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Revealed: The science of sleep

Not all of us understand the scientific reasons behind why our mental wellness and overall fitness suffer when we don’t make sleep a priority, argues one expert.

Brain and sleep monitoring expert Dr David Burton said that when we sleep, our brain moves through a continuous cycle made up of five stages, “each of which plays a role in our body and mind’s ability to recover and recharge”.

“These five stages include non-REM (NREM), which is a four-phase process that we go through before entering the fifth sleep stage, rapid eye movement (REM). An adult with good sleep health has around five REM cycles each night.”

When we don’t have good sleep health, he said, “our brain is unable to perform at an optimal level”.

Due to a lack of NREM and REM, our physical, mental and emotional health is compromised as our brain, muscles, nerves, neurons and complex internal systems are slow to respond and unable to function or perform well, he explained.

“When we are sleep deprived, the neural connections used to form and consolidate memories throughout the sleep cycle, particularly during REM, are not able to fully develop and strengthen.”

Difficulties in learning, memory, perception, maintaining focus and motivation, and coping with stressors, are all consequences of poor sleep health, Dr Burton added.

On the question of how do we know if we are getting good quality sleep, Dr Burton said: “Sleep, nutrition and exercise are known as the three pillars of health, and in order to maintain optimum mental and physical wellness, we need all three pillars to be fortified.

“When we have noticeable deterioration in our memory, energy, motivation or mood, we may use the three pillars of health as an initial guide to determine why we are experiencing these physical, mental and emotional changes. Have we been eating well or poorly? Have we moved too little or too much? Have we had poor quality or good quality sleep?

“But it can be difficult to know what kind of quality sleep we are having or if we have gone through enough REM sleep cycles in order to function at our best, especially if we think we are getting a reasonable number of hours of sleep.”

Some people may look to smart technology, such as smart phone apps and smart watches, Dr Burton continued, “which have been developed to loosely analyse activity and movement data collected while the user sleeps”.

He warned, however, that while smart technology can monitor general cardiovascular and respiratory movements by capturing the users’ basic pulse and breathing data, “true-sleep monitoring requires the accurate monitoring of the brain, muscle tone and eye movements”.

There are some basic things one can do to help keep a sleep pillar standing strong, Dr Burton advised:

• Develop a bedtime routine that includes 30 minutes of screen-free time before bed.
• Minimise night-time disruptions such as light and noise. Darken the room, turn off your phone and keep the bedroom environment conducive for sleeping with a comfortable temperature and minimal sound disturbance.
• Avoid drinking alcohol before sleep as it can affect the time it takes to enter that important REM stage of sleep.
• Ideally, adults should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep.
• If you are unsure and think you may have a medical condition or serious sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea, speak to your doctor in order to get a correct diagnosis, treatment and support.