Aim for More Sleep in THIS Stage
Written by Holden Rethwill

Most of us live hectic lives. With countless priorities pulling us every direction, sleep is something a lot of people tend to sacrifice. Unfortunately, an unhealthy night of sleep can have long-lasting consequences that extend beyond physical tiredness. Sleep is a prime-recovery time for your mind and body. Your body uses this time to heal from your workout, process and store memories, and prepares your body to handle the stresses you intend to throw at it the next day. Today we will be discussing the stages of sleep cycles, and where you should be aiming for most of your sleep to fall!

What are the stages of sleep? 

Stage 1 Sleep

This is called “transition” or light sleep. This is when your eye movement and muscle activity slow down. If you’ve ever felt an arm or a leg suddenly jerk or twitch while you were drifting off, it likely happened during this stage. This stage is the changeover from wakefulness to sleep. During this short period (lasting several minutes) of relatively light sleep, your heartbeat, breathing, and eye movements slow, and your muscles relax with occasional twitches. Your brain waves begin to slow from their daytime wakefulness patterns. 

Stage 2 Sleep

This is when your eyes stop moving and brain waves slow. This stage is a period of light sleep before you enter deeper sleep. Your heartbeat and breathing slow, and muscles relax even further. Your body temperature drops and eye movements stop. Brain wave activity slows but is marked by brief bursts of electrical activity. You spend more of your repeated sleep cycles in stage 2 sleep than in other sleep stages.

Stage 3 Sleep

This is when you’ve entered deep sleep. If you were hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine, it would reveal large, slow, undulating brain waves known as delta waves. Delta sleep is the farthest from being awake your brain can get, and if someone were to try and wake you during delta sleep, they’d usually have a hard time doing so. This stage is the period of deep sleep that you need to feel refreshed in the morning. It occurs in longer periods during the first half of the night. Your heartbeat and breathing slow to their lowest levels during sleep. Your muscles are relaxed and it may be difficult to awaken you. Brain waves become even slower. 

Stage 4 Sleep 

This stage is very similar to Stage 3, except by this point in your sleep cycle, the majority of your brain waves are now delta waves. Stages 3 and 4 are now often combined together and called S3 sleep. 

Stage 5 Sleep

This stage is also known as rapid eye movement or REM sleep. While your eyes can indeed move rapidly during this sleep cycle, the rest of the muscles in your body are mostly paralyzed. This is also the stage at which dreams occur (dreams can occur in any stage of sleep but more likely in stage REM). As you age, you sleep less of your time in REM sleep.

How long does it take to complete a sleep cycle?

The total time required to pass through all five of the sleep stages is about 90 minutes.

Which stage of sleep is most important?

Well, all of them are because they make up a sleep cycle…but, the one you should put the most focus on is the deep sleep stage (stage 3) which also tends to be the one that most people struggle to spend enough time in. It is during this stage that your brain has its more opportune time to clear away that wasteland and keep it from becoming the city dump. Deep sleep is also shown to have highly positive effects on tissue and bone growth/repair as well as strengthening the immune system!

How can you track your sleep?

Now that you know a little bit about the sleep stages, a good way to track them is through a variety of different tools. WHOOP can be a good sleep tracker and is a product that many of the Invictus Athletes use and love.

How to Get a Better Night Sleep

We’ve all heard it before…In order to perform at an optimal level, we require 7-9 hours of sleep per 24 hour period. The science behind it – heart rate variability, brain function, cell regeneration, inflammation maintenance, memory enhancement, etc. – is just about bulletproof (I know there is that rare genetic breed that only require 4-6 hours per night, but odds are you aren’t one of them, so don’t try it).

Now, how many of us actually are getting this? Even more importantly, how much of it is actually quality? Anyone can lay down and let their brain run crazy for a few hours, in and out of sleep, lucid dreaming, and say they slept 8 hours. But how many of us are going through the REM cycles and deep sleep needed in order to optimize our body’s functionality?

Tips for Better Sleep

Here are a few tips (some more obvious than others) that can help you get to sleep faster, sleep more, and to improve your quality of sleep.

Go to Bed Sooner for Better Sleep

Ok this one is obvious, right? The sooner you get to sleep, the more sleep you’re bound to get throughout the night (duh). But on a serious note, it is something that needs to be addressed.

How many of you find yourself mindlessly wandering through social media or fixed to a TV screen at night, or even reading into the late hours? Television and social media, especially, are notorious for increasing dopamine levels within the brain, which in turn keeps you feeling up and awake!

All of these things are contributing to keeping your mind up and running when instead you should be in the process of decreasing dopamine, increasing melatonin, and shutting your brain down. I’m going to bet the odds here and say that this pertains to the majority of us, which brings me to the slightly less obvious second tip.

Get More Sunlight and Less Artificial Light

If you think about it, cavemen didn’t have watches or alarm clocks. Their circadian rhythm was controlled by the sun rising and setting. In layman’s terms…light = awake, dark = asleep. It is our primal and biological desire to do the same, but it is something almost all of us fall short of in today’s age. Too many artificial inhibitors have changed this rhythm in our brain, but there’s a few ways to help bring it back to equilibrium.

