What is Sleep?

Some drugs make you feel happy. Some make you feel energized. Some make you motivated, some improve your physical performance and some improve your mental performance.

How great would it be if you had all those benefits in one drug? You’d make billions if you managed to create it.

Well, we do. There is a drug that offers all of these benefits- and more! And to top it off, it’s completely free. It is the drug called sleep!

Humans spend about 30% of their total lifetime in sleep, but people often have a lot of questions still: what is sleep? What does it do? What happens if you don’t sleep? What can help me improve the quality of my sleep?

This article will explore these questions to help you get a sense of what sleep is all about.

How does sleep work?

Sleep is a state of mind and body that occurs in all humans. It consists of distinct phases that alternate each other. The highest level of distinction is made between REM sleep (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep. Non-REM sleep can be further divided into phases N1, N2 and N3. A natural sleep cycle goes through the following pattern: N1 - N2 - N3 - N2 - REM. This cycle usually takes about 90 minutes and, depending on the time spent sleeping, occurs about 4-6 times per night. The different phases have different characteristics and correspondingly different functions. Broadly speaking the functions of sleep are

Restoration of the organism

Being awake and active requires a lot of energy. In generating all that energy a lot of waste materials are produced, which need to be cleaned up before they can damage the body. By slowing metabolism and energy requirements sleep allows the body to start cleaning up waste and repair the body.

Processing of memories

During your waking hours a lot of things happen. Some things are trivial and can be forgotten, while others are important and should be remembered. Sleep helps to facilitate the consolidation of long-term memories by taking the information stored in the hippocampus (short term) and integrating it into the network of existing knowledge in the cortex (long-term).


The precise function of dreaming is not known. There are different theories regarding the use of dreams but the scientific community is yet to reach a consensus.

An average person starts to feel the urge to sleep at night in response to their internal clock (called the circadian rhythm) telling them that it is time to rest. Attempts to escape the proverbial sandman have proven to be futile.

What happens if you don’t sleep enough?

The list of effects that sleep deprivation can have on you is enormous (seriously, look it up). Listing them all would be overkill, but below are some examples of what (an ongoing) lack of sleep can do to you:

  • Increased risk of depression

  • More frequent and intense malaise

  • Increase risk of type 2 diabetes

  • Increased cortisol levels

  • Weakening of immune systems

  • Irritability

  • Obesity

While this list is quite staggering, it is no reason for panic. Getting some bad sleep here and there is normal and won’t immediately cripple you for life. The danger lies in structurally having either not enough sleeping time or a low quality of sleep. The effects might not be noticeable, as they tend to slowly accumulate, but they are very much taking their toll.

Knowing that, you’re probably interested in knowing how you can improve the quality of your sleep to ensure you reap the benefits and minimize the risk.

What can help me improve my quality of sleep?

According to SleepFoundation, there are four important steps you can take to improve the quality of your sleep.

Creating a sleep-inducing bedroom

The more you can create an environment that is conducive to sleep, the higher the chances of getting enough quality sleep. Some things to consider are the quality of your bed & pillows, the amount of light disruption, the amount of noise and the temperature of the room. Having a cool, dark and quiet room with a quality bed and mattress can be of tremendous value in improving the quality of your sleep.

Optimizing your sleep schedule

Your body has an internal clock that helps you fall asleep and wake up. When you don’t have a consistent sleep schedule that you stick to, odds are that your sleeping and waking times are not in line with your internal clock.

Improving sleep can be done by sticking to a fixed time for waking up and going to bed (even in the weekends!), building your sleeping time into your schedule and being considerate about napping (not too long, not too late).

Also, take the time to adjust your schedule. It adjusts slowly and can’t be forced from one day to the next.

Crafting a pre-bed routine

Sleep doesn’t start when your head hits the pillow. Sleep starts way before that; allowing your body and mind to ‘wind down’ and relax before sleeping will prove to be very useful in reducing the time needed to fall asleep and can get you into deeper stages of sleep faster.

General recommendations are to avoid bright lights starting 30-60 minutes before bedtime and to disconnect from any devices that you might interact with (TV, laptop, phone).

Fostering pro-sleep habits during the day

The previous step discussed what actions you can take to improve sleep in the hour before sleep. However, there are also things you can do during the day that will end up being valuable when it’s time to hit the sack.

Some things to consider are making sure you’re exposed to sunlight during the day, finding time to work out, limiting caffeine and alcohol intake (especially later in the day) and limiting your bed to sleep and intercourse only (to increase mental association with sleep).

Then, Iif you can’t manage to fall asleep after about 20-30 minutes of lying in bed, get out of bed and try to wind down. Spending too much time lying awake in bed will also reduce the mental association of your bed with sleeping.


We spend a significant part of our lives asleep. It is no wonder then that its effects on our mind and body are huge. Getting enough sleep will make sure your body and memory function properly. Getting too little (or low quality) sleep will increase risks of all kinds of debilitating diseases and can strongly limit mental and physical performance.

According the SleepFoundation.org the four most important parts of improving sleep are creating a sleep-inducing bedroom, optimizing your sleep schedule, crafting a pre-bed routine and fostering pro-sleep habits during the day.

Let us know if you have any tips or tricks regarding your own sleep in the comments below!

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