The definition of health is ever-changing. What once boiled down to “an apple a day” evolved into the food pyramid and a mantra about diet and exercise. We’ve since learned that that the principles of holistic health are more involved.
We’ve become cognizant about where our food comes from, how vital fitness is to our wellbeing, and why positive thinking is actually a health strategy. And while our approach to wellness is becoming increasingly sophisticated, these factors are only part of the equation.
Achieving your full potential requires attention to all four modern pillars of health: diet, exercise, mindfulness, and sleep.
Sleep is when our mind and body restores the energy we exert throughout the day; processes memory, emotion, and information; and prepares us for our best tomorrow.
Compared to running a marathon, making time for morning meditation, or eating the rainbow, getting enough sleep may sound easy; but it’s one of the most oft-ignored cornerstones of healthy living. Society pressures us to prioritize work and self-improvement above rest, creating a vicious cycle of sleep deprivation.
Dedicating enough time and attention to sleep doesn’t imply laziness. It exhibits a commitment to treating your mind and body with the respect it deserves. That means being more attentive, knowledgeable, and dedicated to sleep. We call this being “sleep-conscious.”
What Does it Mean to be Sleep-Conscious?
For starters, the generally accepted measure of rest is incorrect. Like many outdated beliefs about health, there’s no magic number. It’s about sleep quality and reaching every stage of the sleep cycle – and that varies from person to person, which is why being sleep conscious is so important.
To maximize our body’s potential, we need to become aware and in touch with our sleep selves. From tracking our sleeping heart rate to recording performance in a sleep diary, sleep should be monitored as closely as any other health-related benchmark. You’ll literally sleep better at night.
The Stages of Sleep
Each time we go to bed, we enter the light sleep stage. Our muscles loosen and our breathing expands, helping us decompress from the day’s activity. As we drift into deeper stages of sleep, our brain waves begin to slow down, heart rate slows, and body temperature drops.
This next stage, deep sleep, is all about restoration. Our body repairs and regrows tissue, builds muscle, and strengthens the immune system. It’s also when our mind is at complete rest, restoring mental strength and recharging for the day to come.
In the final stage, REM sleep, our mind starts to wander. As we dream, our mind processes and stores information critical to learning and memory. These seemingly disparate behaviors happen at the same time, demonstrating just how powerful the brain is. Our eyes may even be “seeing” objects while we sleep, citing that the eye movement of REM sleep mimics visual processing patterns we exhibit while awake.
We cycle through these stages four or five times each night, and spending time in each supports mental and physical function. It’s critical to wake up during the appropriate stage – light sleep – to feel fresh and energized for the day ahead.
Don’t get us wrong: Getting to your spin class, eating clean foods, and staying in the moment are all important for living a balanced life – but without a good night’s sleep, you’re limiting their potential.