I have no trouble sleeping in. Besides, I can fall asleep just about anywhere. In a car, a bus, a plane, my parents' place. When I wake up, I feel rested. At least that’s what I thought I was. I’m not rested at all.

I felt tired during the day, but I thought this is what most, if not, all people feel who work, have kids, and a busy schedule. It turns out I have sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. If you snore loudly and feel tired even after a full night’s sleep, you might have sleep apnea.

I’m invited to this sleep center to get some more data about my sleep apnea. I may be fitted with a cpap machine. We’ll see.

The science behind poor sleep and how to fix it

You may have heard of a “body clock.” This is your circadian rhythm. It is controlled by the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), a small region within the hypothalamus that regulates a biological processes such as body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and the production of chemicals such as melatonin, serotonin and cortisol that influence how awake and alert or how sleepy we feel ❲1❳.

These processes ebb and flow daily over a twenty-four-hour cycle, primarily responding to light and darkness that will turn on or turn off certain functions. Altering light and dark periods can impact circadian rhythms, which can, in turn, influence several bodily functions. An out of sync or abnormal circadian rhythms have been linked to a variety of disorders including sleep disorders, obesity, diabetes and depression and other mental disorders ❲2❳ ❲3❳. But when all is functioning as it should be, this is why, under most circumstances, we sleep at night and are awake during the day.

Turning specifically to our topic of sleep, our circadian rhythms are the key driver in determining our sleep patterns (and also to some degree the quality of our sleep). As it gets darker, we produce a hormone called melatonin. Melatonin is a chemical that makes us sleepy. Our brain receives information about external light levels via our eyes. As it gets darker, our body clock (via our mind) tells the SCN to produce more melatonin, making us feel sleepy and telling us that it is time to go to bed ❲4❳.

Woman lying face down
Photo by Vladislav Muslakov / Unsplash

This is important to reference as it feeds into the upcoming topic around our sleep cycles and getting quality of sleep. In an ideal world, we are living following our natural circadian rhythm as per our ancestors and going to sleep when it gets dark and waking when it gets light. However, these days, we face challenges that our ancestors did not, from jet lag to blue light (from our phone screens or electric lights). These are things that can disrupt circadian rhythms with negative impacts as outlined above, including severely disrupting sleep cycles.

Understanding Brainwaves and Sleep Cycles

When it finally gets around to sleeping, we can divide sleep into two stages, orthodox sleep and rapid eye movement sleep (REM). You alternate between these two stages many times throughout the night, and they can be distinguished by monitoring brain waves via electroencephalography (EEG). We spend around 75% of sleep in orthodox sleep ❲5❳. And conventional rest can be subdivided into three non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM), called N1, N2, and N3.

When you are awake, an EEG will predominantly show low and infrequent beta waves. Through meditation, we can increase the prominence and synchronicity of alpha and theta waves while still awake. There are several benefits of doing so (increased serotonin being one of them), but that’s probably a topic for another article. Instead, let’s take a quick look at each sleep stage.

Photo by Christopher Jolly / Unsplash

N1 Sleep

This is the transition phase from being awake to being asleep. It is typically associated with low frequency, high amplitude alpha waves (8 to 13 Hz) that become synchronized, and as N1 sleep progresses, we see an increase in an even lower rate and higher amplitude theta waves (4 to 7 Hz). It is effortless to wake someone from N1 sleep. This is the stage that can be equated with “drifting off to sleep), and, when waking people from N1 rest, they may not even realize that they have been asleep. Typically this is a short phase that quickly leads to N2 sleep.

N2 Sleep

This is where the body starts to relax into a deeper state of sleep properly, and breathing and heart rate begin to slow. Theta waves are still dominant (still in the 4 to 7 Hz range), but they are interrupted by sleep spindles. Sleep spindles are rapid bursts of higher frequency brain waves that have been associated with benefits in learning and memory ❲6❳ ❲7❳. K-complexes are also seen during N2 sleep. These are very high amplitude brain wave patterns, potentially in response to external stimuli ❲8❳. So, a lot is going here! N2 sleep could be considered our “normal” or “intermediate” state of sleep, as, throughout our nightly cycles, we will typically spend about half our time asleep in N2 sleep.

N3 Sleep

This is what we would call deep sleep (also known as slow-wave sleep or delta sleep). Unsurprisingly in N3 sleep, we see low frequency, high amplitude delta brain waves (up to 4 Hz). This is a crucial phase of sleep. It is a regenerative period where the heart rate and breathing drop dramatically, and the body is focused on healing and repairing itself. In an ideal situation, the first wave of N3 sleep will occur around one hour into your sleep and lasts up to ninety minutes. Subsequent periods of N3 rest recur throughout the night, lasting for shorter and shorter periods, as your sleep progresses. As we will discuss later, this is a critical sleep stage to get the required rest and recover from waking up fresh and optimized for daily life.