We live in a time where lives are influenced daily by screens. Whether it’s phones, iPads, computers, TV’s, or whatever, people these days are getting more exposure to screen time than ever before, and less exposure to direct sunlight. I understand that we live in a digital age. It’s imperative for many of our livelihoods to be connected to the world, but that doesn’t mean we can’t limit the amount of unnecessary time our eyes are exposed to artificial blue light and find a way to increase our exposure to sunlight.

Did you know that sunlight triggers your body to produce vitamin D? Vitamin D allows the brain to release melatonin, so we can fall asleep easier – like when you’ve been out in the sun all day and are tired as soon as night falls.

How to Get More Sunlight

Try waking up and going on a quick walk, stretching, or just standing in the sunlight first thing in the morning. I understand that’s not possible given certain geographical locations, but work with me here. Studies show that early daily exposure to sunlight has a direct correlation with the amount of melatonin your body creates at night – the hormone made by the pineal gland that helps regulate sleep-wake cycles. If for nothing else, feel how refreshing it is to feel the sunlight on your face first thing in the morning to tell your body it’s time to be awake. If you don’t live in a sunny place like San Diego, I recommend you move here. Kidding, sort of. In all seriousness, even if you’re in a cloudy and rainy place like where I used to live, try to get your eyes exposed to as much natural light as possible, whether it’s direct sunlight or not. That’s the important takeaway here.

The flip side to that is limiting our amount of exposure to artificial light. While sunlight helps to regulate your hormones, artificial light does the opposite. It can contribute to cataracts, macular degeneration, circadian disruption and poor sleep patterns, mitochondrial dysfunction, and the list goes on. It can even make you fat (because of all the other side effects it causes).

How do you limit exposure to artificial blue light? 

The first obvious answer is to put the screen away, but that would be hypocritical as I’m sitting here typing this on a computer screen. Another answer and increasingly popular method I’ve seen others begin to implement, and that I’ve hopped on as well, is to wear blue light blocking glasses.

What kind of light blocking glasses are best?

There are a wide array of companies and models of blue light blocking glasses, some more expensive than others. If you’re on a bit of a budget, try first looking for a brand that can block out 90% or more of blue light, with an even more specific quality being that they block wavelengths in the spectrum of 400-485nm. Typically lens color varies from yellow to orange to red, with darker lenses being better for night usage, and lighter colors being better for daytime. Some even come in prescription for those who need it.

If you’re someone who requires a lot of screen time for work, I highly recommend implementing this game changer. It’ll save your eyes, and reduce the mental fog, blurred vision, and headaches that are often associated with too much exposure to blue light.

Now that we’ve addressed our body’s primal desire for natural, and how artificial light can inhibit the benefits, let’s talk about how to fall asleep faster – without the use of sleeping pills!

How to Improve Your Sleep Environment

Make Your Bedroom as Dark as Possible

We’ve discussed harmful blue light, so I won’t go there again, but in all honesty how much light is in your sleep environment? Flashing laptop lights that all of our macbooks have, alarm clocks, smoke detectors, your fan or AC unit, the list could be endless. Our ancestors slept in the pitch black, which is what we’re meant to do as well. How do you do it? Try purchasing black out curtains, and taping over or covering the lights that do show up when you turn the big lights out. If that doesn’t work, consider purchasing a wrap around sleep mask that allows you to comfortably shut out all light.

White Noise in Your Bedroom

Increase the amount of white noise. If you’re like me, pure silence is a no go when trying to sleep. It just invites a never ending parade of thoughts. The best way to mitigate this is to turn on a fan, purchase a small AC unit, or even download a white noise app on your phone. Implementing some sort of white noise in the background can do wonders for shutting your brain off, this does not mean the television!

Keep Your Bedroom Cold

Sleep cold. Studies show that somewhere between 60-67 degrees (F) is the optimal environment for higher quality sleep. The best way to do it is to have controllable central air that puts you in charge of the environment. I understand this option isn’t feasible for many of us. A second, cheaper, option would be to purchase a fan that allows airflow to cool the room down. A third option many people never think of is to purchase a device called a “chilipad”. This allows you to regulate the exact temperature you’re exposed to underneath the blankets. Although expensive, it’s a game changer and something many people overlook.

Limit Food and Water Before Bed

Regulate water and food intake before bed, and always pee before you go to sleep. It seems silly, but having that tiny little bit of liquid stored up in your bladder can subconsciously disrupt your sleep pattern and limit your ability to fall into the deep sleep stage of sleep cycles. By limiting the amount of food and water you eat up to an hour or two before bedtime you can help to mitigate this, and reduce the potentially frequent night time potty breaks you (or your significant other) take.

By finding simple solutions to “hack” your sleep environment, you should find yourself being able to fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer (no more midnight tinkle breaks), and wake up feeling like you’ve slept better.

Sleep Quality Pro Tip

Taking a cold shower or ice bath 2 hours before bedtime is shown to drastically improve sleep quality. As is doing hot/cold contrasts showers. 

If you’ve got any tips or tricks that I haven’t discussed here, throw them in the comments section. We’d love to hear what works for you!

Also Check Out…

Why You Should Care About Sleep (Especially) Now

The Impact of Sleep on Body Composition

Is Your Sleeping Position Contributing to Your Pain?

 

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