Free Energy: Part two of three - Sleep Cycles

Ahh… sleep.  What we resisted as children, savored as teenagers, took for granted as young adults, and yearn more of as parents.  Sleep was and always will be a huge factor in our lives and our energy levels. And for being so important, it is pretty misunderstood. How often have you been so proud of yourself for getting eight or more hours of sleep only to feel groggy and exhausted at the end of the day.  That is the WORST, isn’t it? Hopefully I can share some insights on how to get your sleep cycles back on track so that you can wake up with more energy, patience and enthusiasm.

Photo Credit: Leslie Plesser of  Shuttersmack Photography

Photo Credit: Leslie Plesser of Shuttersmack Photography

For as much as we do while we’re awake, our bodies are doing the same if not more while we’re asleep; different neurotransmitters are firing, reparative enzymes are healing the body, and hormone levels are rising and falling.  Sleep is responsible for your memory, your ability to learn, and executive functions like problem solving, organizational skills, and prioritization. So anytime that our sleep cycles are disrupted, a lot is compromised. Which in turn, makes it harder to be patient, creative, and kind with our kiddos.  As cute as those little letter boards are, nobody wants to be the mom whose goal it is to just keep the tiny humans alive, right? We want to be the mom who has fun and easy crafts prepped, healthy meals ready, and play dates organized. Sleep can help!

A special note to all the mom’s with the itty bitty babies:  

Please don’t read this and think that you’re doomed.  I mean yeah, your sleep cycles are way out of whack, but you and your baby WILL eventually sleep again.  If you find yourself with enough time to read this, stop. Go take a nap and get at me when the fog has lifted. 

So let’s talk about how to make our sleep work harder for us.  Sleep is made up of a series of stages, creating the sleep cycle.  And everyone’s length and amount of sleep cycles are different. So while eight hours of sleep might work for your neighbor, it could leave you feeling exhausted.  Here’s why. The average person goes through 4-5 sleep cycles each night, each sleep cycle taking anywhere from 75 to 120 minutes each, which if you do the math, shows that all some people need are five hours of sleep while others need a whopping 10 hours!  That’s quite the range, which proves how individualized sleep really is.  

For our purposes, let’s average it out and say that a standard sleep cycle is around 90 minutes long.  No matter how many hours of sleep that you need each night, if you’re waking up in the middle of one of your cycles, you’re going to feel tired.  To make your mornings better and more energetic, start setting your alarm so that it goes off in accordance with your sleep cycles. For example, if you go to sleep at 10:00 p.m., set your alarm for 5:30 a.m. (for a total of 7 ½ hours of sleep) and you’ll likely find that you more refreshed when you wake up than if you set the alarm for 6:00 a.m. and interrupted another sleep cycle.  Or you can go for an additional sleep cycle if that’s what makes you feel best.

And, here’s another great tip if you’re ever in a pinch and need to sleep less than normal.  Shoot for getting that minimum of four sleep cycles in for a total of 6 hours. If you have to stay up until 1:00 a.m., set your alarm for 7 a.m. not 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. and you’ll likely find that you feel better when you wake up to start  your day. And if feeling better during the day isn’t enough motivation, during the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 p.m. is when we secrete the most human growth hormone, AKA human youth hormone.  Yes, there is a hormone responsible for making us look and feel younger!  But the catch is, you need to be asleep in order for your body to produce the most quantities of it.  

Another way to reset your sleep cycles is to let nature be your guide.  Aim for getting to bed within a few hours of it getting dark outside. I know, I know… that technically means that during the winter months, we Minnesotans should be turning in for the night around 6:30, which obviously isn’t going to happen.  But for the most part, just know that during the winter we should be getting more sleep while in the summer we can afford a few more awake hours.    

On the flip side, to help reset your sleep cycle so that you’re actually tired when the optimal bedtime rolls around, make a habit of  getting some sunlight as soon as possible when you wake up. This is going to help boost your natural cortisol levels and fully wake your system up.

For some, this information might be brand new.  For others, it might be old news. Regardless, I hope it served as a reminder as to why sleep is so individualized and important.  If you’re curious about how to make your sleep work harder for you, let’s talk

And for all you nerds out there, if you’re geeking out on this sleep stuff, check out the graphic below to get an idea of all the different things that are happening to your body during the general human circadian rhythm.