Deep sleep is essential to our health and well-being. We spend almost a third of our lives sleeping, yet, the science behind sleep is relatively unknown even today. Even though we do not properly understand why this happens yet, we do have ample evidence that suggests sleep is an absolutely essential part of life.
Sleep itself has been categorized into stages such as light sleep, deep sleep, and REM based on the level of brain activity in each. Out of these stages, deep sleep is perhaps the most important stage due to the sheer amount of benefits it has, as well as the harmful effects, the lack of it may cause.
What is Deep Sleep or Stage 3?
Sleep is broadly divided into three stages. Stage 1 is the initial stage where your eyes are closed but your brain is largely active. In stage 2, your heart rate begins to slow down and muscles begin to relax, as the body prepares to go into stage 3.
Stage 3 is when deep sleep actually occurs. It is also known as delta, slow wave or N3 sleep, due to the high amplitude and low-frequency waves observed on the EEG of a person in deep sleep. Most people enter this stage about 90 minutes after they have fallen asleep.
More importantly, it is characterized by its restorative nature. During this stage, your heart rate and breathing slow down and your muscles relax to the point where you barely move. Your body utilizes this time to carry out important processes like repairing tissue damage and fostering growth in bones and muscles.
Because the brain is in a deeper state of relaxation, you will be unresponsive to the environment. This is basically why people feel disoriented for a few minutes when they are woken up from a deep sleep.
Also read: How to fall asleep fast
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN LIGHT AND DEEP SLEEP
While we tend to have preconceived notions about our own sleeping habits that lead us to label ourselves as a light sleeper or deep sleepers, it is important to be aware of the fact that everyone experiences both light sleep as well as deep sleep.
Light sleep is a non-REM stage where that basically occurs during stage 1 and stage 2. While the first stage is just transitional sleep that, which barely makes up 3% of the total time we spend sleeping, stage 2 forms about half of the total time. It is easy for you to wake up from light sleep, but it should be noted that light sleep is by no means shallow. It is simply a state where your body may be more responsive to outside stimuli. This might be linked to the fact that the brain remains active during light sleep, consolidating memories and emotions.
On the other hand, deep sleep is more about the body. The average person will spend about 2 hours in stage 3 every night which typically makes up 20% of the total sleeping time. It is also more about the body, as it allows us to carry out rebuild and repair in various parts, while the brain is mostly at rest. People in this stage are largely unresponsive and difficult to wake up as a result.
So there is really not much difference between light sleep and stage 3 in terms of how important they are to us. Both types have their own benefits and are necessary. However, the differences in lay in how each type of sleep works and the kind of effects it has on us.
The reason stage 3 also called delta sleep is that the wave patterns that form on the EEG when in deep sleep resemble a delta pattern. The more important takeaway from that information is that activity during this stage is low enough to form a distinctly different pattern.
There are certain internal physiological changes that happen during this stage that better explain why we derive the kind of benefits we discussed earlier. During this state, your blood pressure is lower than normal. This goes hand in hand with heart rate and breathing slowing down.
Your muscles also receive more blood, promoting muscle growth and regeneration. The body also carries out cellular regeneration and growth in other parts of the body during this time as well.
Deep state helps to replenish energy reserves in our body. It is the time when energy and nutrients gained from food are allocated to different part of the body as per daily needs.
In children especially, the time period of deep sleep also see the secretion of the Human Growth Hormone by the pituitary gland, which enables growth and furthers the process of physical maturity.
How much deep sleep do you need?
It is difficult to provide a conclusive universal figure for this one. The needs are not only subjective but also vary according to age, mood, and lifestyle along with innumerable other factors.
Generally, adults require about 1.5 to 1.8 hours, which should ideally consist of a fifth of their total sleeping time, and should occur within the first third of the sleep duration. This is because most of our deep sleep occurs during the initial nap cycles.
Of course, these values tend to change as we go from childhood to adolescence to adulthood to old age.
