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"The value of rest and sleep … is very under appreciated these days" - Eve Van Cauter, Sleep Researcher.

Understanding Sleep

Sleep is usually classified into two: orthodox sleep and paradoxical sleep. Orthodox sleep is also called non REM or NREM (Non Rapid Eye Movement) sleep and paradoxical sleep is often called the REM sleep. NREM sleep has four different stages: in the first stage, blood supply to the brain is reduced and the temperature in the brain falls slightly. Heart beat and breathing are accelerated. The muscles are slightly tensed. Thoughts cris-cross the mind. In the next stage, unconnected thoughts dominate the mind. Slowly the sleeper moves to the third stage in which the heart rate and breathing become slow. The muscles of the body becomes relaxed. The brain starts to emit delta waves. In the next stage, we have the deep sleep which is full delta wave sleep. The orthodox sleep is broken up by about five periods of REM sleeps each of which is longer duration than the previous one.

In the REM sleep, the sleeper breaths irregularly. The blood supply to the brain is increased and so is the temperature in the brain. Most of the muscles are relaxed in this stage. Jerky movements of body and face are characteristic of this stage of sleep. An average person spends about 25% of his sleep in REM sleep. New born children have REM sleep: about half of their sleep is REM sleep.

During stages 3 and 4, growth hormones are secreted into the blood stream. Body's manufacture of proteins, sexual arousal, orgasm etc. are also significantly influenced by REM sleep. Earlier, sleep researchers believed that REM sleep is essential for our mental health. But this is not accepted now.

Effects of Sleep

"Sleep … knits up the ravel'd sleeve of care." - Shakesphere.

From a Psychology of Consciousness point of view, sleep includes two states of consciousness -- dream (svapnam) and deep sleep (sushupti). Wakefulness, Dream Sleep, Deep Sleep and Turiyam are the four states of consciousness. Deep sleep being the third can influence both dream and wakefulness. If you get more deep sleep, you will be very energetic in your wakefulness. Duration of dreaming is also regulated because of deep sleep.

For the sleep to be satisfactory to the sleeper, it should be continuous. Fragmented sleep does not have restorative or refreshing value.

Learning and Sleep

Many researchers argue that REM sleep is important for the transfer of learned material during wakefulness from Short Term Memory(STM) to Long Term Memory(LTM).

Dream and Problem Solving

Many people including scientists, artists men of letters and even laymen have reported that they got new ideas from their dreams and even solutions to complex problems have been received through dreams. The famous chemist Kekule, who discovered the benzene ring, has said that he got the idea from his dream. The inventor of sewing machine also reported that he got the idea for designing the needle of the machine from his dream.

Sleep and Sex

Men experience erection (Nocturnal Penile Tumescence - NPT) during REM sleep. Both men and women have reported wet dreams (ejaculation) in the dream sleep. Most of men say that after orgasm they slip into sleep. On the contrary, women say that they experience alertness rather than relaxation after orgasm.

Sleep and Food

It is a well known fact that the food and drinks we consume have significant effect on our sleep. Sleep researchers have found a list of such foods and drinks. Caffeine containing substances like tea, coffee, chocolate, soft drinks etc. are found to disturb sleep. Alcohol and smoking are also found to disturb your sleep. While alcohol may make you drowsy or even push you to sleep, such sleeps are never refreshing -- they are often low level sleep.

Malted milk products, on the other hand, have been found to have sleep-promoting effects.

How Much Should One Sleep

This truly depends on the person. Some people do need more sleep than others. Some others can become refreshed and wake effective with very little sleep. In general, we need sleep from 5 hours to 9 hours. The personal need for sleep varies with the level of stress also. The quality of sleep also is affected by the level of stress. Fears and anxieties, guilt, self-deception etc. disturbs one's sleeping rhythm.

The more deep sleep you get, the less need you have to stay asleep. On the other hand, even if you stay asleep for long hours, if your sleep is either filled with a lot of dreams or if you have only light sleep( stages 1 and 2 sleep), you tend to sleep longer. It is not the duration of sleep that counts but quality of sleep.

Sleep and Immunity

It is now fairly proved that sleep has direct effect on the immune system. Our defenses against both bacterial and viral infection are found to be increased during sleep. On the other hand, sleep deprivation reduces our immunity against these diseases. The immune system also becomes overactive with sleep deprivation spending a lot of energy. This makes our body very tired and fatigued.

Sleep and Beauty

Good sleep with enough deep sleep is found to be very effective to maintaining one's beauty. The skin gets refreshed with new cells during sleep. Both physical and psychological rejuvenation occurs at sleep.

All of us have experienced that if we did not get a restorative and refreshing sleep, we feel week like the old. Continuous insomnia, insufficient sleep or light sleep accelerates the aging process whereas effective deep sleep restores and rejuvenates us and aids in maintaining our physical beauty.

Ayurveda on Sleep Problems

Ayurveda says that sleeplessness results in laziness, tiredness, inertia, dizziness, feeling of heaviness, body ache etc. Head ache, high temperature, cough are the results of continued untimely sleep. Ayurveda also says that over sleep can cause diabetes.

People having depression, schizophrenia, and similar psychological disorders have been found to improve their condition if they get enough deep sleep.