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Last Updated on April 19, 2021

The Importance of Sleep Cycles (and Tips to Improve Yours)

The Importance of Sleep Cycles (and Tips to Improve Yours)
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Sleep is the best cure for most problems we encounter, and moving smoothly through our sleep cycles helps increase our ability to face challenges head on and be more productive every day. Unfortunately, we know surprisingly little about our own sleep cycles, the benefits of getting a good night’s sleep, or how we can hack and influence our sleep patterns to become more creative and productive.

In this article I’ll go deep on how sleep cycles work, how our sleep affects our productivity, and provide sleep hacks to help you increase your performance and productivity.

What Are Sleep Cycles?

When it comes to our sleep, we pass through five different stages[1]:

Sleep Trackers: Five Stages of Sleep – Adventures of Gemma

    Many people think that a typical sleep cycle consists of only one cycle through the stages. However, the stages of sleep that we enjoy actually cycle throughout the night depending on how long we’re asleep.

    Each stage is associated with different brain waves. When we successfully manage to pass through all the stages, we achieve a sleep cycle, which typically happens within 90 minutes.

    Stage One

    This is your light sleep phase when you often drift in and out of sleep easily. As you have probably experienced, you can be awoken easily during this phase.

    We go through alpha and beta brainwaves and have almost dreamlike periods before we begin to fall asleep.

    Stage Two

    This stage often lasts for about 20 minutes as our brain produces short periods of rapid, rhythmic brain waves. Our body temperature drops, and our heart rate begins to slow down.

    Stage Three

    This is the transitional phase between light and very deep sleep. Deep, slow brain waves known as Delta Waves emerge during this third stage.

    After three full sleep cycles, the body will cut out this stage.

    Stage Four

    Stage four is your deep sleep period that lasts for about 30 minutes. Your body will typically go into stage four two times during a full 8-hour sleep cycle.

    It is essential not to wake up during the deep sleep stage as this leads to disorientation and foggy mind, and it will ensure you have a very unproductive day.

    REM Sleep

    This is the stage where most dreams happen. You will experience rapid eye movement and increased brain activity. Beta waves are generated; these are produced when we are focused in a mental activity.

    It is important to note here that our sleep does not progress through all of the stages in sequence.

    Our sleep starts with stage one and then moves into stages two, three, and four. After stage four’s deep sleep, stages three and then two are repeated before going into REM Sleep.

    Once REM is complete, we usually return to stage two sleep.

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    For context, 4-5 sleep cycles are optimal to get a good night’s sleep, as each cycle takes around 90-120 minutes to complete. The optimal amount of sleep we should be getting is 8 hours a night, but if you can’t get that 8 hours in, the least optimal period of sleep to wake up during is stage four.

    Have you ever had your alarm go off or been woken up, and you get up with a headache and a feeling of grogginess? If you have, you would have been woken up from stage four of your sleep cycle.

    How Sleep Cycles Affect Productivity

    When we sleep, our brain goes through the different stages I’ve laid out above, with each full cycle (all four stages and REM) lasting 90 minutes. It makes sense then, that we will feel more refreshed ready for a productive day when we wake at the end of a full 90-minute sleep cycle.

    The next step is to decide when you want to wake up. If you want to wake at 6am, then you will want to get five 90-minute sleep cycles in, or seven and a half hours, which means you should go to sleep at 10:30pm.

    To monitor your own sleep cycle, there are a number of apps on the market that can help you analyze the quality of your sleep. Many of them monitor the movement of your body while you sleep and can estimate the different sleep stages you’re in. This helps you ensure you activate your alarm at the right time to complete a full sleep cycle.

    Once we fully understand how our sleep cycle works and how we actually sleep each night, there are many things we can do to ensure we get the best night’s sleep possible and avoid sleep deprivation to increase our creativity and productivity.

    Here’s some more information on how sleep is affected by what we do each day and vice versa:

    How to Hack Your Sleep Cycles for Better Rest

    Below are 18 sleep hacks you can start using right now to use your sleep cycles to your advantage:

    1. Remove Technology

    Many of us keep our phone on a bedside table, or at least in the bedroom. We check for notifications or respond to emails rather than just unplugging and winding down before sleep.