REM Sleep

This typically occurs around one to two hours into sleep, cycling around every ninety minutes after that. Conversely, to deep N3 sleep, REM sleep tends to scale up to longer and longer periods throughout the night. This is the sleep stage associated with dreaming. Our heart rate and breathing become irregular, and the body releases chemicals that temporarily paralyze all our muscle systems (except for those that control respiration and circulation) so that we do not act on our dreams. In this stage, the brain is very active, and although we are asleep and our eyelids are closed, our eyes race as if awake. REM is another critical phase of sleep and has been associated with learning and memory functions ❲9❳. Interestingly if people are deprived of REM sleep and then allowed to sleep undisturbed, they will spend more time in REM sleep, suggesting they are trying to make up for lost REM sleep. This is known as REM rebound, and it has been recommended that this represents a response to stress by suppressing significant or challenging emotional events that occurred during wakefulness ❲10❳.

So, that’s how we sleep, and in an ideal world, it looks somewhat as per the image above. N1 is our brief gateway from wakefulness to sleep, and we soon pass on to regular N2 sleep before dropping into our first deep N3 sleep, coming back out of that into N2 sleep, and then our first round of REM sleep. And so that continues throughout the night for around five cycles, with N2 deep sleep periods diminishing in time and REM sleep periods increase in time as the night goes on.

Photo by Becca Schultz / Unsplash

Primary Reasons for Poor Sleep in the Modern Era

Sadly, if you hook the average person up and run an EEG, the sleep patterns will not look as perfect as the one I have just described. It is far more likely to be scattered and disturbed, potentially lacking prolonged periods of deep sleep and REM sleep and showing multiple instances of wakefulness throughout the night. I’ve already alluded to the potential for disruption to circadian rhythms and reduced sleep cycles. But what are the specific reasons that so many people are struggling with their sleep?

Primarily we can blame the industrial revolution and all that it spawned. To start with, our ancestors used to live without electricity. As such, there was far more likelihood of them going to bed near when the sun went down and rising when the sun came up, facilitating a regular circadian rhythm ❲11❳. Our ancestors also would’ve been more active in their daily life from the earliest days of hunting and gathering through to pre-industrial revolution labor on the farm. A tiring but natural experience, sending them to bed tired, in need of sleep, and sync with nature.

Contrast that to our modern capitalist world. We typically have sedentary, stressful jobs. We have 24/7 access to technology and are therefore constantly bombarded with information and the “need” to make decisions. Our minds are far more “busy” than our ancestors, and this creates stress and strain and over activates the sympathetic nervous system and our “fight or flight” mechanism. We also have access to electricity (and many other technologies) that enable us to sleep and wake when we want and not as nature intended. Then there’s the industrial and electromagnetic pollution that permeates our atmosphere and can also harm our sleep.

So, add together the lack of exercise, overstimulation of our minds and associated stress, pollution, and irregular sleep patterns, and you have the basis for our modern problem with sleep. Some of these things we can control and others we can’t, but in all cases, we can mitigate the aforementioned negative impacts and create the right physical and mental environment for an excellent night’s sleep.

Quick Tips to Optimise Your Sleep

For those of you that have made it this far, and want to dig deeper, I have written a follow-up article delving more in-depth into the best ways to improve your quality of sleep. Below is a brief synopsis, for those who want a quick summary.

Firstly, optimize your sleeping environment. Make sure your room is dark and eliminate any blue spectrum light from electronic devices and LEDs ❲12❳ ❲13❳. Keep your bedroom cool between 16°C to 20°C ❲14❳, and keep your room well ventilated (consider and air purifier) ❲15❳. For comfort, invest in a quality ergonomic mattress. To minimize disturbances, soundproof your room, or invest in a good pair of earplugs.

Secondly, rethink behavior patterns. Keep in sync with your circadian rhythm by exercising ❲16❳ ❲17❳ and getting your fill of blue spectrum light during the day. Cut out exercise, food, caffeine ❲18❳ and alcohol ❲19❳, and reduce exposure at least two hours before bed. Try and respect your circadian rhythm by developing regular sleeping patterns. Meditate and de-stress before bed to help develop a natural sleep cycle. Waking up naturally also supports a balanced sleep cycle.

Thirdly, optimize your diet, and use natural supplementation to help you sleep better. Magnesium ❲20❳, potassium ❲21❳, and zinc ❲22❳ have all shown potential to help improve sleep quality. Tryptophan is a precursor to melatonin, or in more extreme cases (e.g., jet lag), you can consider supplementing directly with melatonin ❲23❳. Vitamin D helps to regulate circadian rhythms. When required, theanine can take the edge off caffeine ❲24❳. It is also worth exploring adaptogenic herbs, such as ashwagandha ❲25❳, which can help regulate the central nervous system (CNS) and induce restful sleep ❲26❳.

Most of these things are relatively straightforward, quick, and inexpensive to implement. You are just making several small adjustments that will add up to dramatic improvements in the quality of your sleep. Give it a try, and let me know how you get on. Sweet dreams!