Sleep & relaxation

What does good sleep look like and why is it important? People sleep for around one-third of their lives. This alone shows that sleep must be important for your health. In fact: Sufficient and quality night-time recovery is not only necessary for well-being. 

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Why is a good night's sleep important?

A number of processes take place while we sleep: our memory, learning ability, concentration and immune system are fortified, and regeneration processes run at full capacity. A good night’s sleep can make you feel better, fitter and more efficient. It can even make you look better.

Sleep duration and sleep quality – how much sleep is needed?

The need for nighttime sleep varies greatly between different people. Some people need four to five hours, others eight to nine hours. But at the end of the day, it’s the sleep quality that counts, not the sleep quantity. If you regularly feel fresh and rested when you wake up, you sleep enough. If the alarm clock rips you out of your sleep every day and you haven’t slept enough, your sleep duration is too short or your sleep quality is insufficient. There is no uniform definition of sleep quality. Science assumes that good sleep quality is given if you fall asleep within 30 minutes after going to bed and do not wake up more often than once per night. Once you wake up, you fall asleep again within 20 minutes and the time you spend in bed consists of at least 85% sleep. Some also include the duration of the individual sleep phases in their considerations regarding sleep quality. If you cannot fall asleep, or if you wake up in the morning feeling exhausted, you should think about the quality of your sleep and your sleep habits. If you would like to understand sleep in all its details, you can find help in special sleep laboratories or analyze your sleep and sleep quality from home using sleep trackers that are now fitted to most fitness wearables as standard. There are also special smartphone apps to monitor sleep. Stimuli such as movement, breathing, and heartbeat are measured. As a result, the period of sleep onset as well as the individual sleep phases and their duration can be derived and you learn whether and how often you wake up at night.

More tips: Better sleep with these strategies

Understanding sleep: the 4 phases of sleep

Falling asleep:

This transitional state of five to 20 minutes prepares the body for actual sleep. The body comes to rest. Breathing and pulse become more uniform, and the muscles relax. Brain activity slows down, the brain is at rest. The duration of this phase may vary. People who cannot fall asleep for a longer period often see this as a problem, which in turn causes tension and makes them stay awake for longer.

Stable sleep:

After falling asleep, the phase of stable sleep follows. Now the body functions are further reduced, breathing and heartbeat are slowed, body and mind switch to sleep mode. We normally spend more than half of our sleep in this condition during the night.

Deep sleep:

Regeneration and recovery begin at this stage. The body repairs rejuvenates, and strengthens itself for the new day. In this sleep phase, waking up is the most difficult; you can talk or sleep during this sleep phase. We spend around 20% of our total sleep time in deep sleep.

Dream sleep or REM sleep:

The body is still relaxed, but the brain is active. Characteristic of the REM phase is the rapid back-and-forth movement of the eyes under the closed eyelids (Rapid Eye Movement/REM). Heartbeat and respiratory rate increase and dreaming becomes more intense. Overall, we spend 60 to 75 minutes per night in this phase, which is sometimes similar to the waking state and is therefore also called “paradoxical sleep”.

Tip: Waking up fully rested

During nighttime sleep, we go through the four phases several times, whereby the duration of REM sleep increases during the night. Towards the morning we therefore dream a lot. It is beneficial to wake up when the REM phase is completed and we have gone through a complete sleep cycle. Then when the alarm clock rings, you feel rested and rejuvenated.

The rule of thumb is: 90 minutes per sleep cycle. This allows the most favorable time to fall asleep to be calculated. If you need to get up at 6 a.m., you should ideally fall asleep at 9 p.m., 10:30 p.m. or midnight. A different sleep cycle length can be determined by trying it out. The best time to fall asleep is then quickly determined.

What happens when we sleep?

Sleep, memory, and learning

Sleep is necessary to process what you experience during the day. This separates the important from the unimportant. The brain compares the experiences of the day with memories and experiences. Essential information passes into the memory and is stored thereby strengthening the connections between the nerve cells. The same applies to concentration and mental performance. No wonder that well-rested people perform better in memory tests than those with sleep deficit.

Sleep strengthens the immune system

During sleep, it is not only impressions that are anchored in the long-term memory. The same happens in the immune cells. Recent research results indicate that information about pathogens with which the immune system was in contact during the day is transferred to the memory of the immune cells during deep sleep. Good, adequate sleep therefore helps the body's protection system.

Sleep, regeneration, and a rested appearance

Tissue and cells regenerate as we sleep. Muscles are also built up. The growth hormones responsible for this are released more frequently at night. Whether you have slept enough or not enough is often shown by your skin. It is not for nothing that we speak of beauty sleep.