    If it’s not smartphones, many of us have a television in our room, and we are catching up on the latest Netflix series before we switch off the light and go to sleep.

    Wakefulness is often triggered by blue light that emanates from a computer or smartphone screen, which can affect the rhythm of your sleep.

    Avoid laptops, phones or tablets an hour before sleep, or at least put your phone on airplane mode. Leave your smartphone or tablet in another room when you go to sleep, and decide on a time to stop emailing and being on social media at least an hour before you go to bed.

    2. Use the 90-Minute Sleep Cycle Rule

    If you know you are going to sleep later than normal or wake up earlier, then use your knowledge of your 90-minute cycles to optimize your sleep.

    You will more refreshed and closest to your waking state at the end of a cycle. This knowledge will help you create more productive days.

    If you need to get up at 4am, work back in 90-minute increments to figure out when you should go to sleep.

    3. Use an App to Monitor Your Sleep Cycles

    By tracking your sleep patterns for at least a week, you’ll have more of a sense of your sleep quality.

    You want to wake at the top of a new sleep cycle to feel refreshed and ready for a productive day. Many of the apps can act as an alarm clock and wake you at the top of a sleep cycle rather than waking you up in the middle of deep sleep.

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    3. Don’t Exercise Two Hours Before Sleep

    Unless you’re doing yoga or something similar, you shouldn’t exercise for at least two hours before going to sleep.

    Exercise builds up energy, raises our cortisol levels, and makes it a much longer process to fall asleep.

    4. Take a Hot Bath

    A relaxing bath raises our body temperature slightly, but when we get out and towel ourselves dry, we cool down quickly and are in a much more relaxed state, ready for sleep, which means we often fall asleep quicker.

    5. Go to Sleep Before 11pm

    Sleep is an essential way of resting, recharging, and nourishing our body and mind.

    Although it differs from person to person and during different seasons, we tend to naturally get tired between 10:45pm and 11pm as our biological clock is based around the circadian rhythms.

    To avoid getting a second wind, we should fall asleep before 11pm, otherwise many people get an additional surge in energy that can keep them awake into the early hours.

    If you can stick close to the circadian cycle, you will wake up feeling rested and productive.

    6. Create Your Optimal Sleep Environment

    Make going to sleep an experience that you really look forward to, rather than something you have to do.

    Investing in a new mattress will help you sleep better than a 10-year old mattress, but there are some other simple, practical steps you can take.

    Have crisp, clean sheets on the bed. Burn some candles and dim the lights before going to sleep as you wind down.

    Many of us have a playlist for working out or running. Create a sleep playlist of relaxing, soothing music that will help calm the mind before sleep.

    7. Keep Your Room at the Right Temperature

    Adjust the temperature in your room or have lighter/heavier duvets so you’re not waking up in the night being too hot or cold. There’s a close relationship between body temperature and sleep cyles.

    Most people sleep best in a slightly cooler room around 65 degrees Fahrenheit or 18 degrees Celsius. Waking up from a deep sleep because you’re too hot or cold is going to make you very irritable.

    8. Use Guided Meditation

    Guided meditation can help you sleep quicker and with a calmer mind, helping you enjoy a deeper, more restorative sleep cycles.

    When you meditate, your muscles relax, your breathing becomes slower and deeper, and your daily thoughts can turn into rich, dreamlike imagery.

    Try this guide to get started: The 5-minute Guide to Meditation: Anywhere, Anytime 

    9. Sleep in Total Darkness

    Daylight is known to inhibit the release of melatonin in your brain. Melatonin is a natural hormone released in our blood during darkness and helps our bodies feel more relaxed and less alert.

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    If possible, use blackout curtains, eye masks, and other tools to create more darkness in your room to avoid disrupted sleep.

    10. Avoid Caffeine After 1pm

    The World Sleep Society suggests avoiding caffeine six hours or more before you go to sleep. Caffeine consumed 6 hours before bed can affect the amount of sleep you get by over an hour.

    So, enjoy your coffee, but be clear when you should have your last cup of the day.

    11. Create a Sleep Routine

    One of the simplest ways to ensure you get your 8 hours of sleep every night is to create a sleep routine.

    Ideally, this would be having a specific time to go to sleep, but that’s not always possible as we may have nights out planned or specific work or family commitments.

