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What is sleep really and why is it an essential part of our daily lives? Let's find out together.
what is *sleep*?

Sleep is pretty good right? In fact, it’s probably one of the best things about being a human. Normally when we “have” to do something, it usually means it’s something we resent doing; sleep is the exception to the rule. That being said, it has baffled people since sleep became a thing; not sure when that was, but I’m guessing it was a fairly long time ago… We have always wondered why we do it, how to improve it, why we dream, what they mean etc etc. What we do know, is that it’s essential, and it influences every aspect of our well-being.  

Let’s look a bit deeper into what sleep actually is. It takes up a significant portion of our time, so surely it’s worth looking into? 


into the unknoooooooooooown

Join us as we navigate the landscapes of sleep, from the ethereal universe of dreams right through to the body’s quiet reparative processes, this is where science and poetry intertwine. There is so much that sleep does for us and we don’t even realise it; we owe it hundreds of IOUs. There’s plenty we don’t understand about sleep, but thanks to advances in science and our thirst for knowledge as a species, we are peeking behind the curtain, and we like what we see.  

the unexplored realms of slumber 

As the sun sets and the day draws to a close, our bodies enter a state of rest that transcends the mere absence of wakefulness… Poetic, right? Thanks! It’s not just a process of closing our eyes and some time later opening them again and job’s a good ’un, it’s actually a carefully balanced and choreographed journey through a series of different stages. Each of these stages serves a different purpose when it comes to restoring our bodies and minds back to full power. That being said, it is still borderline magic, and the nightly trip reveals secrets about the mind and body that continue to intrigue scientists, philosophers, and poets (me…) alike.  

a symphony of sleep stages

Often, when people try to explain the sleep cycle, it either comes off as, well, boring, or as some type of pseudo-science that has as much to do with actual science as astrology. Sorry if you’re into all that, clearly my moon placement isn’t great…  

In all seriousness though, sleep cycles are the real deal, and they are pretty much a symphony of alternating stages. They guide us through our nighttime adventures night after night, orchestrating a delicate ballet of brain waves, a harmony of hormonal releases, and a brass band of bodily functions? Sorry, I ran out of alliterative ideas. No matter! It’s important, OK? 

Here’s where we get all technical up in this hizzy… On this winding pathway to sleep bliss, we go from Stage 1 of Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) sleep, right through to the vivid dreams of the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage, each phase adding its own little something-something to the cup, until it doth overflow! We traverse through light sleep, jumping across to the depths of Slow-Wave Sleep (SWS); our meat machines strutting their stuff in an elaborate dance of repair, growth, and consolidation, all the while under the silent YET vigilant watch of REM sleep. Don’t worry if this goes right over your head though, we’ll go into a bit more detail about the stages soon.  


the essence of sleep 

Beyond the mechanics of the sleep cycle lies the profound essence of sleep itself, and it’s pretty majestic. It is a healer of emotional wounds, a consolidator of memory, a supporter of cellular repair and growth, and the immune system’s protective big brother. It’s a place where the mind goes on an adventure through an infinite landscape of dreams, unravelling the endless enigmatic threads of the unconscious. Can we just take a moment to admire that… It’s a beautiful thing guys.  


the consequences of sleep deprivation

Every fairytale needs a villain, and here it is. DUH DUH DUUUUUUUUH! Sleep deprivation of any kind sucks. It’s the absolute worst. The consequences of it are far reaching, and is linked to a huge number of health issues, including cognitive decline, mood disorders, and compromised immune function. With that in mind, understanding sleep can’t just be an academic pursuit, it’s a crucial step towards fostering a healthier and more resilient society. Just imagine how bad the world would be no one got enough sleep… Ew.  

Where there’s a problem, there’s a solution though. There are a variety of ways to help you get more sleep, maybe it’s the mattress you’re using, and it’s time for an upgrade? Hint hint… You could try limiting your screen time before bed, maybe some aromatherapy, or a soothing caffeine free tea. Failing that, if things are particularly severe, or you’re worried there could be a risk to your health as a result, then speak to a pro, your GP would be a good start.  

