For a long time sleep has been an ongoing topic of discussion amongst allied health practitioners, general practitioners and the media.

With ongoing research into the importance of sleep and what it actually does for us, the purpose of this article is to inform you of the benefits of sleep, how much sleep you need and what you can do to improve the quality of your slumber.

Previously, sleep was believed to be important to allow the body to recuperate from the day’s activities, however, the energy saved from eight hours sleep is rather small and doesn’t equate to much. The reason we need sleep is to support healthy brain function. It also plays a vital role in good health and well-being throughout your life. Sleep is also necessary to maintain normal levels of cognitive skills such as speech, memory, innovative and flexible thinking. In children and teens, sleep also helps growth and development.

So what happens when we sleep? Sleep is divided into a number of categories that occur throughout the night and each of them has significance for overall restfulness. Sleep occurs in a recurring cycle of 90 to 110 minutes and is mainly divided into 2 categories non-REM (Rapid Eye Movement) (which is further split into 4 stages) and REM sleep.

Non-REM sleep

Stage one: Light Sleep

During the first stage of sleep, we are half awake and half asleep. Our muscle activity slows down and slight twitching may occur. This is a period of light sleep, meaning we can be awakened easily at this stage.

Stage two: True Sleep

Within ten minutes of light sleep, we enter stage two, which lasts around 20 minutes. The breathing pattern and heart rate start to slow down. This period accounts for the largest part of human sleep.

Stages three and four: Deep Sleep

During stage three, the brain begins to produce delta waves, a type of wave that is large (high amplitude) and slow (low frequency). Breathing and heart rate are at their lowest levels.

Stage four is characterised by rhythmic breathing and limited muscle activity. If we are awakened during deep sleep we do not adjust immediately and often feel groggy and disoriented for several minutes after waking up. Some children experience bed-wetting, night terrors, or sleepwalking during this stage.

REM sleep

The first rapid eye movement (REM) period usually begins about 70 to 90 minutes after we fall asleep. We have around three to five REM episodes a night.

Although we are not conscious, the brain is very active – often more so than when we are awake. This is the period when most dreams occur. Our eyes dart around (hence the name), our breathing rate and blood pressure rise. However, our bodies are effectively paralysed, said to be nature’s way of preventing us from acting out our dreams.

After REM sleep, the whole cycle begins again.

There is no set amount of time that everyone needs to sleep, since it varies from person to person. The National Sleep Foundation indicates that people like to sleep between 5 and 11 hours with the average being 7.75 hours.


Newborns: 16-18 hours per day

Preschool aged children: 11-12 hours per day

School aged children: At least 10 hours per day

Teenagers: 9-10 hours per day

Adults: 7-8 hours per day

There is a common myth that we can ‘catch up’ on sleep. Unfortunately this isn’t the case. If you routinely lose sleep or choose to sleep less than needed, the sleep loss adds up. The total sleep lost is called your sleep debt. You may choose to have a nap as a way to deal with your sleepiness, however, although this may provide you with a short term boost in alertness and performance it doesn’t provide you with all the other benefits of a good night’s sleep. Some people sleep more on their days off which again may feel better in the short term but long term can affect your sleep-wake rhythm, leading to other health problems.

What happens to us if we don’t sleep?

If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter you may remember feeling the after effects of being grumpy, irritable and even forgetful. After just one night without sleep, concentration becomes more difficult and attention span shortens considerably. With continued lack of quality and/or sufficient sleep, the part of the brain that controls language, memory, planning and sense of time is severely affected, basically shutting down. The research also shows that sleep deprived individuals also have difficulty responding to rapidly changing situations and making rational judgements. Sleep deprivation not only has a major effect on cognitive function but also on emotional and physical health.

Studies show that sleep deficiency alters activity in some parts of the brain. This may cause you to have trouble making decisions, solving problems, controlling your emotions and behaviours, and as mentioned above coping with change. Children and teenagers who are sleep deficient may have problems interacting with others. They may feel angry and impulsive, have mood swings, feel sad or depressed or lack motivation.

Physically, sleep deprivation is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke. Many systems of the body rely on the sleep-wake cycle including the digestive system, immune system and endocrine system.

You may not notice how sleep deficiency affects your daily routine. Another common myth is that people can learn to get by on little sleep with no negative effects. However, research shows that that getting enough quality sleep at the right times is vital for mental health, physical health, quality of life and safety.

If you feel your sleep habits may be contributing to your aches and pains, speak to your Myotherapist about how you can alter and improve your sleep habits.

By Caitlin Smith- Elite Myotherapist