How aging affects Stage 3
Age is perhaps the most obvious factor that causes changes in deep sleep preferences. This is mostly because the benefits that we get from sleep are needed by our bodies in varying quantities as we age. At the same time our own ability to initiate sleep and to remain asleep change with time as well.
The usual stages do not apply to babies or young children. Instead, they go from “active” to “intermediate” to “quiet” sleep. They tend to enjoy long hours of stage 3 which makes sense their bodies are in a constant stage of growth and need as much time to grow and generate new cells as possible.
In adults and teens
For adolescents, things are a bit different. Teenage is characterized by change, and sleeping habits are no exception to that rule. While in early teenage, deep state is still a major part of an overall sleep, it gradually starts to occupy a lower percentage of the overall time spent asleep, as adolescents go through puberty and transition to adulthood. About 40% of stage 3 is tapered off and becomes part of light sleep.
In the elderly
A 2 percent decrease in deep stage per decade from the age of 20 to 60 has been observed. As we move into old age, nap becomes scarcer as compared to what we get in early adulthood. Older people tend to spend more time in stage 2. Even though this pattern is observed in healthy individuals as well, it is also due in part to health complications that come with old age, and a decline in the body’s ability to sustain stage 3.
What happens when you don’t get enough deep sleep?
Lack of stage 3 has been linked to a myriad of problems. Stage 3 is when your body runs detailed scans of the internal environment on a microscopic level. When you are low on deep sleep your body will run behind schedule on cellular repairs. If you are in your growing age, it will also mean depriving your body of the chance to promote growth.
People suffering from illnesses, especially chronic ones, rely heavily on stage 3 for recovery and comfort. People suffering from bone-related problems such as spinal stenosis or osteoporosis will experience complications if they deprive themselves of deep sleep.
Prolonged stage 3 deprivation can speed the effects of aging and people who do not get enough stage 3 can further be at a higher risk of complications that result for old age such as heart-related problems, bone deterioration, or neurological problems.
Even in the short term, not sleeping deeply enough has direct consequences on our daily functioning. You will find it difficult to be active, and instead will feel tired throughout the day, finding it hard to shake the morning grogginess. You will also feel the need to nap throughout the day.
Lack of stage 3 is also linked to a reduction in brain function and a shorter temper. This is because your body is low on the energy required to be tolerant of others or to concentrate and focus on your work. It can also cause lower levels of motivation to perform daily tasks, loss of sex drive and abnormal hunger, which can further propagate unwanted weight gain.
Deep sleep meditation
With the popularization of Yoga in the western world, one of the techniques that have become more common is the practice of meditation or Yoga Nidra, which is Sanskrit for a nap.
The spiritual component aside, meditation, like sleep, is also a way to achieve a heightened state of relaxation. Combining the two seems to be the ultimate combination, however, it must be understood that meditation is not a substitute for an actual nap. This is mainly due to the fact that the essential skill to be learned in sleep meditation is the ability to keep your conscious mind active while letting the body become relaxed as it would be during sleep. However, meditation can, in fact, help us get more out of normal sleep.
So what is the point of sleep meditation then? For starters, it is believed that meditation offers a unique kind of focus to the mind and body. The idea is that during sleep the subconscious mind takes over, but with s meditation, the conscious mind remains in the driver seat, allowing us to consciously experience the relaxation that sleep offers, in real time, as opposed to feeling it in retrospect once we wake up after a normal cycle. This supposedly allows us to free ourselves from stress and troubles in a way that normal sleep cannot.
Steps for sleep meditation
- Loosen up: Loosen your body completely and let go lingering thoughts.
- Resolution: It is important to articulate a positive intention that you have regarding something that would bring you satisfaction in life.
- Rotating you consciousness: You must let your mind visit every part of the body, become aware of it and relax it.
- Breathing: Breath slowly and deeply through the nose only. This will help the body parts lose their sensitivity and send you into a trance-like a state.
- Feeling: In this step, you must revisit positive emotions and happy memories of your life, and let yourself feel them again.
