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When everyday life prevents healthy sleep
Stress, grief and worry, or a sleep-depriving illness - the reasons why people cannot find restful sleep are many. This is especially true in our modern times, where deadlines and performance requirements rob many of their inner peace. The demand for suitable measures to improve the nocturnal rest phases is now all the greater. It doesn't always have to be pharmaceutical sleeping pills, as our guide on the subject shows.
Why is healthy sleep so important?
From a medical point of view, our sleep is still a great mystery to science. Although we now know that it is divided into five different phases, the exact brain processes that set the respective sleep phases in motion are still not completely deciphered. The only thing that sleep medicine can say with certainty is that brain activity changes significantly during sleep.
The non-REM sleep
After falling asleep, there is so-called non-REM sleep. The term Non-REM comes from the English and means "Non Rapid Eye Movement". Accordingly, there is no rapid eye movement in these sleep phases. Depending on the author, non-REM sleep is divided into three or four individual sleep phases. They differ significantly in changes in the brain waves, which have a different frequency depending on the phase and are significantly below the alpha wave frequency of the waking state.
In contrast to non-REM sleep is REM sleep. According to the name, a "Rapid Eye Movement" takes place here. This sleep phase is famous for its particularly intense and emotional dream events and is also characterized by a particularly high level of brain activity, which can hardly be distinguished from the waking state. Together with non-REM sleep, REM sleep forms a so-called sleep cycle that lasts around 110 minutes in total and is repeated between five and seven times at night in the case of healthy sleeping habits.
The five sleep phases
The sequence of the individual sleep phases is as follows:
- Non-REM phase 1 - initiation of light sleep:
During this approximately ten-minute sleep phase, the brain changes from alpha waves (eight to thirteen Hertz) to a theta wave pattern (four to seven Hertz). In this first phase of sleep, there may be sudden nervous and muscle twitches, which is due to a steadily decreasing muscle tension. The eyes also begin to roll away.
- Non-REM phase 2 - constant light sleep:
The brain stabilizes the frequency of the theta waves, which can lead to spontaneous K complexes. They describe sudden rashes in the wave pattern that occur either spontaneously or after certain external stimuli such as noise or light stimuli, which are still perceived by the brain during light sleep. So-called sleep spindles, another form of rashes in the brain wave pattern, which are associated with short-term frequency increases to 11 to 16 Hertz, are characteristic of this sleep phase. With a duration of approximately 15 minutes, the non-REM phase two is slightly longer than phase 1, during which time the muscle tension continues to decrease and the external perception also decreases significantly.
- Non-REM phase 3 - deep sleep:
After the initial light sleep, the actual deep sleep occurs in phase 3 of the non-REM sleep, which at 20 to 30 minutes is significantly longer than the light sleep. The brain now changes to delta waves (0.1 to four Hertz). Muscular tension, as well as a conscious perception of the external environment, are no longer present in deep sleep.
- Non-REM phase 4 - intensive deep sleep:
In the fourth step, the brain changes from a deep sleep to a temporary light sleep before it comes to a deep sleep again, which is then still much more intensive and also lasts longer than the first deep sleep phase. Non-REM phase 2 and non-REM phase 3 are therefore repeated before finally the well-known REM sleep occurs.
- REM sleep:
The fifth phase of the sleep cycle is no longer part of the non-REM sleep, which is particularly evident in a significantly increased brain wave frequency. During REM sleep, the brain changes into beta waves (14 to 30 Hertz) and gamma waves (over 30 Hertz), which actually makes sleep behavior more like a waking state. In fact, only the heart rate, respiratory rate and eye activity are increased, while the muscles remain blocked even in REM sleep.
As already mentioned, the exact brain processes during sleep, especially during REM sleep, are still not fully researched. On the other hand, we know much better about the consequences of disturbed sleep. Because with all ambiguities about the origin of sleep, one thing is more than obvious, namely that sleep is essential for physical recovery and for processing sensory impressions and experiences while awake. Accordingly, sleep disorders can not only lead to a number of anomalies in sleep behavior, such as sleep walking, gnashing of teeth, snoring or nightmares, but can also cause massive health problems. What most suffers from disturbed sleep is the brain function, which serves as the control center for all other body processes. The consequences of lack of sleep and sleep disorders include:
- Memory problems,
- Mood swings,
- Heart rhythm disorders,
- Weakened immune system,
- Difficulty concentrating,
- Coordination disorders,
- Circulatory problems,
- increased irritability,
- and perceptual disorders.
Healthy sleep hygiene is the be-all and end-all
Many people tend to associate the term “hygiene” with personal hygiene. It also applies to adequate sleep hygiene, which is probably the most important component when it comes to healthy sleep. If you want to specifically avoid sleep disorders, you must first of all pay attention to regulated sleep times. For a very simple reason: Our body has an internal clock that generates the natural sleep-wake rhythm in the brain. He is responsible for keeping us awake during the day, when it is light outside, and tiring in the dark of the night. This rhythm can be disturbed by a number of influencing factors, such as:
- stimulating substances (e.g. coffee or drugs),
- Noise pollution at the sleeping place,
- Shift work (especially night shifts),
- going to bed late or getting up late
- and unnatural light sources at the sleeping place.
For healthy sleep hygiene, it is important to avoid the relevant disruptive factors that upset our inner sleep-wake cycle. In addition to regular bed times, a fixed daily routine is also helpful. Recurring activities such as work or leisure activities should therefore be scheduled in the daily schedule so that they are carried out at similar times of the day. This supports an orderly daily rhythm, which also makes the sleep rhythm easier to change into a fixed routine. It is also sensible to initiate a conscious “pre-rest phase” before going to bed and not to carry out any overly hectic or mentally demanding activities. This makes it easier for the brain to switch off and thus to enter non-REM sleep.
