Getting a good night’s sleep requires more than plopping down on your bed. In fact, sleep is an active process. While we snooze, we pass through several stages of sleep, each with its own distinct physiological changes. We also alternate between non-REM (rapid eye movement) — which serves to restore the body — and REM sleep, during which we dream and restore the brain. The time you spend in these stages varies by age, but a good night’s rest means the sleep should be continuous and uninterrupted.
The urge to sleep is dictated by two natural forces. Our homeostatic sleep drive helps us balance our wakefulness with sleep. “It tells us we’re only good for so many hours of alertness before we become functionally intoxicated,” says Helene Emsellem, MD, director of the Center for Sleep and Wake Disorders in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and author of "Snooze or Lose." Our circadian rhythm, on the other hand, regulates the timing of our sleepiness and wakefulness. You can thank your circadian rhythm for that daily afternoon slump, for instance.
Both forces are highly affected by our habits, our routines and even our exposure to sunlight. So for truly sound slumber, it’s important to respect these internal drives and do things that gear your body for sleep --some folks call this practicing good sleep hygiene. Here’s how you can ensure that you’re properly prepped for a good night’s sleep.
Move That Body
A good workout that gets your heart pumping and muscles flexing works wonders on promoting sleep. Regular physical activity makes it easier for you to get to sleep and improves the quality of your sleep. For maximum benefit, avoid rigorous activity three to four hours before bed. Body temperature rises when you exercise, which can make it hard for you to get to sleep.
Get Some Sun
Exposure to sunlight influences circadian rhythm, which is controlled by brain cells in the hypothalamus. These cells respond to light and dark signals from our environment, and set off reactions in our bodies to either wake us up or make us sleepy. In the mornings, it triggers the release of cortisol, a stimulating hormone, which raises body temperature. “Sunlight is a strong stimulus for wakefulness in humans,” says Nancy Foldvary, DO, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Cleveland Clinic and author of "The Cleveland Clinic Guide to Sleep Disorders." “So getting sun exposure promotes wakefulness during the day and can help people sleep at night.” Darkness, on the other hand, triggers our brains to produce melatonin, a hormone that regulates circadian rhythm and promotes sleepiness.
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