The Science Behind Sleep,
April 7, 2020



During the week, with the demands of everyday life around you, it can be hard to make sure your body is getting the sleep it deserves. This can make you feel sore, become irritable, or even begin to experience symptoms of depression. You may have noticed these effects but not been aware of the science behind them, so we wanted to share some important facts.

Here are a few simple tips for how to help your sleep go from restless to restful:

1. REDUCE STRESS AND STAY CALM – It’s not easy, but you can manage the stress in your life and stay grounded with the help of exercise, meditation, journaling, yoga or talking with a loved one.

2. RESTRICT YOUR USE OF CAFFEINE OR NICOTINE – If you’re not able to fall asleep, get rid of caffeine after noon.  If you need an alternative stimulant for the 3 pm doldrums, try slowly drinking a glass of water (dehydration often makes us sleepy), getting up and moving around, or some herbal tea such as ginger or peppermint that can give you a decaffeinated boost.

3. TURN OFF YOUR SCREENS – Research clearly show that the blue light of screens interrupts the production of melatonin—the hormone needed to fall asleep. Read a book instead or do something creative such as coloring or knitting.  Also, you want to make sure your bedroom is as dark and quiet as possible when you turn out the light. The last thing you want to be doing is consuming news.

4. CREATE A SLEEP ROUTINE – During quarantine, you can train your body and mind to relax by doing the same routine every night.  This may start with putting on your favorite pajamas, turning off screens, taking a bath, and turning down the lights. Ideally, your routine should start one hour before bed time.  Whatever you do, do the same thing at the same time each night, and your body will build a conditioned response that will benefit you.

5.NO ALCOHOL AT LEAST AN HOUR BEFORE BEDTIME – A lot of people use alcohol to relax, and that’s fine. The problem is that even though alcohol may help you fall asleep, alcohol interrupts REM sleep, which is the deep sleep that makes you feel rested when you wake.

6.INCREASE YOUR MELATONIN – Melatonin is the hormone that is responsible for sleepiness. Our bodies naturally produce melatonin when it starts to get dark. But modern life has created lots of interruptions to that production cycle, whether it’s the lights in our home or on all of our screens.  You can increase melatonin by drinking an 8 oz glass of tart cherry juice an hour or two before bedtime. You can also use over-the-counter melatonin in pill form, but check with your healthcare provider as to whether this is recommended for you.

Information on Sleep Cycles:

When we sleep our brain experiences electrical changes in five distinct stages.

Stages One and Two

  • These are the shallowest stages of sleep in which the brain waves begin to slow. Eye movement slows to a stop and the body’s temperature starts to decrease.

Stages Three and Four

  • Brain waves reach their slowest point, resulting in “deep sleep” or “slow wave sleep.” These are the most restful stages of our sleep cycle.

R.E.M (Rapid Eye Movement) Sleep

  • Our brain has electrical signals resembling those of an awake and very active brain. This is when all dreams occur, and our eyes dart around very rapidly. Our bodies enter paralysis to make sure that we don’t hurt ourselves by acting out what we may be doing in our dreams.

After 90 minutes the sleep cycle begins again at Stage One. In a healthy night’s sleep, the average person goes through the sleep cycle four or five times. Disturbing deep or R.E.M sleep can make you feel more groggy. To feel the most rested, wake up at the beginning of a new cycle, during Stage One. To make this easier you can buy a brain-wave alarm clock or even download an alarm app that follows sleep cycles.

Effective sleep that goes through every stage in full has the following benefits:

  • Elevates mood
  • Lowers stress
  • Strengthens memory
  • Reduces pain
  • Improves concentration
  • Allows for clearer thinking
  • Improves decision making

Sleep and Depression:

Approximately 90% of diagnosed depressed patients report sleep problems, and studies have also suggested that adolescents who self-harm are far more likely to have worse sleep*. Remember that if you or someone you know is experiencing depression, psychotherapy and medication should always be the priority. But never forget that simple aspects of daily life, like sleep, can make a significant difference as well.

Being careful to get effective sleep as often as possible is a sure way to improve your physical health and brighten your mood.  Especially as our busy schedules resume this spring, its important give ourselves time for restorative and regular sleep.

Edge, L. C. (2010). The role of emotional brain processing during sleep in depression. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 17(10), 857-861. doi:
*Hysing, M., Sivertsen, B., Stormark, K. M., & O’Connor, R. C. (2015). Sleep problems and self-harm in adolescence. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 207(4), 306-312. doi:
Korb, A. (2015). The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

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