What is Sleep?
In olden times, sleep was thought to be a period where the brain completely shuts off, sometimes even described as “little slices of death.” Nowadays, sleep is understood by most researchers as a time when your brain is at it’s most active, even more than when you’re awake! It’s a time for your body to repair and grow tissues and consolidate memories made during the daytime, which is critical for learning.
Dreams are still a bit of a mystery, though. Even though scientists have been studying the topic for quite a long time, they actually don’t have a clear-cut answer for why it happens. One of the most prevalent explanations, though, is the activation-synthesis theory. The theory essentially states that dreams are your forebrain’s (the center responsible for emotional and sensory processing) attempt to make sense of or find logic in random neural signals occurring in lower, deeper brain regions, which regulate basic biological functions. This theory is popular since the limbic system—involved with emotions, memories, and other sensations—are much more active than the regions responsible for logic, which is why dreams make almost no sense when recalling them.
There are four main cycles of sleep:
Stage N1 (Non-REM 1): This is the lightest stage of sleep associated with theta brain waves: low frequency waves which indicate reduced brain activity. Usually you get into this stage after the first few minutes of falling asleep. It is typically very short in duration, lasting only about 1-5 minutes. If you’ve ever had that falling sensation that suddenly jerks your body awake, this is probably when it happens (and is called a myoclonic jerk).
Stage N2: A bit of a deeper sleep. If you take power naps, this is probably the deepest you will go in the cycle.
Stage N3: The deepest stage of sleep, though you usually won’t have dreams here. In this stage, the neurotransmitters responsible for handling muscle movement are inhibited, inducing a temporary paralysis so you don’t move (unless you’re a sleepwalker). Brain activity is very low, and is associated with delta waves.
Stage R (REM): Also called “paradoxical sleep,” stage R is when most of your dreams are going to happen. It’s paradoxical because, despite it coming after stage N3 sleep, there is a ton of brain activity (even more than when you’re awake). The waves that characterize this stage are gamma waves.
The average person will go through about 4-6 sleep cycles each night, depending on sleep duration and their overall health.
The Sleep Deprivation Epidemic
Even as early as middle school, young adults are heading to school on low fuel, stressed and demotivated in the face of projects, homework, and home and work responsibilities. Despite years of research reiterating the importance of sleep on developing brains, sleep is commonly sacrificed in favor of getting assignments submitted on time, studying, or going out with friends. Sometimes, however, the student is forced into a corner not by constrictive responsibilities or a confusion of priorities, but by the school itself!
In many parts of the country, schools are purposefully picking up younger students from school at a later time than older students in order to cut transportation costs. Taking into account adolescents’ circadian rhythms—the body’s internal sleep-wake clock—the majority of older students are only designed to feel tired as late as 11 P.M! Despite this, school districts will use the same bus fleets for different schools and pick up younger students later, despite the fact that they are more active earlier in the mornings.
Let’s not even get started on college students. A 2019 study in the journal NPJ Science of Learning found that, on average, college students go to sleep as late as 2 A.M. In addition, roughly one in four of these adults experience insomnia. All of these are extremely preventable and a case for improvements in stress, academic performance, emotional stability, diet, and many other facets of daily health.
Psychological Repercussions of Poor Sleep
We all know the feeling when we wake up to a poor night’s sleep. Suddenly, the bed feels like the most comfortable place on Earth…and you try to think of every excuse possible to keep yourself under the covers for “just a few more minutes.” Beyond the usual experience of grogginess and fatigue, researchers associate poor sleep with an increase in feelings of anxiety and irritability, a greater likelihood of depression-like symptoms, weakened immune responses, and a lack of concentration.
Sleep deprivation can also lead to procrastination, a widespread issue among students who mistakenly undervalue or de-prioritize sleep. In daily behavior, fatigue also typically manifests in the form of overeating, since the protein hormones, like leptin, that tell your brain you’re full are reduced in favor of appetite-inducing hormones like ghrelin. As a student who’s studying to become a psychotherapist, sleep is one of the first areas I’d want you to improve first (as a supplementary homework), since it’s also an important glue for keeping together keystone habits like proper diet and exercising, as well as maintaining proper motivation and sense of fulfillment.
Long-term effects can include weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease. Though you may convince yourself that, “as long as I’m able to drag myself out of bed in the morning, I’m fine,” or that you’ve gotten used to feeling tired, these aren’t sufficient excuses. Don’t destroy your body for the sake of getting a bit more work done!
Tips for Improving Your Sleep
Establish a consistent sleep routine. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day (yes, including weekends) so that your body can signal fatigue and alertness at proper intervals. If you’re a student, try to setup your schedule according to when you’re most likely to finish your homework or other responsibilities. Ideally, you should be able to wrap up everything at least an hour before your bedtime so you have enough time to relax.
Get a healthy amount of sleep each night. Take a look at the National Sleep Foundation’s sleep duration recommendations for your age group.
Start winding down an hour before your bedtime. This includes reducing exposure to devices, doing relaxing activities like reading or meditating, and dimming your lights (so your body can release melatonin, which makes you tired).
Don’t drink caffeine past 3 P.M. It takes as long as 10 hours for caffeine to almost completely disappear from the bloodstream (though, admittedly, you probably won’t feel its effects as much after about 5 hours).
Bonus: Use a sleep cycle calculator. Generally speaking, whenever you wake up from a deeper stage of sleep like N3 or R (or when you’re in the middle of a dream), you’ll feel more “out of it,” and it takes a lot longer for your mind and body to readjust to a wakened state. If you’re a maniac and have multiple alarms just to get you out of bed (or hit snooze a few times in a row), sites like OmniCalculator will help you sort out when you should go to bed. This way, you’ll feel more rested when you wake up and less of an urge to go back to sleep.
Too long? Here’s a bite-sized summary: You once thought sleep was a passive, dormant time for your brain, but now it's known as a super busy period for brain activity. Dreams still mystify scientists, but one popular explanation is the activation-synthesis theory. It says that dreams are your forebrain trying to make sense of random neural signals coming from deeper parts of your brain. Sleep is broken down into four main stages: N1 is light sleep, N2 is deeper sleep, N3 is the deepest (dream-free), and REM (or Stage R) is where most dreams happen. You cycle through these stages 4-6 times a night, depending on various factors like your health. The lack of sleep, especially in young adults and students, is pretty severe. Schools aren't helping either, often disrupting natural sleep cycles for cost-cutting reasons. College students are another story, with many going to bed around 2 A.M. and one in four experiencing insomnia. Inadequate sleep doesn't just make you groggy; it can mess with your emotions, immune system, and even lead to weight gain and other long-term health issues. So, want to sleep better? Stick to a regular schedule, avoid caffeine past 3 P.M., and consider using a sleep cycle calculator to time your sleep just right.
Action Items: See the above tips on improving your sleep!