Sleeping Your Best is All About Timing
By Chad Upton | Editor
Sleep can make you more happy, alert, motivated, and productive. If you’re healthy, it’s fairly straightforward to get these benefits from sleep if you know a little bit about your sleep cycles.
First, imagine if washing machines didn’t have timers and you had to guess when they finished their last cycle. If you stopped it too soon, your clothes would still be soapy; if you stopped it too late then it would start all over again. That would be a disaster; nobody would put up with that. Yet, that’s exactly what most people do with their sleep cycles.
You sleep in cycles. Each cycle usually lasts 90 – 110 minutes. It’s called a cycle because your brain and body go through a number of different stages and then it starts all over again. The stages can be divided in different ways, but two of the most common divisions are REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM.
The non-REM “deep sleep” phase is longer during the cycles earlier in the night and tend to get shorter during the later cycles. The REM phase is the opposite. Vivid dreams generally occur during REM sleep, so you tend to dream more as you get closer to your wakeup time.
Most of us get up at about the same time every day. Sometimes, you feel well rested; other times you feel like you barely slept at all. This wide variance can be caused by waking up in the middle of your sleep cycle rather than close to the end.
During a sleep cycle, your body is temporarily paralyzed. Some doctors and researchers believe this may be to prevent you from physically acting out the actions you perform in your dreams, potentially causing yourself harm or waking yourself up. If you wake up during a paralysis phase, you will feel groggy. Since a sleep cycle is typically ninety minutes, your total sleep time should be a multiple of ninety minutes.
Getting enough sleep is also important to your health. The length of your cycles and the exact number of cycles needed will vary by person. But, you’ll know you’ve had adequate sleep when you have no signs of sleepiness or dysfunction during daytime hours. In lab tests, sleep deprivation has shown to reduce white blood cell count, hurting the immune system. Sleep deprivation has also been linked to increased risk of: heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, memory lapses or loss, and irritability. It also slows your reaction time and accuracy.
There’s a free online calculator to help you calculate when you should go to sleep or wake up: http://sleepti.me. If you have a smartphone and want to be more precise, there are advanced alarm clock apps available such as Sleep Cycle that will wake you during the ideal point in your sleep cycle. I’ve tried Sleep Cycle and it works great. It is an iOS app, but there are plenty of Android and other options too — Elbyron has listed some in the comments. In general, these tools make you a lot more aware of your sleep cycles, which has definitely helped improve the quality of sleep that I get, even when I don’t use the app.
Sleep smarter and you’ll feel even better.
Photo: Jeff Hill (cc)