Are you a light sleeper, or do you sometimes sleep so soundly that you don’t even hear your alarm? We all understand the importance of deep sleep - most of us have experienced the difference between a great night’s sleep and a fitful, restless night’s sleep firsthand, but what constitutes ‘deep sleep’?
Scientists have done a great deal of research on this exact topic to help answer this question!
Deep sleep is actually a stage of our natural sleep cycle, known as slow wave sleep. During this phase of our sleep cycle, our brain waves slow right down, producing a relatively high amplitude and a frequency of less than 1 Hz. During this time our brain waves are characterised as having a down station where our neurocortex goes quiet and is allowed to rest, the waves then reach and upstate and will fire rapidly. During deep sleep you will have slow eye movement, only moderate muscle tone and will remain relatively still. This is quite different from Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, when many of us dream. During deep sleep you are much less likely to wake up from external stimuli, such as the noise of your alarm and you’ll be slower to feel alert if you do wake up. The groggy feeling that most of us experience after being woken from a deep sleep is known as ‘sleep inertia’. If your deep sleep cycle is disrupted, your body will try to make up for the next time you fall asleep with a longer period of slow-wave sleep.
Deep sleep has a very important role to play in memory processing. During this phase in our sleep cycle our brains work to consolidate new memories that we have formed throughout the day. This is why people with sleep disorders will often suffer with memory issues. It’s common for those with insomnia to find that they have a very hard time completing memory tasks. If you’re not sleeping well at night, then you are likely not operating as efficiently as you could be and you’ll probably discover that you’re forgetting simple things that may have only just happened the day before.
Studies on deep sleep have so far suggested that its primary function is to allow the brain time to rest and restore itself after a busy day of activity. Deep sleep is also when our bodies secrete their highest daily levels of human growth hormone, so this is our time for recovery and growth - which makes it especially important in our formative years.
There are a number of sleep disorders that commonly occur during deep sleep, like parasomnias, sleepwalking, night terrors, bed wetting and sleep eating. Those with conditions like narcolepsy often struggle to experience deep sleep.
If you want to improve your chances of falling into a deep sleep and stay deeply asleep for longer, then intense exercise and short periods of body heating, such as when you have a hot shower or spend time in the sauna, have been shown to help.
If you want to achieve deep sleep then there are a few things you can do - firstly, exercise throughout the day, but not too close to bedtime as this has been shown to have the opposite of the desired effect on sleep. Secondly, make sure your bedroom is a calm, comfortable space conducive to a good night’s sleep. Keep everything you need properly stored away, and everything you might need during the night close by on your bedside table. Waking up to retrieve items repeatedly throughout the night will prevent you from falling into a deep sleep. Your bed frame and mattress should be supportive enough for your body to relax and your room should be kept dark and cool as light and heat can negatively impact your ability to fall asleep.
Need help setting your bedroom up for deep sleep? Try our handy online mattress selector, or visit us in-store for advice from the bedroom experts.
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