Hacking Sleep Cycles

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By Alex Vuchnich, CPA, CFE -

When it comes to getting sleep, most of us just don’t get enough or at least as much as we want. I recently welcomed my first child into the world and needless to say my sleeping patterns have been altered. The science of sleeping has been studied and researched intensively and many aspects of our sleep cycles are still a mystery. Even given some of the unknown aspects of sleep, certain patterns are well documented and here are a few things that can help synchronize your sleep pattern with your body’s natural rhythms. When it comes to sleep normally quantity is the main driver, however, there are some factors aside from the number of hours of sleep that play a role in how effective your sleep is. The following is based largely on empirical observations of my own sleep patterns so a lot of potential variability will exist between my own and readers sleep patterns.

Sleep cycles consist of several phases. First you have two alternating sleep states that you cycle through during a night’s sleep; REM and Non-REM sleep. Non-REM sleep consists of a separate set of 4 cycles that can last between 5-15 minutes per cycle. Once a person has progressed through all 4 cycles of Non-REM sleep they will then enter into the REM sleep stage. REM sleep stages can last anywhere from 10 minutes up to an hour. REM is the sleep stage that is associated with intense dreaming. The key thing to understand regarding the cycles and their impact on how tired you feel after a night’s sleep is that when you are startled awake before completing an entire sleep cycle you typically will find that you are more exhausted than if you complete the entire cycle.

The practical application of this is that if you know you are going to be unable to get a full 6-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep then you should strive to try and set your time to awaken in between complete cycles. Also once you have woken up you should generally resist the urge to hit the snooze or go back to sleep for a little while if you will not be able to cycle through a complete cycle or two. One exception is that generally the first two phases of the Non-REM stages, each lasting 10-15 minutes won’t leave you feeling overly exhausted. These are the two cycles that correspond ruffly with ‘cat naps’, power naps and caffeine naps (in which you consume a cup of coffee prior to your nap so that in 20-30 minutes you exit stage 2 of the non-REM cycle with a boost of caffeine to increase alertness). From tracking my own sleep patterns I have found that I typically cycle through my sleep stages in increments from around 70 to 90 minutes. I have found it also helps to make it through more than one uninterrupted sleep cycle so the REM stages can continue to build through each cycle. If I get woken up in the middle of the night (say by a crying infant) I typically only try to go back to bed if I have a good solid 3 hours available before I normally wake up so that I can cycle through two full uninterrupted cycles. I have found that in those cases where only an hour or two is available, trying to go back to sleep usually results in me only making it through one cycle and not feeling that much more refreshed or results in me waking up mid-cycle and feeling even more tired.

For interested readers, who want to try to apply this to their sleep habits, the first step is figuring out the length of your own sleep cycles. Since most of us don’t have access to EKGs this will largely have to be based on more subjective personal measurements. Most of us have suffered through exhaustion though enough times to have a basic sense of our sleep patterns. Try keeping a journal, making sure to note details regarding tiredness in cases where you were awoken suddenly or tried going back to sleep for a few hours as these will help pin down relative cycle lengths. Once you have a general idea of your sleep pattern then you can start using the hacks above to start getting better quality sleep.

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