    Instead, commit to a time when you are going to rise in the morning and work back to get your 7 or 8 hours on occasion.

    If you follow a morning routine that has you rising at 5am, you know the ideal would be going to sleep at 9 or 10.

    Be consistent with having a specific wake up time for 14 days, and see the impact it creates in your life.

    12. Conduct a Sleep Audit

    Start analyzing your “sleep performance” to explore different hacks to ensure you wake up refreshed and productive. You can use a sleep journal or just enter the information into a spreadsheet to help you get an idea of how well your mind moves through the sleep cycles.

    You want to track:

    • When you went to sleep
    • What you did before you went to sleep
    • When you woke up
    • How you felt when you woke up
    • How many times you woke up during the night
    • What you ate before you slept
    • How comfortable you felt during the night
    • Any naps during the day

    Try tracking for 7 or 14 days. You will begin to notice patterns emerge that can help you cut things out or add things in to improve your sleep.

    13. Try Polyphasic Sleep

    You’ve probably heard of polyphasic sleep and how many people are using this technique to hack their sleep cycles so that they only need 2 to 4 hours of sleep a night.

    Essentially, you are breaking your sleep into two blocks of time rather than the traditional monophasic sleep, in which we sleep only once per day[2]. You are sleeping for shorter periods but more often.

    Many of us take naps during the day, which could be anything from a 15 minute power nap to a longer 90-minute nap and still have 5-8 hours of sleep a night.

    Polyphasic sleep is different. It’s about sleeping a lot less and is often structured in one of two ways:

    • Nap for 20 minutes every four hours, for a total of two hours of sleep a day
    • Have a “normal sleep” at night with three 20-minute naps during the day

    The aim is to get more time in your day and less sleep at night, but this method is not recommended for the long-term.

    14. Try Pillow Sprays or Aromatherapy

    There has been a rise of the number of pillow spray products on the market promising to help you fall asleep faster and wake up feeling more refreshed and energized. They aim to help reduce sleep anxiety and improve sleep quality by calming and soothing the mind and body.

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    You can also use aromatherapy oils such as lavender to help you fall asleep quicker. These oils calm the nervous system by lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and skin temperature.

    15. Wind Down Your Day Slowly

    When you have lots of things on your mind, or your energy levels are high after being out or watching a film, it can be difficult to naturally calm down before sleep and move calmly through the sleep cycles.

    As part of your sleep schedule, take 30-45 minutes to just calm the mind and body before getting into bed.

    To help you decompress, try drinking hot tea with honey, journaling, or meditating. Slow everything down to give yourself the best chance of a great night’s sleep.

    If that doesn’t work, pick up a book and read for 15 minutes before sleep.

    16. Declutter Your Mind

    To create the perfect harmony of mind and body before you go to sleep, try taking everything that’s running around your mind and get it down on paper by journaling.

    Try sitting for 15 minutes and write down your worries, goals, and random thoughts. Clear your internal inbox so to speak. Quiet down that internal chatter so you are in the right frame of mind to experience a deep sleep.

    For beginners, check out this guide on journaling.

    17. Express Gratitude Before Sleep

    Give yourself 5 minutes before you go to sleep to give thanks for the day. This relaxes the mind and body and leaves you feeling positive.

    Whatever has happened during the day, step back, reflect on it, and be grateful.

    Giving thanks will help ensure that you don’t fall asleep worrying. You will be positive, thankful, and tranquil rather than fighting with a negative, worried mind.

    To take this one step further, focus you mind on one thing you want to achieve and let your subconscious work on it while you sleep.

    Final Thoughts

    Making time for a full night of sleep and setting the stage for quality sleep cycles is the secret to accomplishing more and being productive during the day.

    If your aim is to wake up more energized and be more productive throughout the day, then give the techniques that feel right a go.

    With a few lifestyle and environmental adjustments, as well as more knowledge about how you sleep, you can vastly improve the quality of your sleep to ensure you get a great night’s sleep every night and maximize your performance every day.

    More Tips for Better Sleep

    Featured photo credit: Anthony Tran via unsplash.com

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    More by this author

    Mark Pettit

    Mark Pettit is a Business Coach for ambitious entrepreneurs and business owners who want to achieve more by working less.

