We’re not going to tell you that you need eight hours sleep a night. Not only because you’ve heard that phrase too many times to count, but also because it’s not necessarily true.
Hear us out. Eight hours kip isn’t going to cleanse you of your sleep sins. Turns out, it’s quality over quantity that matters when it comes to how much sleep you bank.
This is all thanks to the sleep cycles that happen when we finally doze off. Here’s the math. Each sleep cycle is made up of five phases, and in total should last around 90 minutes. Each phase must be completed – usually 4-6 times a night – to achieve “good quality sleep”. This is where we get the eight hour figure from, as this is the average number of hours it should take to successfully complete each of the five phases, 4-6 times.
So, what happens in these phases? The first four tend to consist of you drifting off as your pulse, blood pressure, body temperature and brain activity slows down. Within these stages you fluctuate from light sleep into deep sleep – this is where essential repairs are made. The final stage, stage five, is where we experience REM (rapid eye movement) sleep – a.k.a our dreaming phase.
Some trivia for you: the reason dreams feel so real is because, during REM sleep, your brain activity is almost the same as when you’re awake – it’s just that your body from the neck down is physically paralysed. This is so you don’t act out the physical elements of the dream. Once the final phase is complete, the sleep cycle repeats itself.
But, going back to what we said before, just because you’re getting the recommended amount of sleep doesn’t mean you are completing each phase of the cycle. This is why sometimes, even after a full eight hours, you’ll wake up feeling exhausted.
There’s a pretty simple way to figure out whether you’re actually completing all the phases – and especially phase five. You just need to try and recall if you’ve had any dreams. If you can’t remember having had any dreams, then you probably haven’t completed a full sleep cycle – and are missing out on delicious, deep REM sleep.
If you’re sleep deprived, your brain will push you into REM sleep faster and for longer to make up the deficit. Typically, a 20% increase in REM sleep is seen in those who are not getting enough REM sleep. This is called REM rebound. Although it sounds like a comeback album, it’s actually a term to describe those who are sleep deprived who have “vivid and crazy dreams”.
Regardless of how long we sleep, it’s ultimately the completion of the five phases of the sleep cycle, 4-6 times a night, that dictates the quality of our sleep. So the main takeaway here is to ensure we’re doing everything we can to hit all these phases.
This can be done through simple lifestyle changes. Try waking up at the same time every day (including weekends – yeah, we know) and avoiding hitting the snooze button. This will help you achieve a regular sleeping pattern, in turn helping your body adjust to completing each of the five phases in the allotted eight hours.
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