June 17, 2024


“Mother’s don’t sleep, they just worry with their eyes closed.”

How many of us go to lie down and instead of a deep peaceful sleep, all of the worries, stresses, forgotten tasks, vexations and lost opportunities of the day suddenly parade through our minds, leaving us wide-eyed or tossing and turning into the wee hours? We may wonder what is the purpose of sleep, what happens to our brains and bodies when we lie down? Is sleep overrated?


In turns out that sleep is vital to life. Only in recent years have neuroscientists and behavioural science researchers begun to understand the critical nature of sleep. We all need sleep for vitality, well-being and brain health. It turns out that since 2005, when the number of journals and study on sleep has tripled, we now know that disruption of sleep can be linked to a number of chronic health issues including diabetes, heart disease, cognitive decline and dementia. Poor sleep can even affect our immune function and psychological states such as loneliness and depression. At the basic level of cellular and biochemical processes in our body, sleep deprivation can wreak havoc on our metabolism, hormone regulation and gene expression.

According to research conducted by Dr David F. Dinges, PhD, Professor and Chief of the Division of Sleep and Chronobiology in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, we can directly link our emotional responses to the next day’s stresses and events to the quality and quantity of our sleep. Our ability to perform certain tasks and our alertness and speed in performing tasks was measured by the psychomotor vigilance (PVT) test. Research participants who had experienced sleep deprivation, performed more poorly than those who had had a good night’s rest. They also found that people are often unaware of the cumulative and detrimental effects of poor sleep. Sufferers of chronic disease such as pain, sleep apnoea, prostate disease and restless leg syndrome can have frequent disruptions of sleep. According to Professor Dinges, “We know, for example, that sleep is critical for waking cognition—that is, for the ability to think clearly, to be vigilant and alert, and sustain attention. We also know that memories are consolidated during sleep, and that sleep serves a key role in emotional regulation.” After 16 hours of constant wakefulness, our cognitive functions begin to decline. Between 1975 and 2006, there has been a steady decline in the average number of hours of sleep by adults. Risk of stroke and Alzheimer’s dementia is linked to average consistent deprivation of six or less hours. Sadly, 80 % of sleep disorders go undetected.

Insomnia, both acute and chronic, is a problem for many people. While many people are often prescribed drugs, they rarely work long term and create dependency, nor do they result in the quality sleep patients seek. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) appears to be a successful therapy in up to 80% of patients in approximately 70% to 80% of people who experience chronic insomnia. Dr. Kushida notes that, “A person might be an OK sleeper for several years, and then suddenly experience a traumatic event, such as the loss of a job, a divorce, or the death of a loved one, resulting in very poor sleep.”


To sleep, perchance to dream…William Shakespeare 

A friend told me his father used to rouse the kids before dawn with a booming, “You’ll get plenty of sleep when you die, get up and get working.” This echoes the popular idea that sleep is just a waste of time, but it turns out that actually the body and mind are busy while you are sleeping! 

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) recognizes four sleep stages: three non rapid eye movement (NREM) and one rapid eye movement (REM) phase. Through the night we actually go through several phases and different cycles of sleep. So, not all sleep is created equal. 

Stage Type of Sleep Time Purpose and Characteristics 
1NREM or N11-5 minutes Early dozing off phase, may have twitching 
2NREM or N210-60Muscles relax, breathing and temperature drops, eye movements stop and brain waves show some short bursts of activity. About half the nights sleep is spent in N2 during successive sleep cycles 
3NREM 3 N3 or SWS sleep, delta sleep or deep sleep 20-40Body relaxes further, brain shows characteristic delta waves. Evidence suggests this phase is critical for restorative function, immune function, growth, cognitive functions such as memory, creativity and insightful thinking 
4REM10-60 Body is paralyzed except for characteristic eye movements that give it its name and breathing muscles. This is the stage of vivid dreams. Critical for creativity, learning, memory and other key cognitive indicators and health


Age Hours Needed 

How much sleep you will need depends on a few factors. Your age is a key determinant of sleep needs; anyone with a growing toddler or teenager will understand. Small children spend most of their time in REM asleep. 

Below is the table, HOW CAN I IMPROVE MY SLEEP?

By now you understand that sleep is vital for life and health. The quantity and quality of sleep matters, especially deep and REM sleep, which are particularly vital. 

We now know that many aspects of our modern life are the culprits in the rampant sleep deprivation of modern society. Try the following steps to get better sleep and better health. This is a popular new field called sleep hygiene.

1. Put your devices away at bedtime. Many of us use our phones for alarms; we use this as an excuse to keep our phones by our bedside tables.  Instead, try to use an old fashioned alarm clock and recharge your phone outside of your bedroom. Turn off notifications. You don’t need to know what your mates are doing at 3 am! Have children and young adults check in their devices at a suitable time, e.g. 10 pm. Don’t buy the excuse that they need their device for homework! Teach them to practice good sleep practices early.

2. Stop using your devices at least three minutes prior to bedtime. Give your brain a chance to withdraw from the visual stimulation and the effects of blue light.

3. Make sure your room is decluttered. Your bedroom should be a sanctuary, not an office or a playroom for kids. Set the temperature to be comfortably cool. Create a calm, soothing environment. Have comfortable linens. 

4. Add oxygen-producing indoor plants as they enhance mood and give you some extra clean air to breathe.

5. Close blinds and filter out light.

6. Don’t drink heavily sugared or caffeinated drinks within a few hours of bed. It may keep you awake. Instead, try chamomile tea, warm milk with honey or other soothing drinks.

7. Soothing aromatics such as lavender have been shown to calm and enhance sleep.

8. Only use sleep supplements after consulting with a health care professional, popular aides include melatonin. 

9. Practice a quick pre-sleep calming breathing exercise: 3 breaths in and hold for 3 counts, then exhale for three, repeat five times. Feel your muscles relax and sink into the bed.

10. Tense all your muscles: start with your face, your neck, your arms, your legs, back to your toes, hold for a count of five then relax. This helps release the day’s tension.

11. Repeat an affirmative prayer or affirmation of gratitude and well-being.

12. Read a book or listen to some music or soothing sounds.


Dr. J Nozipo Maraire 

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