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    Last Updated on July 22, 2021

    How to Quit Drinking for a Healthier Body and Mind

    How to Quit Drinking for a Healthier Body and Mind
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    Has anyone ever suggested that you should cut down on your drinking or, for that matter, quit drinking alcohol out of your life completely? Have you ever felt that way on your own, especially after waking up super late for work with a pounding headache and blurred vision the day after a long night out on the town or getting down in the club?

    Let me start by saying that I am not trying to demonize the consumption of adult alcoholic beverages. I’m the last person to judge you or anyone else for making a conscious decision to drink alcohol responsibly. Instead, as a licensed mental health counselor and certified master addiction professional, I have a professional responsibility to help my clients take greater control over their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors by gaining insight into the underlying issues that have negatively impacted their lives.

    Is Drinking Alcohol a Problem for You?

    First things first. Is drinking alcohol a problem for you? Since alcohol has been known to impair your judgment, you may not even realize that it is.

    According to the 5th Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or more commonly referred to as the DSM-5, the universal reference guide used by mental health and addiction professionals to diagnose all substance abuse and mental health disorders, alcohol use disorder is defined as a “problematic pattern of alcohol use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress.”

    It is manifested by experiencing at least two of the following symptoms within a 12-month period:[1]

    1. Alcohol consumed in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended
    2. Persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control the use of alcohol
    3. A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain, use, or recover from the effects of alcohol.
    4. Craving or a strong desire or urge to use alcohol
    5. Recurrent alcohol use results in a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, and home.
    6. Continued alcohol use despite persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused by or exacerbated by the effects of alcohol
    7. Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced.
    8. Recurrent alcohol use in physically hazardous situations
    9. Alcohol use is continued despite the knowledge of having persistent or hazardous physical or psychological problems likely caused by alcohol.
    10. Tolerance is present in which there is a need for markedly increased amounts of alcohol to achieve intoxication.
    11. Withdrawal, as evidenced by experiencing any combination of both physical and psychological discomfort following cessation after a period of heavy or prolonged alcohol use.

    Nevertheless, just because you may not meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder, does not mean that you should not quit drinking alcohol. Although you may appear to be able to handle your alcohol on the outside, excessive alcohol use has been shown to negatively impact your overall health. Just like nicotine, alcohol is a habit-forming drug.

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    However, unlike the stimulant properties found within nicotine, alcohol is classified as a depressant. It essentially slows down your central nervous system’s ability to effectively process feelings, emotions, and information.

    With your defenses down, alcohol can make you feel more emotionally sensitive, sad, vulnerable, and depressed—for example, with regard to bringing back feelings associated with past traumas that you may have worked hard to overcome, or perhaps those in which you may have never had the time to properly address at all.

    A study published by the National Institute for Health showed that alcoholics were somewhere between 60 and 120 times more likely to complete suicide than those free from psychiatric illness.[2]  Additionally, although having a couple of cocktails may make it easier for you to talk to a stranger as it lowers your inhibitions, it can also negatively impact your judgment—for example, by drinking and driving.

    Additionally, alcohol has been known to make people more argumentative and belligerent, especially when they are confronted about the issue. A study published by the World Health Organization estimates that approximately 55% of domestic violence perpetrators were drinking alcohol prior to the assault and that women who were abused were 15 times more likely to abuse alcohol.[3]

    When it comes to your physical health, there is an overabundance of ways in which excessive drinking is bad for your body. Since alcohol provides little or no nutritional value and is often combined with high-calorie mixers, it can lead to obesity.

    People who drink alcohol in excess are generally less physically active, thereby increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.[4] Additionally, excessive drinking inflames the pancreas, making it more difficult for it to secrete insulin, thereby contributing to diabetes.

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    Furthermore, excessive alcohol use can lead to liver damage, such as cirrhosis, in which the body is unable to properly remove waste products from the blood leaving the stomach and intestines. As a result, people with cirrhosis of the liver may appear jaundiced, swollen, and confused. A recent study published by Forbes indicated that even moderate drinking tracked with decreases in both grey and white brain matter, essentially interfering with brain functioning as it alters the brain’s chemistry and composition.[5]

    With all of that being said, if you feel that alcohol use may be getting in the way of being able to maintain a healthy lifestyle, I recommend that you take a moment to consider these six simple ways to quit drinking alcohol to achieve a healthier mind, body, and soul.

