Understanding Sleep Cycles: How To Make The Most Of Your Day

We’ve all been told that a good night’s sleep is essential for a productive day. Yet, have you ever woken up after a full 8-hours sleep feeling as you may as well not have slept at all? Does this happen a few times?

It’s nothing new. It happens to most of us, and I think it’s time that we question how valuable our 8-hours-a-night rule really is.

So first; let’s break down what sleep-cycles actually are.

Electroencephalogram research has highlighted widely unknown ‘stages’ within sleep, which form part of a 90-minute cycle. This consists of both REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and NREM (Non-Rapid Eye Movement) of which there are 3 stages.

Each stage fulfills a unique physiological or neurological function that is crucial for health. Should these be missed, or disturbed, they will fail to be fully executed.

So should an individual be woken by their alarm in slow-wave sleep (stage 3 NREM), they frequently feel tired, groggy and unable to perform at optimum capacity throughout the day- regardless of an apparently sufficient period of sleep. This is known as sleep inertia.

To conquer this problem, an individual must understand their own sleep cycle to maximise the chances of waking themselves in a light stage of sleep. This will ensure them that they can operate at their full potential.

Images from Luke Mastin, and his work on sleep.

In a typical night, a person would undergo 4 or 5 regular sleep cycles – first entering stage 1 NREM, and ending with REM. Throughout the night, the time spent in slow-wave deep sleep (stage 3) decreases, whilst REM sleep does the opposite.

The key to making the most of your day is to understand that high quality sleep does not correlate to more sleep. Plan your rest time around those 90-minute cycles. If you have a late night and a following early start the next morning, and know you can get maximum 5 hours of sleep that night – set your alarm for 4.5 hours. This allows your body to experience 3 cycles of sleep, and vastly increases your chance of waking in the lightest stage of sleep (REM), therefore eliminating the grogginess that comes with sleep inertia.

Every person’s sleep cycle is different. Whilst some will have longer cycles of 120 minutes, others will be two thirds of that time! Understanding your body is crucial to maximizing high quality sleep. Sleep trackers can contribute to this understanding by logging your sleep patterns, and noting when you toss, turn and wake throughout the night. They can also be used as alarms that wake you in your lightest stage of sleep.

As an anecdote to this, one can improve the quality of their sleep further through small adjustments. This can be made through regular exercise, a gentler alarm tone, and a reduction in screen-time, caffeine, alcohol and cigarettes, for example. These can further reduce the quantity needed to refresh physiological and neurological functions during sleep.

If you are experiencing high quality and productive sleep, far less is needed. Thus, the time an individual spends in a state of wakefulness is increased. If you are feeling alert, productive and well rested you can finally be the early bird that gets the worm.

So I urge you to consider your sleep patterns and make the most of this available time each day!

Images from Luke Mastin, and his work on sleep.


Understanding Sleep Cycles: How To Make The Most Of Your Day

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