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Sleep Centre

Understanding the science of sleep

Sleeping takes up between a quarter and a third of all our lives. But what exactly happens to us when we enter the land of nod? Here’s what happens to your mind and body during sleep.

How sleep works - the science bit!

It’s incredible to think that the neurons in our brains are almost as active when we’re asleep as when we’re awake! Each night, the brain moves through five recurring sleep cycles of between 90 and 110 minutes.

Within each cycle there are specific sleep stages and electrical patterns of brain waves called Alpha, Theta and Delta.

While you’re sleeping your brain cycles repeatedly between two different types of sleep: REM (rapid-eye movement) sleep and non-REM sleep.

REM is the type of sleep you get when you first nod off. During this time, you’re breathing rapidly, moving our eyes a lot, and our muscles are temporarily paralysed. You’re half conscious, half asleep.

Non-REM sleep is when we’re snoozing soundly. It can be divided into light sleep, true sleep and deep sleep.

Who knew there was so much going on after lights out!

Why is sleep important?

Sleep allows our bodies to recharge. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to function properly the next day.

That’s why after a night of tossing and turning, you’re more likely to forget what’s on your shopping list or feel a little grumpy with your work colleagues.

Sleep allows our brains to develop, improves our mood and lets our bodies rest. It’s the best form of TLC you can get.

How much sleep do we really need?

How many hours you need to sleep to be healthy changes as you grow older. As a rough guide, infants should be getting 16 hours, teenagers need nine, adults need between seven and eight and pregnant women should have a little more.

In our busy lives, it’s easy to scrimp on sleep to pack everything in. We shouldn’t.

As well as taking note of recommended hours of sleep, we should consider the time it takes to drift off as part of our bedtime routine.

Is it really that easy?

In spite of sleep’s importance, many of us are frustrated with the quality of our sleep. Insomnia is a common sleep complaint, with 10% of adults in the general population experiencing insomnia disorder, according to a 2020 study.

sleep help
Are you still struggling to sleep?

If you’ve been finding it hard to sleep for a prolonged period, you really need to take some action.

Sleep deprivation can be worse than food deprivation and there’s a close relationship between sleep and mental health.

For more specialist advice and support, you can seek help from a number of organisations and charities including Mind, the NHS, The Sleep Council and the British Sleep Society.

Sleep Matters Club

For interesting articles, facts and infographic visit our Sleep Matters Club