We spend around a third of our lives sleeping; it is vital to our survival, but despite years of research, scientists still aren’t entirely sure why we do it. The urge to sleep is all-consuming, and if we are deprived of it, we will eventually slip into slumber even if the situation is life-threatening.
Sleep is common to mammals, birds and reptiles and has been conserved through evolution, even though it prevents us from performing tasks such as eating, reproducing and raising young. It is as important as food for keeping us alive; without it, rats will die within two or three weeks – the same amount of time it takes to die of starvation.
But what if you just can’t nod off? Understanding your biological clock is the key to a healthy night’s sleep.
Your body is driven by an internal circadian master clock known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which is set on a time scale of roughly 24 hours. This biological clock is set by sunlight; blue light hits special receptors in your eyes, which feed back to the master clock and on to the pineal gland. This suppresses the production of the sleep hormone melatonin and tells your brain that it is time to wake up.
Disruptions in light exposure can play havoc with your sleep, so it is important to ensure that your bedroom is as dark as possible. Many electronic devices produce enough light to reset your biological clock, and using backlit screens late at night can confuse your brain, preventing the production of melatonin and delaying your sleep.
Ensuring you see sunlight in the morning can help to keep your circadian clock in line, and sticking to a regular sleep schedule, even at the weekends, helps to keep this rhythm regular.
Another important factor in a good night’s sleep is winding down before bed. Stimulants like caffeine and nicotine keep your brain alert and can seriously disrupt your sleep, and even depressants like alcohol can have a negative effect; even though it calms the brain, it interferes with normal sleep cycles, preventing proper deep and REM sleep.