I talk mostly about the non-physical aspects of health and well-being on this platform, namely the mind. That’s because it’s our thoughts, in particular, philosophical notions like meaning and purpose, that bring about the greatest degree of fulfillment. But I also talk a lot about the brain, which is certainly physical in nature, critical to health improvement and is inextricably linked with our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. I would be pretty foolish if I didn’t mention one of the most important physical health activities that is critical for our thinking, the brain and the body in terms of health improvement. And that activity is sleep.
Honestly, sleep is where the magic happens! Learning, memory formation, detoxification, and neuroplasticity (the rewiring of brain circuitry) all occur during sleep. In fact, sleep and deep rest is absolutely necessary if you want to achieve neuroplasticity in adulthood.
There are essentially 2 main phases to sleep: REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-REM / deep sleep). Generally speaking, when we fall asleep we enter into the beginning stages of NREM. Here, the muscles begin to relax, respiration slows, heart rate slows and brain waves slow. Eventually deep sleep and delta brain wave states set in. It is during this phase that the body repairs itself – tissue regenerates, bones and muscles can grow, energy is restored and cognitive function can improve.
After roughly 90 minutes, the body enters into REM sleep. In this phase, brain activity is heightened, the eyes move rapidly back and forth, heart rate and respiratory rate increase, muscles can twitch (although major muscle groups are still immobile) and dreaming can occur. Ideally, you want to get about 5-6 REM cycles, which equates to roughly 7-9 hours of interrupted sleep each night (for adults).
So how do we improve our sleep? It all starts with better preparation. Here are a few pointers:
Your room should ideally be cool and dark with little to no light or sound.
Try some progressive muscle relaxation or deep diaphragmatic breathing techniques while in bed to help you fall asleep easier.
Try not to exercise right before going to bed (less than 2 hours prior), rather, shoot for a warm bath or shower to relax the body and muscles.
Avoid caffeine or stimulants right before bed.
Go to bed and wake up the same time each day (you can get your body into a natural rhythm that way and you can even train yourself to wake up without an alarm!).
Also, take advantage of the moments right after you wake up. Your brain is in a slower alpha/theta brain wave state. In this state, you can more easily rewire your brain for things like greater focus, concentration, better mindset (because the mind is more suggestible in these states) and you can simply get things done, especially in the morning, before the hustle and bustle of the day.
So make sleep a priority. We’ve all been sleep deprived and know how awful it is. But unless you are a new parent, you likely can control how much sleep you get. The more consistent you are to that 7-9 hour window, the better you are going to feel and the better your brain is going to function!
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