Without sleep, we’d only last around 11 days.
Randy Gardner holds the world record for voluntarily staying awake. He did it in 1965 for a school science project.
Then, there’s Michael Jackson. Who, allegedly, didn’t get any ‘real’ sleep for 60 days before his death. His Doctor was treating his insomnia with Propofol, an anaesthetic that knocked him out but didn’t provide him with real sleep.
So, what happens when you don’t get real sleep? And what does real sleep mean anyway?
To answer that, you need to understand the different stages of sleep and why they are so important to our minds and bodies.
The Different Stages of Sleep
There are 5 different stages of sleep. The first 4 stages are called non-REM sleep and stage 5 is REM sleep.
Stage 1 – The first stage is also called ‘light sleep’. You drift in and out of sleep and are easily awakened. This is the stage where you can feel that falling sensation and wake up quickly. This stage lasts for around 5-10 minutes.
Stage 2 – In the second stage your brain waves become slower and your eyes stop moving. Your body is preparing itself for deep sleep. Your body temperature begins to drop, and your heart rate slows.
Stage 3 – This stage is also called ‘deep sleep’. Your brain is moving between extremely slow brain waves (called delta waves) and small, fast waves. During deep sleep, people often experience sleepwalking, nightmares, vivid dreams, bedwetting, and sleep talking.
Stage 4 – This is another stage of deep sleep where your brain is only producing extremely slow brain waves (delta waves). If you wake up in this stage, you will feel disorientated for a while.
REM Sleep – REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement. Your eyes will dart quickly from side to side. It’s not known exactly why this happens, but experts think it is related to the intense brain activity. This is the stage where your dreams are at their most vivid. In a good night’s sleep, you will get around 90-120 minutes of REM Sleep. This is the restorative part of sleep when your body and mind are repairing for the next day.
WHY DO WE NEED REM SLEEP?
REM sleep is the part of sleep that affects our concentration, focus, memory, and pain perception. Without it, we stop functioning properly after a few days. If Michael Jackson was being sedated, he won’t have been getting enough REM sleep. It’s also what Randy Gardner desperately need after his 11-day record. In fact, sleep scientists monitored his sleep straight after the experiment – the percentage of REM sleep skyrocketed and slowly settled down to normal after a few days.
Scientists still aren’t exactly sure what happens in our brain when we are in REM sleep. They argue over whether it is just random neurons firing, or our brains organising our memories and preparing for the next day. Either way, they know that REM sleep has some essential health benefits.
Improves Learning and Memory
Studies have shown that a lack of REM sleep can have a really detrimental effect on our cognitive performance. So, if you don’t get enough of it, you could become a bit of a vegetable at work. If you feel like you can’t focus and are always forgetting what people tell you, you might not be getting enough REM sleep.
Central Nervous System Development
This is especially true for younger people. It’s been suggested that REM sleep is an essential part of brain development and central nervous system development. There’s also growing concern that stimulants and antidepressants are interrupting REM sleep and stopping this development.
Makes You Better with People
The more REM sleep we get, the better our ability to judge people’s facial expression and respond to external stimuli. That’s going to make you much better in social situations and help in everyday life.
Lowers the Risk of Dementia
Researchers in the US have said there is a link between REM sleep and the risk of dementia. Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia are a huge concern for lots of people. This is an active area of research that could prove another huge benefit of REM sleep.
HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR REM SLEEP
- Get into a bedtime routine. If you plan your bedtime and wake-up time, then you are more likely to get good quality sleep. This doesn’t mean you have to go to bed at 8 pm every night, just that you need to be consistent in your sleep.
- Have your last drink three hours before bed. Keeping yourself hydrated in the day, then stopping before you go to bed will stop you from waking up in the night to go to the toilet. This should allow your sleep cycle to be uninterrupted.
- Get enough sleep. The ideal amount of sleep is around 7-9 hours. This should provide you with around 90-120 minutes of REM sleep, which will allow your brain to perform like it’s supposed to.
- Don’t drink alcohol before bed. Alcohol is one of the most common sleep-aids; people use it every day to help themselves fall asleep. But alcohol is extremely suppressive of REM sleep. That means, you may fall asleep, but you aren’t getting the sleep you need.
- Exercise every day. You don’t have to go to the gym and do an intense workout every day, even a 30 walk will help. The key is consistency. Make sure you do a little bit every day and don’t exercise 3 hours before bed.
- Manage your stress. Stress can be one of the main causes of insomnia and other sleep-related diseases. If you can find an outlet for your stress – like meditation or exercise – you are much more likely to get a good night’s rest.
- Avoid blue light before bed. Blue light (the kind you get from your phones or other screens) can throw our circadian rhythm out of whack. That means it affects our sleeping pattern and stops us from getting enough REM sleep. Check out MySleepGlasses to protect your eyes from blue light.