- Visualization: Here, you are made to visualize pleasing experiences like a scenic journey, a holy place etc. to further release any leftover tension.
The session ends by repeating step 2 and can last for about 45 minutes.
Meditation is an interesting way to use sleep to our advantages, beyond using it as just a natural resting practice. With meditation, a normal cycle can become even more fruitful and we learn to relax much more easily.
The Mysterious Benefits of Stage 3
- While deep sleep (stage 3) has various tangible benefits, it is seen to have advantages that go beyond our traditional scientific understanding. The complete disengagement from the environment is a necessary break from the burdens of daily life.
- We already know how it induces production of HGH in children and teenagers for growth and in adults for repairs. This is because of the release of the drug gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB) in adults, which cause stage 3 and allows for the secretion of HGH. The more stage 3 you allow yourself to get, the more efficiently your body releases GHB, which forms a positive feedback loop by allowing you to get more deep sleep consequently.
- Psychologically, stage 3 is seen to give a cognitive edge to people who get ample amounts of it. Some studies have shown that it helps us learn more efficiently by clearing the brain through the night and solidifying neural pathways created through the day.
- More interestingly, stage 3 is strongly linked to ideas of consciousness and awareness, especially in mystical cultures. Some eastern traditions which believe that the normal level of consciousness is not the most healthy kind, and believe that in order to live a fuller life, one must achieve higher, more subtle levels of awareness. Stage 3 is also treated as one of these more subtle kinds of consciousness that we should strive to be aware of.
- Adherents of regular practices and meditation report that deep sleep is offered unprecedented comfort not only on a physical but on an emotional level. The feeling of elation derived from being aware of stage 3 comes as result of a very deep awareness of the person’s inner state and offers a refreshment and a sense of peace that make it easy for the person to move through the stresses of daily with ease.
5 ways to get more deep sleep
When it comes to sleep you can and should make that you improve its quality and strive for the optimal cycle as much as possible. Luckily, you are not entirely at the mercy of your brain, when it comes to deciding when and how much sleep you get. In fact, you have the capability to train yourself and develop particular sleeping habits. There are steps you can take right now to ensure that you get better and deeper sleep.
Get the basics right
- Eat healthily
- Get a good amount of exercise
- Manage your sleeping environment and specialize it for sleeping only. Remove sources of noise and distraction
Start powering down before you actually lay down to sleep
Turn the lights off or dim them. Turn off computer or television screens and put your phone away. Give yourself a break from all the stimuli around you. This will give your brain a much-needed break and easier for you to move into a state of sleep. If you do this long enough, you can train your brain into seeing this as a trigger for moving into its sleep cycles, and thus be able to go to sleep on your own terms.
Be consistent about your bedtime
Being consistent about bedtime will help you develop a consistent biological clock which will make it easier for your brain to align sleep-related function according to set routine, ensuring better sleep.
Check the thermostat
Finding the right temperature for your sleep is an underrated idea. However, it has been scientifically shown that temperature plays an important role in determining how well we sleep. At the end of the day, it is about creating the most relaxing environment possible for you.
Manage meal and workout timings accordingly
Refrain from having big meals close to your bedtime. The same goes for workouts. Such practices have shown to cause disruptions in sleep cycles, compromising on stage 3. It is advisable to have a cut-off time approximately 3 hours prior to your bedtime.
Releasing stress is key
Stress is the enemy. There are no two ways about it. Conversely, releasing stress can be the best thing you can do for yourself. A simple de-stressing exercise like reading, meditation or taking a shower before bed, or a larger lifestyle shift that allows you to have a stress-free day can help increase the quality of your sleep tremendously.
Living in a culture that glorifies overworking, it can be difficult to step outside of our own demanding loops. However, that is all the more reason to understand the importance of taking a break. We need to re-learn, now more than ever, the significance of sleep in ensuring that we live a healthier, fuller life. Sleep in general and stage 3, in particular, does not only offer crucial benefits in the short term but is also essential for us to remain healthy in the long run on a physical, psychological as well as emotional level.