate body temperature although they may lead to allergies in some where cotton fillings are then ideal. Try and avoid putting babies and toddlers to sleep on plastic mattresses or sheets as this can lead to excessive sweating and discomfort.
- Try to go to bed at the same time every night, and get up at the same time – about eight hours later.
- Stop working at least two hours before bedtime, so that your brain can wind down.
- Prepare yourself for sleep by doing something relaxing, such as reading a light book or meditating. Do this every night to signal to your body that it’s time to unwind.
- Write racing thoughts down before bedtime.
- Take a hot bath, shower or sauna before bed – the temperature drop from getting out of the bath tells your body it is time to sleep.
- Keep your bedroom cool but not cold. This allows your core body temperature to drop, which helps to induce sleep.
- Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine state that cooling the head is a surprising sleep aid. Wrap an ice pack in a towel and place it on the back of your neck. This will help cool the spinal fluid, which circulates around the brain.
- Sleep in separate bedrooms if your partner is disturbing your sleep.
A combination of the above suggested sleep aids should have a soothing effect on the nervous system, bringing relief to those who suffer from sleep disorders such as anxious dreams, night terrors, sleeplessness, insomnia and an overactive mind at bedtime or during the night. Combination homeopathic remedies can be bought over the counter, and are gentle enough for infants while strong enough for the hyper-stressed.
- Kripke DF, et al. Mortality associated with sleep duration and insomnia. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2002; 59(2): 131-6.
- KH Alzoubi et al. The neuroprotective effect of vitamin E on chronic sleep deprivation-induced memory impairment: the role of oxidative stress. Behavioural Brain Research. 2012; 226(1): 205-10