by Richard Cawte

What happens when we sleep?

Answering this question can solve your fatigue.

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The secret to waking refreshed is to understand the cycles of brainwaves through which your brain will move during any night, and to choose in advance how long you wish to sleep for and when you wish to wake up.

The brain operates within certain bandwidths (cycles per second). During waking hours these tend to be either Gamma or Beta waves; Gamma being high stimulation (stress) and Beta being regular stimulation. When you fall asleep your brainwaves dip from Beta into Alpha. This is what happens when you feel yourself “nod off” – you are literally falling from Beta in Alpha brainwave function.

But they don’t stay there. Remain asleep and your brain will automatically move through a cycle from Alpha, through Theta and Delta back up to alpha again. This cycle takes approximately 90 minutes to complete and repeats itself when you stay asleep. After six hours, your brain will then remain in the Alpha brainwave state for another two hours.

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Why is this important? Because where you are within that cycle when you wake up will determine how rested you feel the following day. It is always best to wake from REM or light sleep. If you wake from deep sleep (Delta) or deep rest (Theta) you will most likely have a lousy day. Stubbing your toe as you get out of bed you’ll cut yourself shaving, spill coffee on your shirt, burn your hand as you iron a new one, miss your train because you’re late…and so on.

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(Note: optimal duration is 8 hours continuous sleep).

When allowed to move through its restorative cycles unimpeded, your brain will always wake you when you are in the Alpha bandwidth – the one immediately below Beta. And that means you’ll wake refreshed.

Here’s a simple diagram to show you what I mean.

sleep stage transition

Armed with this knowledge, you can now set yourself amounts of time to get good rest, making sure that you wake yourself only when you know your brain will be back in the Alpha State. In other words, if you cannot get 8 hours, you are better off getting four and a half, or six, rather than getting five and a half hours sleep.

Knowing this takes the stress from those of you who are prone to worry about whether or not you are sleeping enough. Instead of fretting, you can simply say “Tonight I am sleeping for six hours”. If you are on a plane journey and you know you cannot get even that long, choose to sleep for three hours, rather than four. Always pick a multiple of 90 minutes from the time you fall asleep.

By the way, you do not require an alarm clock. Your subconscious mind is very accomplished. Simply tell it when to wake you and it will, but you must order it and be specific. Don’t say “I’d like to have around six hours sleep.” Instead, say: “I am sleeping for six hours,” or give a direct order: “Wake me up after six hours sleep.”

Most important is to give sleep equal priority with other essential functions like eating or going to the gym. Many of us fail to do this. There are so many things that seem more important, but just as exercise and nutrition are essential for optimal health and happiness, the quality of your sleep directly affects the quality of your waking life, including your mental sharpness, productivity, emotional balance, creativity, physical vitality, and even your weight. No other activity delivers so many benefits with so little effort!

See also: How to get out of the sleep-debt trap