As facilitators in a learning space, we advise parents to see that their children get enough sleep. We recommend the need for a rhythm to sleep (and wake up) and discuss some aspects that may interfere or make the difference between a good sleep and a disturbed sleep. Sometimes, we hear parents ask us if this is necessary for older children and wonder if these guidelines are necessary only for the younger children. Living in an age where the life of the child seems to be an endless series of activities and academics, we often hear parents wonder how sleep actually helps in academics.
The unspoken question or the elephant in the room really is “In this ultra-competitive era, why does a school focus on sleep? Shouldn’t they be focusing on academics, activities and other stuff that helps the children to stay a couple of paces (at least) ahead?”
It is interesting that we spend up to one third of our lives sleeping. Difficult to imagine that nature planned us to remain “unproductive” for such a long period. Consider this, a person aged 60 years spends almost 20 years sleeping!
The Stages of Sleep
Let us look at the different stages of sleep. That is right, there are different stages in sleep. We usually pass through five phases of sleep: stages 1, 2, 3, 4, and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. These stages progress in a cycle from stage 1 to REM sleep, then the cycle starts over again with stage 1. We spend almost 50 percent of our total sleep time in stage 2 sleep, about 20 percent in REM sleep, and the remaining 30 percent in the other stages. Infants, by contrast, spend about half of their sleep time in REM sleep.
Stage 1 of sleep is a light sleep and we drift in and out of sleep. We can be awakened easily in this stage. Our eyes move very slowly and muscle activity slows. People awakened from stage 1 sleep often remember fragmented visual images. Many also experience sudden muscle contractions called hypnic myoclonia, often preceded by a sensation of starting to fall. These sudden movements are similar to the “jump” we make when startled.
As we enter stage 2 sleep, our eye movements stop and our brain waves become slower, with occasional bursts of rapid waves called sleep spindles.
In stage 3, extremely slow brain waves called delta waves begin to appear, interspersed with smaller, faster waves. By stage 4, the brain produces delta waves almost exclusively. It is very difficult to wake someone during stages 3 and 4, which together are called deep sleep. There is no eye movement or muscle activity. People awakened during deep sleep do not adjust immediately and often feel groggy and disoriented for several minutes after they wake up. Some children experience bed wetting, night terrors, or sleepwalking during deep sleep.
The fifth stage of sleep is called REM sleep. In this stage, our breathing becomes more rapid, irregular, and shallow, our eyes jerk rapidly in various directions, and our limb muscles become temporarily paralyzed. Our heart rate increases and our blood pressure rises. When people awaken during REM sleep, they often describe bizarre and illogical tales.
Personal hygiene is considered a cornerstone of well being and good health. Well, sleep hygiene is as important as personal hygiene.
Sleep and wakefulness are influenced by different neurotransmitter signals in the brain. Food and medicines that change the balance of these signals affect whether we feel alert or drowsy and how well we sleep. Caffeinated drinks such as coffee and drugs such as diet pills and decongestants stimulate some parts of the brain and can cause insomnia, or an inability to sleep. Many antidepressants suppress REM sleep. Heavy smokers often sleep very lightly and have reduced amounts of REM sleep. They also tend to wake up after 3 or 4 hours of sleep due to nicotine withdrawal. Many people who suffer from insomnia try to solve the problem with alcohol – the so-called night cap. While alcohol does help people fall into light sleep, it also robs them of REM and the deeper, more restorative stages of sleep. Instead, it keeps them in the lighter stages of sleep, from which they can be awakened easily. Activities that stimulate (screen games, TV, Video games etc) or an external environment that stimulates can also influence the duration and quality of sleep and are best avoided just before sleep. People lose some of the ability to regulate their body temperature during REM, so abnormally hot or cold temperatures in the environment can disrupt this stage of sleep. If our REM sleep is disrupted one night, our bodies don’t follow the normal sleep cycle progression the next time we doze off. Instead, we often slip directly into REM sleep and go through extended periods of REM until we “catch up” on this stage of sleep. Ideally, have a wind down period before sleep where we reduce distractions and stimulations as much as possible. Having a comfortable bedroom and mattress are also important for facilitating good sleep. Have a quiet bedroom. Mattresses and beds should be comfortable for you and your bed partner.
Biological clocks, Circadian Rhythms
The external environment can also influence the Biological clock.
Circadian rhythms are regular changes in mental and physical characteristics that occur in the course of a day (circadian is Latin for “around a day”). Most circadian rhythms are controlled by the body’s biological “clock.” This clock, called the suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN, is actually a pair of pinhead-sized brain structures that together contain about 20,000 neurons and rest in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, just above the point where the optic nerves cross. Light that reaches photoreceptors in the retina (a tissue at the back of the eye) creates signals that travel along the optic nerve to the SCN.
Signals from the SCN travel to several brain regions, including the pineal gland, which responds to light-induced signals by switching off production of the hormone melatonin. The body’s level of melatonin normally increases after darkness falls, making people feel drowsy. The SCN also governs functions that are synchronized with the sleep/wake cycle, including body temperature, hormone secretion, urine production, and changes in blood pressure.
By depriving people of light and other external time cues, scientists have learned that most people’s biological clocks work on a 25-hour cycle rather than a 24-hour one. But because sunlight or other bright lights can reset the SCN, our biological cycles normally follow the 24-hour cycle of the sun, rather than our innate cycle. Circadian rhythms can be affected to some degree by almost any kind of external time cue, such as the beeping of your alarm clock, the clatter of a garbage truck, or the timing of your meals.
