I am a night person. My husband is a morning person. Well actually it’s not really that cut and dry. I enjoy getting up at 6:00 in the morning but he can naturally rise without the aid of an alarm clock at 5:00, raring to go. I tend to use my snooze option. And when it comes to my most productive time, well that seems to come in two waves from about 8:00 am to 2:00pm and during my second wind I can crank out my most creative work between 9:00 and midnight. As long as I can remember, even as a kid, I had plenty of energy at night. Out of my three children, two take after me and 1 takes after my husband.
So that got me to thinking… is bedtime preference inherent or acquired?
Researches have told us that 7-9 hours of sleep is optimal and that the hours before the midnight bell is more beneficial than those acquired on the flip side. We know that quality and quantity of sleep impacts our immediate and long-term health, but does the brain really care what time you call it a night?
With those questions in mind, here are the A to Zzz on giving your brain the best rest you can.
First off, you need to understand why the brain needs sleep in the first place.
There are two main purposes:
1) recovery mode
Scientists have estimated the brain experiences approximately 50 thoughts a minute, that is 51,000 thoughts in 17 waking hours. That is a lot to process.
Sleep is critical for the brain to deal with new thoughts, consolidate memories and do a complete system check for the body. It needs rest to process copious amounts of thoughts for future retrieval during learning phases such as, being a student or starting a new job.
So that’s why trying to pull an all-nighter never worked for me!
2) clean house
Like a stealth operation, the brain engages the glymphatic system to clean up after a day’s thinking. The interesting thing is this system only does the job when we are asleep. This is like the janitorial team that comes into your offices when you leave for the day. Thinking creates a lot of by-products. As efficient as our brain and bodies are, the information doesn’t just go into the sensory in-basket and then transferred to a file cabinet for perfect recall. There are many waste baskets filled with neurotoxins, along the way that need to be emptied.
Now as for how long all of this takes, that’s where the 7 to 9 hours, for an adult, comes in. For the record babies, children and teenagers do need a lot more as they are dealing with massive growth periods.
Sleep has been studied for decades and subject experts agree our sleep patterns consist of a series of 90-minute cycles beginning with non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) and ending in rapid eye movement (REM).
The early stage of sleep is dominated by non-REM sleep. The initial stage takes a few minutes, as your brain shifts away from arousal, resulting in slower heart rate and breathing, and reduced eye-movements. This is the stage you might experience those muscle twitches.
The next stage of non-REM allows the body to go into a deeper state of relaxation. True REM sleep occurs about 90 minutes after you fall asleep. During this phase the eyes move rapidly, heart rhythm fluctuates and breathing rates change. It is the time of active dreaming and tends to dominate the greater part of the sleep experience, moving toward the waking hours.
It was originally thought that most of the memory consolidation happened in the REM cycle, but research now suggests non-REM is important as well.
So, what does all this have to do with the perfect bedtime?
Well, beyond the REM and Non-REM stages there are two biological systems at play; the circadian rhythm and sleep-wake homeostasis.
Circadian rhythm coordinates many body functions including temperature, metabolism, hunger and sleep, without the aid of a clock.
Sleep-wake homeostasis is a complex process that coordinates how much sleep you need and sends triggers to control its timing and intensity. Environmental light and temperature cues can influence these functions as darkness may trigger sleepiness and daylight arousal.
Some additional environmental triggers that can interfere with the body’s natural rhythms include food and drink, illness, medications, stress, shift work and time-zone changes.
A final puzzle piece to the question; “what time is the best time to go to sleep?”
It appears genetics plays a big role in the answer. Studies have shown that we really are hardwired to be morning or night people. Our brain needs consistency more than a hard timeline. It appears that if you can offer 7-9 hours of sleep to your brain, regardless of what the clock says, it will repay you in health, mood balance and productivity.