A fantastic way to aid sleep is by listening to music. Music, relaxation, and sleep are the three best friends that anyone could have, and a tuneful transition to sleep has been proven to help us in our quest for a superior slumber. Getting the playlist right is key, of course, we don’t want to be headbanging or raving! Unless you’re into that sort of thing… Light, classical music is a good place to start, acoustic music, or soundscapes too. Lyric heavy tracks might be something to avoid though, as you could start focussing on the lyrics and their meanings, as opposed to just drifting off. There are playlists on streaming platforms that have already been created for this purpose, and they’re incredibly easy to find, so give it a go! What’s the worst that could happen? 


breaking down the sleep cycle 

 1. NREM sleep

stage 1: the gateway to slumber 

Stage 1 kicks off the journey, obviously, and is our initial descent into the world of dreams. It only lasts for a few minutes, and is where we shift from wakefulness to the first inklings of sleep. During Stage 1, our muscles start to relax, and we’re off! It’s during this stage that we start to feel those floaty feelings, and start to drift down dream river, destination, sleep city. 

stage 2: preparing for deeper sleep 

Things start to get real at Stage 2. The heart rate slows, our body temperature decreases, and our body is getting fully prepped for sleep to commence. This stage is considered a light sleep stage, but don’t underestimate it, it may be small, but it is mighty; this is where things start to kick off. During this stage, the brain continues to distance itself from the environment around us, laying the groundwork for the big boy stages still to come. 

stages 3 and 4: slow-wave sleep (SWS) 

We’re at Stages 3 and 4 now, things are getting real guys… These stages collectively form what is known as Slow-Wave Sleep (SWS). Otherwise known as deep sleep, this is where our brain waves start to go into super slow-mo. It’s while SWS is doing its thing that the body does its restoration stuff. Our blood pressure drops, our breathing becomes slower and more regular, and the body starts repairing tissues, (pause for mental image of the body trying to put Kleenex back together), we build bone and muscle, and strengthen our immune system during this time too, so it’s pretty important. Growth hormone release peaks during these stages, contributing to the overall rejuvenation of the body. So it’s safe to say that whether you want to get hench, or actually just function a basic level, these stages are mega important. Git-R-Done… 

2. REM sleep: the dynamic world of rapid eye movement

REM sleep is a particularly intriguing phase of the sleep cycle. Our brain is going nuts at this point, brain activity is properly going off, but our body is super smart, as it undergoes a state of temporary paralysis known as REM atonia. This keeps us from physically acting out our dreams, ensuring that our sleep environment remains safe. Awwwwww... Meanwhile, our eyes dart rapidly in various directions, a characteristic feature of REM sleep.  

dreams: the theatre of the sleeping mind 

REM sleep and dreams are like peas and carrots, they are totally MFEO, or more seriously, are inextricably linked. Dreams during this stage can be vivid, emotionally charged, and surreal. Researchers reckon that REM sleep vital when it comes to memory consolidation, processing emotions, and creativity. The temporary paralysis experienced during REM sleep stops us from physically reacting to whatever we’re experiencing while dreaming, freeing the mind up to freely explore the depths of the unconscious. 

 3. the importance of sleep

memory consolidation 

Consolidation of memories is fo’ sho’ one of main functions of sleep. During the various stages of sleep, the brain acts like its own little admin assistant, and goes to work organising information acquired throughout the day, effectively filing it away from short-term to long-term memory storage. This is a massive part of the learning process, helps with problem-solving, and overall cognitive function. Noice! 

cellular repair and growth 

Deep sleep, particularly during that goooooood Slow-Wave Sleep (SWS), is a majorly important time for the body, this is where it goes hammer and tongs with cellular repair and growth. The release of growth hormone during this stage promotes tissue repair, muscle growth, and the maintenance of overall physical health. Not at all bad! This is mission critical in terms of the functioning of bodily systems. Which is important for, you know, keeping us alive? 

immune system support 

Getting enough sleep goes a long way when it comes to having a robust immune system. During sleepytimes, the body gets its production line hat on, and creates cytokines, proteins that are crucial for immune function. These proteins, that you for sure haven’t heard of, are a helping hand in the regulation of inflammation, and protect the body against infections and illnesses, like little ninjas that are handily on our side. It makes sense therefore, that chronic sleep deprivation can weaken the immune system, which can make us vulnerable and more susceptible to a variety of health issues. No bueno.  

emotional well-being 

Let’s be honest, we all know what it’s like when we haven’t had a good night’s sleep, especially if it’s something that happens on a regular basis. Sleep plays a major role in emotional regulation and mental health, and not getting enough of the good stuff can lead to mood disturbances, irritability, and mega high stress levels. Setting yourself up with healthy sleep patterns is the way to go here, aiding your mental fortitude and general psychological wellbeing, and is basically just a good thing. Do it! Get your sleep on! 