How much sleep do we need?
The amount of sleep each person needs depends on many factors, including age. Infants generally require about 16 hours a day, while teenagers need about 9 hours on average. For most adults, 7 to 8 hours a night appears to be the best amount of sleep, although some people may need as few as 5 hours or as many as 10 hours of sleep each day. The amount of sleep a person needs also increases if he or she has been deprived of sleep in previous days. Getting too little sleep creates a “sleep debt,” which is much like being overdrawn at a bank. Eventually, your body will demand that the debt be repaid. We don’t seem to adapt to getting less sleep than we need; while we may get used to a sleep-depriving schedule, our judgment, reaction time, and other functions are still impaired. Remember, your body is the best judge of how much sleep you need and you really need to listen to your body (not the deadlines that stare you in the face). Every person is unique and the body of each person may determine the required duration based on the need for rest and restoration.
Generally, if you feel drowsy during the day, even during boring activities, you haven’t had enough sleep. If you routinely fall asleep within 5 minutes of lying down, you probably have severe sleep deprivation, possibly even a sleep disorder. Microsleeps, or very brief episodes of sleep in an otherwise awake person, are another mark of sleep deprivation. In many cases, people are not aware that they are experiencing microsleeps. The widespread practice of “burning the candle at both ends” in western industrialized societies has created so much sleep deprivation that what is really abnormal sleepiness is now almost the norm.
What does sleep do to us?
Sleep seems to be needed for our nervous systems to function properly. Too little sleep leaves us drowsy and unable to concentrate the next day. It also leads to impaired memory and physical performance and reduced ability to carry out math calculations (or work that requires logic and analytical reasoning). If sleep deprivation continues, hallucinations and mood swings may develop. Some experts believe sleep gives a chance for neurons used while we are awake to shut down and repair themselves. Without sleep, neurons may become so depleted in energy or so polluted with by-products of normal cellular activities that they begin to malfunction. Sleep also may give the brain a chance to exercise important neuronal connections that might otherwise deteriorate from lack of activity.
Deep sleep coincides with the release of growth hormone in children and young adults. Many of the body’s cells also show increased production and reduced breakdown of proteins during deep sleep. Since proteins are the building blocks needed for cell growth and for repair of damage from factors like stress and ultraviolet rays, deep sleep may truly be “beauty sleep.” Activity in parts of the brain that control emotions, decision-making processes, and social interactions is drastically reduced during deep sleep, suggesting that this type of sleep may help people maintain optimal emotional and social functioning while they are awake. Nerve signalling patterns generated during the day have been found to repeat during deep sleep in animal studies. This pattern repetition may help encode memories and improve learning.
REM sleep stimulates the brain regions used in learning. This may be important for normal brain development during infancy, which would explain why infants spend much more time in REM sleep than adults. Like deep sleep, REM sleep is associated with increased production of proteins. One study found that REM sleep affects learning of certain mental skills. People taught a skill and then deprived of non-REM sleep could recall what they had learned after sleeping, while people deprived of REM sleep could not.
Sleep and disease
Well, needless to say, sleep or the lack thereof is associated with diseases.
Sleep and sleep-related problems play a role in a large number of human disorders and affect almost every field of medicine. For example, problems like stroke and asthma attacks tend to occur more frequently during the night and early morning, perhaps due to changes in hormones, heart rate, and other characteristics associated with sleep. Sleep also affects some kinds of epilepsy in complex ways. REM sleep seems to help prevent seizures that begin in one part of the brain from spreading to other brain regions, while deep sleep may promote the spread of these seizures. Sleep deprivation also triggers seizures in people with some types of epilepsy.
Neurons that control sleep interact closely with the immune system. As anyone who has had the flu knows, infectious diseases tend to make us feel sleepy. This probably happens because cytokines (chemicals our immune systems produce while fighting an infection), are powerful sleep-inducing chemicals. Sleep may help the body conserve energy and other resources that the immune system needs to mount a counter attack.
Sleeping problems are common in many other disorders as well, including Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, cancer, and head injury. These sleeping problems may arise from changes in the brain regions and neurotransmitters that control sleep, or from the drugs used to control symptoms of other disorders. Work schedules or routines also may disrupt sleep. Once sleeping problems develop, they can add to a person’s impairment and cause confusion, frustration, or depression. Patients who are unable to sleep also notice pain more and may increase their requests for pain medication or tend to complain and demonstrate a lowered tolerance to pain and other stressors. Better management of sleeping problems in people who have other disorders could improve these patients’ health and quality of life.
Researchers now know that sleep is an active and dynamic state that greatly influences our waking hours, and they realize that we must understand sleep to fully understand the brain. Innovative techniques, such as brain imaging, can now help researchers understand how different brain regions function during sleep and how different activities and disorders affect sleep.
What can you do?
Well, sleep well. Plan your schedule, Plan the schedule of your children. Give them sufficient time to wind down. Reduce distractions and stimulations in the external environment maybe a couple of hours before you sleep. Develop a rhythm for your meals, have a light dinner and at least 2-3 hours before sleep. Replace late night movies with your dreams.
And maybe read this blog much before your regular (set a regular sleep time if you do not have one) sleep time. Please do not take that to mean that you have to stop reading this blog 😁 !