Stress reduction does not only affect everyday planning
Stress, which can rob our minds of sleep, includes not only professional and everyday stress, but also psychological and emotional stress. The mere thought of stressful appointments can keep us up late into the night. This can be observed particularly often in children and adolescents if they cannot sleep at night before an important exam. Existing tendency to brood can also lead to one finding oneself before falling asleep in a carousel of thoughts that prevents one from sleeping without good reason. The situation is even worse for traumatizations such as those caused by
- Near-death experiences,
- Natural disasters,
- Accident experiences
- or loss experiences are generated.
Corresponding traumatic experiences can also trigger nightly panic attacks and a nightmare, which can cause not only falling asleep, but also sleeping through persistent disorders. To ensure healthy sleep, it is extremely important to counteract inner restlessness and mental stress promptly. This often requires specialist therapeutic discussions within which professional trauma management takes place. If you are afraid of exams or general worries and fears, those affected should also do everything they can to resolve the stress-causing situation, for example through adequate and long-term planned preparation for an exam, autogenic training or behavioral therapy in which patients learn to become less involved in worrying thoughts .
Alternative relaxation measures
In connection with stress as a cause of disturbed sleep, certain treatment approaches from alternative medicine are also recommended. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in particular has numerous methods for promoting healthy sleep. The philosophy of a healthy qi flow also promotes a particularly efficient therapy concept for sleep disorders that appeals to the relaxation of the mind and thus to the brain frequencies that are active during sleep. The best therapy offers are:
- Oil massages,
- Qi Gong
- and yoga.
Acupuncture, acupressure and reflexology in particular focus on the targeted stimulation of energy flow in specific areas of the body. In this way, the sleep-promoting functions of the brain can also be consciously addressed through treatment. Other relaxation measures to promote healthy sleep include, above all, meditation and the introduction of relaxing sleep rituals that help you to get a good night's sleep, such as:
- Singing bowl therapy
- soothing music
- or aromatherapy.
In addition, evening walks in the fresh air, as well as active energy reduction through light sports such as
- Aqua aerobics,
- Nordic walking
- or relaxing cycling.
They exhaust the body to a moderate extent and thus stimulate him to be tired, which supports the initiation of sleep.
Medicinal herbs that promote sleep
Naturopathy is a particularly popular method for promoting healthy sleep. Because sometimes herbs are grown against sleep disorders and insomnia. These can be used, for example, for soothing aromatherapy in the course of a relaxing sleep ritual or as sleep-promoting massage oils.
The use of sleeping herbs for tea preparation has proven to be the best. A warming drink already has a relaxing effect on the body and can be an excellent alternative to pharmaceutical sleeping pills with the right tea herbs, which generally have an extremely high addictive potential and are therefore only recommended in exceptional cases. Instead, it is indeed better to use gentle, medicinally active ingredients in tea form. The best sleeping herbs are:
- Johannis herbs,
- Clary sage,
- Passion flower,
- and lemon balm.
Cannabis is also considered a sleep-promoting medicinal herb, but possession and trading are still prohibited in Germany.
Tip: Many of the medicinal herbs mentioned are also available as medicinal sleep drops and can be purchased over the counter in pharmacies. They thus offer another alternative option to artificial sleeping pills.
Nutrition also plays a role
When it comes to nutritional measures, restful sleep can be supported in various ways. First of all, it is advisable to stop eating lavish meals shortly before bed. Because the gastrointestinal activities that are necessary to digest food at night are unlikely to irritate sleep. In addition, there are possible digestive problems, such as flatulence or abdominal pain, which occur especially after eating foods that are high in fat or sugary. That being said, sugary meals just give the body a little useful boost of energy just before bedtime, keeping the brain active at a time when it should be shutting down. The same applies to caffeinated drinks such as coffee or energy drinks, which should therefore no longer be consumed in the late evening.
Last but not least, there are some foods in the area of nutrition that are more conducive to sleep than others. This includes, above all, foods that contain the messenger substance tryptophan. This stimulates the production of sleep-promoting hormones such as melatonin and serotonin, which are also known as "sleep hormones". Various types of fish, cereals and nuts in particular have a particularly high tryptophan content. For dinner, therefore, instead of hard-to-digest meat dishes and fatty meals, it would be better to have light fish dishes or a muesli with yoghurt on the menu. The ideal ingredients for this are:
- Lowfat quark,
- Natural yoghurt,
- Pumpkin seeds,
- Whole grain products,
- or walnuts.
Important: Legumes and cheese also contain a lot of tryptophan. However, since these foods often have a strong flatulence and are also extremely fatty in the case of many types of cheese, they are less suitable for promoting sleep. (ma)
Author and source information
This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.
Miriam Adam, Barbara Schindewolf-Lensch
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- Pi-ChuLin, Pi-Hsia Lee, Shu-JuTseng, et al. "Effects of aromatherapy on sleep quality: A systematic review and meta-analysis", 2019, (access: April 26, 2019), sciencedirect.com
- Prof. Dr. Jürgen Zulley: "My book on good sleep: finally sleeping properly again", Goldmann Verlag, 2010
- Josefine Östh, Vinod Diwan, Maria Jirwe, et al., "Effects of yoga on well-being and healthy aging: study protocol for a randomized controlled trial (FitForAge)", 2019 (access: April 27, 2019), BMJ