Scientifically speaking, sleep is the regular period in every 24 hours when we are normally unconscious and unaware of our surroundings.
Sleep is governed by our body’s internal clock, known as the circadian rhythm, and it is this rhythm which becomes disrupted when working night shifts or suffering jet lag. These represent the main reasons why people sleep badly.
Sleep problems are not medical conditions but arise out of ‘normal everyday problems’ or minor health conditions that disturb your sleep.
Sleep problems fall into three main categories:
- Inability to fall asleep
- Poor quality sleep (you wake through the night
- Waking up early
The causes of sleep problems are varied but range from having a new baby, stress, worry and excitement, to minor health problems such as menopausal night sweats, having to get up to urinate because an enlarged prostate or a painful muscle or joint.
Follow the links for more information on sleep problems and their causes.
The renowned Swiss herbalist, Alfred Vogel, once described sleep as ‘the remedy which we cannot do without.’ He was of course referring to the fact that sleep has a positive purpose and we need sleep in order to be healthy.
A very important function of sleep is to restore our body to full function after the ‘wear and tear’ of the day’s activities. This is especially important for our brain.
At night, with good sleep, tissues are repaired, organs rest or finish cycles such as flushing out toxins and the brain filters and processes the events of the day.
This is perhaps similar to a crew of maintenance staff moving in to sweep, dust, mop and repair your house, mending cracks that have shown up during the day, emptying the rubbish bins, filing the mail delivered and restoring your home to full working order for the next day.
Two phases of sleep have been described. With normal or good sleep, we move from one phase to the other and back again in cycles lasting between 90 and 120 minutes. These phases are known as:
- Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. During this phase, the brain is very active and our eyes move quickly from side to side (hence the name). Dreams occur during REM sleep and when sleeping well, we wake in the morning coming out of REM sleep which is why we remember our last dream of the night
- Non-REM sleep. During this phase of sleep, our brain is quieter, but our bodies move around the bed more. This is when we experience ‘deep sleep’. Interestingly, sleep-walking takes place during non-REM sleep.
With good sleep we will have short periods lasting for a minute or so during which we are awake. These episodes are normal and take place several times a night – they are part of the way our sleep moves through the REM and non-REM phases.
Sleep disorders, on the other hand, are medical problems which directly affect your sleep. They are less common then sleep problems and can include:
- Insomnia – severe difficulty in getting to sleep and staying asleep
- Sleep apnoea – this is when your breathing is interrupted while you are asleep
- Narcolepsy – this is when your sleep cycles are not regulated properly
- Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome – this is when your normal sleep cycles are delayed by several hours
- Sleep walking – this is when you perform activities while you are asleep that are normally associated with consciousness
Follow the link to find out more about sleep disorders.
Sleep problems (if severe enough, but this is rare) and sleep disorders can both lead to sleep deprivation – a situation where physical effects caused by a lack of sleep are experienced.
To put this into context, the most common cause of sleep deprivation is when a new-born child arrives. Unfortunately, some babies just sleep better than others.
A sleep diary is a record of an individual's sleeping and waking times with related information, usually over a period of several weeks.
In addition to being a useful tool for health care practitioners in the diagnosis of sleep problems, a sleep diary can help make individuals more aware of the parameters affecting their sleep.
This data alone can help people pin point factors favouring good sleep.
Click here to download your FREE sleep diary