    1. Stay Away From the Bottle

    If you happen to be a recreational drinker—someone who has a couple of drinks here and there, every so often or once in a blue moon—and you want to quit drinking alcohol altogether, the easiest way to quit drinking alcohol is just to stay as far away from it as possible. I mean it’s really that simple, isn’t it? Not so fast! Alcohol is everywhere, from the supermarket to the soccer field.

    Even with all of the potential risks, people continue to drink alcohol at any number of social gatherings, business meetings, and even religious ceremonies, activities that are in many cases almost impossible to avoid completely. Sporting events, for example, all seem to be sponsored by sleek, sexy, and, at the same time, remarkably socially conscious breweries.

    Nevertheless, although alcohol is everywhere, the next time you go out with your friends to your favorite hotspot, try ordering tonic water with lime, or perhaps even the virgin version of your favorite cocktail instead—like a pina colada or strawberry daiquiri—so you can keep the umbrella and just get rid of the rum.

    2. Set Expectations With Others

    Unless you are prepared to cut ties with all of your friends and family members who like to drink alcohol, be prepared to set certain expectations with them when it comes to drinking when you are around them.

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    First, let them know that you are not judging them but rather, making a personal choice not to drink alcohol. Then, set clear boundaries with them by letting them know whether or not you are comfortable being around them when they choose to drink. Remember, you are the most powerful gatekeeper of everyone and everything that surrounds you.

    3. Own Your Issues!

    The first step to quitting alcohol—or quitting the use of any habit-forming mood-altering substance for that matter—is to first admit that you have a problem with it, whatever the problem may be. I suggest that you first start by identifying how alcohol has either already affected your life, or how it could do so in the future if you continue to drink.

    Take a personal inventory of everything important to you, such as your relationship with your family and your faith, as well as the condition of your health and your personal finances. Then, carefully consider how alcohol could be negatively impacting each item. Set aside some personal quality time to journal all of your thoughts in black and white to help you see the situation from a more objective point of view. Take it from me, it’s not easy to admit that you have a problem, but once you do, it can be a very liberating feeling.

    4. Ask for Help

    Once you have admitted to yourself that you have a problem with alcohol, you can then admit it to someone else, preferably someone who can help you process your feelings and concerns in a safe, constructive, and non-judgmental way.

    Although family and friends may be very supportive, you may want to work with a therapist who can offer a more objective perspective along with a variety of tools to not only help you stay sober but also process and ultimately work through any underlying issues that may have caused you to drink in the first place.

    Furthermore, in the unfortunate event that you have become physically dependent on alcohol to make it through the day, medical supervision may be needed to help you manage any combination of withdrawal symptoms, including restlessness, anxiety, chills, nausea, and even potentially life-threatening seizures.

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    5. Join a Support Group

    When you are trying to defend yourself against a cunning, baffling, and powerful opponent, there is usually strength in numbers. Beyond reaching out for professional help to address any underlying issues that may be holding you or anyone else back from staying sober, joining a support group is an excellent way to strengthen your foundation for recovery from alcoholism.

    Although caring friends and family may be able to provide you with unconditional love, members of your support group may also be able to offer a much more objective step-building approach for long-term sobriety. Fortunately, there are support group meetings available all over the world, you just have to look for one that meets your needs.

    6. Make a Commitment to Stay Sober

    After you have owned your issues and learned the tools to stay sober, the next step is to commit yourself to actually staying sober. Breaking a bad habit does not usually happen overnight. Typically, it’s a process that requires time and tenacity. There is no exception when it comes to quitting alcohol.

    Nevertheless, many people find themselves frantically trying to stop drinking after any combination of unfortunate, uncomfortable, and sometimes unforgiving events, such as being fired from a job, having an argument with a loved one, getting caught driving under the influence, and experiencing medical complications associated with alcohol use, such as liver failure.

    Final Thoughts

    In the end, If you truly want to quit drinking, make an open and honest commitment to yourself that you will not only put away the bottle but that you will also take out the tools every day to stay mentally, physically, and spiritually sober.

    More on How to Quit Drinking

    Featured photo credit: Zach Kadolph via unsplash.com

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