It's safe to say that each of the stages of the sleep cycle is important, right? They all serve a purpose. Each of them is like a finger on a hand, and when bunched together, make a fist that will spark out any opposition... Master the stages, and try to get a healthy balance of them, and you will be the sleep equivalent of Mike Tyson. Pow! Right in the kisser! 

 4. dreams and the unconscious mind

Dreaming is still one of the most enigmatic parts of the sleep cycle. To this day, the exact purpose of dreams isn’t fully understood, smart folk believe they play a major part in a variety of cognitive functions. As we established earlier, dreaming is most closely associated with the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep, they’re basically BFFs. This is because, during this stage, brain activity is heightened, and vivid, narrative-like dreams often unfold. We’ve all been there. Dreams can be fantastical, emotional, or even nonsensical, which gives us the chance to peep on ourselves, and look through that window into our unconscious minds… Ooooooooh. 

It's not just sleep, but also dreams themselves that can help with memory consolidation, forging new information together with existing knowledge. They’re also thought to play a role in emotional processing. Double threat! Dreams could well be a way the brain makes sense of emotional experiences, like our own built in therapy system. The symbolism and stories we play out in our dreams tend to reflect underlying emotions and unresolved issues. So there is some science behind dream analysis! Who knew?! Well… Me. Because I just wrote about it, soooooo. 

Researchers also reckon that REM sleep could help our creative problem-solving powers. The brain's activity during this stage is characterised by basically connecting all the different regions of our brain, effectively making a high-speed railway for our thoughts, and at a fraction of the cost of HS2! This fosters a special environment for associative thinking. People who experience REM tend to be pros at handling complex problems, and approach them with a way more creative and flexible mindset, which could end up leading to more innovative solutions. Brucey bonus!  

5. sleep disorders

disruptions to the sleep harmony 

When we nail it, the sleep cycle is a well-orchestrated symphony of stages, but disruptions can and often do happen, and it’s a pain in the proverbial tush... The list of possible things that could disrupt sleep is practically endless, all of which are a nightmare in every sense. Insomnia is a biggie, which can be caused by a number of things, and means we difficulty falling or staying asleep. Sleep apnoea, on the other hand, is where we intermittently have pauses in our breathing, obviously causing a disruption to our precious, precious sleep. Other disorders include night-time nasties like narcolepsy, parasomnias (like sleepwalking or night terrors), and restless legs syndrome, which believe me, if you don’t suffer with already, is the absolute worst… Some of these can also cause health problems, so if it’s something you’re concerned about, then speak to your GP. 

impact of sleep disorders on health

Sorry to get all dramatic and that, but sleep disorders can definitely plague our physical and mental health; they’re properly not good. Chronic sleep deprivation or poor sleep quality is risky business, it can be associated with cardiovascular diseases, obesity, diabetes, and mood disorders. Jinkies! Individuals with sleep disorders may experience daytime fatigue, and no wonder, impaired cognitive function is possible, and of course a not so excellent quality of life. Definitely get some advice from a healthcare professional in this case, it’s just not worth rolling those dice. 

sleep hygiene and healthy habits 

Good sleep hygiene isn’t about cleaning the bathroom while napping, it’s about getting yourself into a good nighttime routine. Things like maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, making the room where you sleep (or bedroom as a normal person would say) a place you actually want to spend time in, limiting caffeine intake and screen time before bed, and engaging in relaxation or mindfulness techniques. If you get this nailed, you’ll be a sleep guru in no time!  

what is sleep: our final thoughts

Sleep is good. Isn’t that enough? Fine… 

Sleep is more than good, it’s vital. We need it to survive, and making optimising your sleep will only ever be a good thing. Trying to avoid disruptions, and giving yourself the best chance at a successful slumber, makes a massive difference to people’s lives, so why not give it a go? Sleep affects so many aspects of our mental and physical health, and it isn’t just a biological necessity, it’s a cornerstone of general vitality and wellbeing! So yeah, sleep is good.