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The Ultimate Guide To Understanding Your Sleep Cycle

Sleep is a funny thing. You spend the first 21 years of your life trying to stay up as late as you can. Then we spend the next 20 years dreaming about a good night’s sleep, but somehow life always seems to get in the way. 

Most of us cherish our sleep time. We crave it. That is why we struggle to get up for that early morning cardio session. We will stay in bed as long as we can to get the refreshed feeling we all want. On average you will spend 36% of your life sleeping, which means if you make it to 90 years of age you would have slept 32 years of your life. 32 years! 

We go through 4 stages in our sleep cycle which all aid in making sure our body is energised and ready for the next day. We are told that 8 hours of sleep each night is the best amount of time to make sure our body is fully rested, awaiting the day ahead. Our body goes through the sleep cycle multiple times in the night so let’s look at what each stage of the sleep cycle is and why it is so important for us to be well-rested. 

Stage 1 (Lasts about 1-7 Minutes, 5% of the night) 

This is lightest stage of sleep during the night. Your brain is still quite active and is aware of what is going on around you, which is why it is so easy to be woken up. This is the stage where we might feel like were falling or have sudden muscle twitches which wake us up. Brain activity in stage 1 show a series of tightly packed brain wave patterns associated with muscle memory and ‘logging’ movements learned during that day. 

Stage 2 (Last 10-25 Minutes, 45% of the night) 

This stage is where your body prepares for deep sleep. Your heart rate slows, your muscles contract and relax, and your body temperature decreases. It is an important part of your sleep cycle because this is when our body starts to produce HGH (Human growth hormone). HGH increases the growth of muscle tissue and regulates the body’s metabolism. 

Stage 3 (Lasts 20-40 Minutes, 25% of the night) 

This is the last stage of non-REM sleep, you’ll find it is a lot harder to wake up from this deep sleep. This is when our body is flooded with HGH. Because your brain is resting with very little activity, the blood supply available to your muscles increases, delivering extra amounts of oxygen and nutrients which facilitate their healing and growth. HGH combines with the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system to support your immune system function and metabolism throughout the day. The hormones Prolactin is released during deep sleep and has anti-inflammatory properties which are thought to be important for recovery of joints. 

Stage 4 – REM Sleep (Lasts 10-60 Minutes, 25% of the night) 

This is when our brain starts to perk up, and we start to have dreams. When in this stage of your sleep, your muscles become temporarily paralysed and your eyes dart back and forth, giving it the name REM (Rapid Eye Movement) Sleep. Extra oxygen is supplied to the muscles and this helps with the breakdown of lactic acid. This is also the stage when the brain processes information from the day, so it can be stored in our long-term memory and your body repairs any minor muscle tears which occur during the day. 

How lack of sleep can affect you 

Our body goes through an incredible journey each night to keep us ready and raring for the next day and skipping that journey can be detrimental to your health. Things we might notice when we get a shortage of sleep can include lack of cognitive and physical recovery, lack of alertness and reduced ability to recall stored information (Memory). All of these symptoms will cause higher stress levels, make you more likely to see motivation levels drop and can really bring down your quality of life. 

In the 1950s people had on average 8 hours of sleep a night but in 2013 people had an average of just 6.5 hours of sleep. If you get less than 5 hours of sleep per night, you have a 50% chance of becoming obese and a much higher chance of weight gain. This is because lack of sleep causes a chemical reaction in the brain that makes us crave carbohydrates, in particular sugars. For all the health enthusiasts out there, this is not something we want our body to be doing so make sure you are getting tucked up into bed at a reasonable time if you’ve got an early morning session planned.    

Tips on helping you sleep 

The optimum way to get sleep is to have the room as dark as you can for a good half an hour before you even try to drift off. But what do we all do? Watch the news at 10, check the Muscle Rage Twitter, text loved one’s goodnight, send late emails and of course brush our teeth with a very high wattage light bulb overhead. So, try getting into bed half an hour earlier than you want to be and keep your surroundings calm and dark. 

The next thing we need to do is try and keep the room nice and cool. Think of it as a way to keep your heating bill down during the cold winter months. This is because our body temperature needs to drop to go through the stages of our sleep cycle, and if were not completing this cycle our body will never reach full REM Sleep. 

Routine is key. Making sure your body knows it is time for bed is all about setting your internal body clock. Once your body notices your bedtime and sleeping routines, it’ll make it much easier for your body to subconsciously know when to start unwinding and preparing for the sleep cycle. 

Make your bedroom sleep friendly. Nowadays it is weird for you NOT to have a TV in your bedroom. But this might be key in helping you fall asleep quicker. Keeping the lights low, sounds to a minimum and banishing electronic gadgets from the bedroom is the best way forward. Dedicating your bedroom to only sleep and sex is a good idea. Unlike most vigorous physical activity, sex makes us sleepy. So, this is also a good tool to help you get to sleep quicker, probably the most attractive one in this list! 

We need to stop listening to people who say, ‘sleep is for those who are broke’ and that ‘you have to be willing to give up sleep to succeed’. These are massively false claims, and although you might have a big presentation coming up or need to be training hard for your next competition, the best way to ensure you are functioning at your full capabilities is to have a good 8 hours of sleep per night.  

To conclude 

Sleep in vital for us to maintain energy and skill levels as well as physically recovering our body, and these are all things you are going to need during your fitness journey, whatever it may be. So, our advice is to make sure you’re getting most of your 8 hours of sleep. (We know there will be a few nights where we stay up too late, and that’s okay as long as it’s not EVERY night). Think of sleep as your fuel for the next day, you’re not going to be able to go very far if you haven’t filled your tank! 

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