The brain also regenerates during sleep. Nowadays we know that it is rinsed and cleaned. During sleep, the spaces between the nerve cells increase by about 60 percent and small protein deposits are washed out.

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Chinese organ clock: Always awake at the same time?

If you wake up at the same time every night regardless of the time of bedtime, this can be a message from the body according to TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). This is because, according to TCM, Qi (life energy) flows through our body via 12 meridians (energy pathways). Each meridian is assigned a specific organ. The organ has a maximum of Qi at a specific time and each meridian for two hours per day. Twelve hours later, it has its energy low. The doctrine states: If the energy flow is disturbed via the meridians, this affects our body and sleep. If you wake up regularly at a certain time, the body is sending important signals.

Frequently asked questions about sleep

The most important thing for the mind and body is deep sleep, during which we sleep particularly deeply and are as relaxed as possible. At the same time, many processes of regeneration and recovery are taking place on both a mental and a physical level. Our brain also has time to organise and collect, to process experiences, to make unconscious decisions and to strengthen memories and what we have learned. If we are awakened during this sleep phase, we feel lightheaded and only slowly get back into gear. The deep sleep phase is the longest at around one hour during the first sleep cycle of the night. The subsequent periods of deep sleep become shorter and shorter.

The distinct deep sleep phases are crucial for a particularly restful night's sleep. This makes the first four hours of our sleep the best and most restorative, since you get the greatest amount of deep sleep during this time.

In the REM sleep phase (dream sleep phase), our brain is particularly active; we dream a lot and intensively. The exact function of this sleep phase is not yet fully understood, but experts suspect that we process situations experienced and emotional sensory impressions in REM sleep. In addition, the dream sleep phase is thought to be used to save acquired information in the long-term memory. While the deep sleep phases shorten during the night, the REM sleep phases become longer and prepare us for waking up.

In many cases, people believe that sleep before midnight is particularly healthy and valuable. This view is shared by sleep researchers only to a limited extent. Healthy sleep isn’t all about the time you go to bed, it’s all about the quality of sleep. According to the current state of knowledge, the first four hours of sleep are the most restful, regardless of the time of going to bed, since most deep sleep phases occur during this time. People who have to get up very early for work reasons and therefore go to bed at 8 p.m. actually sleep best before midnight. Night-owls who only turn off their lights shortly before twelve can still enjoy a healthy night’s sleep after midnight – as long as they don’t have to get up too early.

Our need for sleep is not set in stone, but changes over the course of our lives. While 14 to 17 hours of sleep per day are considered optimal for newborns, grown-ups usually manage well with an average of 7 to 8 hours. The US National Health Foundation has published guidelines in the Sleep Journal for orientation on how much sleep is appropriate for which age.

People who want to improve their night’s sleep can use different methods. In order to be able to fall asleep relaxed, a calm atmosphere and the right sleep aids should always be ensured and going to bed should be made sleep friendly. You can find out what this looks like in concrete terms in this article.

Sleep requirements depend on the stage of life. While newborns still sleep between 14 and 17 hours a day, school children need between nine and eleven hours a day. Teenagers and adults sleep on average seven to nine hours, and older people usually manage with seven to eight hours a day. However, the amount of sleep needed is not only dependent on age, but also varies greatly between individuals.

Basically, everyone should make sure that their individual sleep needs are met on a daily basis. However, it is quite natural for people to sleep less here and there, for example after a party with friends. The organism recovers after one or two days, the memory of a nice evening remains. If you only concentrate on your sleep, you sometimes miss out on life.

Unfortunately, yes. The link between too little sleep and obesity is well established. Sleep-deprived people have a bigger appetite. The sleep disturbances shift the balance of hormones that regulate the feeling of hunger. The result is a change in the "reward centre" of the limbic system. Unrested people therefore like to eat, unfortunately also too much, and they tend to choose unhealthy foods.

Melatonin is a natural substance that also occurs in food. Pistachios, cranberries and porcini mushrooms are good sources of melatonin. Melatonin-containing products with a dosage of up to one milligram of melatonin are considered food and can be used as a food supplement. The EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) has tested these dosages and allows corresponding statements in connection with food: The consumption of one milligram of melatonin shortly before bedtime helps to shorten the time it takes to fall asleep.

Bad dreams are part of life from time to time. Nightmares are also normal, as long as they do not occur too often and are not too stressful. However, frequently recurring nightmares in adulthood, which massively disrupt nightly rest, can certainly develop into a health problem. The cause is not always psychological. Nightmares can also be an indication of illness or intolerance to medicines. Consultation with a doctor is particularly important in these cases.
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