Sleeping smarter

As recommended by most health care professionals, the ideal amount of sleep each night is 7-9 hours. Between late night rehearsals (even later night runs for post-dance food!) and early morning alarm clocks, sometimes you won't have time to get a full night's rest. But, there are a few ways to optimize the already minimal sleep you might be getting.

This article is part of a neuroscience-focused series on sleep. Make sure you check out the other articles in the series, including how to use Pavlovian conditioning to help you get to sleep sooner and how computer screens can keep you from sleeping.

Since studios are often reserved for classes in the evening, companies that book rehearsal space after these classes force their dancers into late rehearsal times. This holds especially true for college based companies, with rehearsals often running into the AM. When rehearsals start today day but finish tomorrow, early morning classes sometimes are not an option. For those of us in the workplace, late rehearsals can lead to sacrificing sleep in favor of making it into work, just hours after wrapping up rehearsal. This article is focused on maximizing the efficiency of your minimal sleep.

Sleep is a cyclical process

When an average person lays down for the night, the brain starts a journey through a series of phases. Soon after knocking out, you will fall into a cycle of light sleep alternating with periods of deep sleep. Deep sleep is the truly restorative sleep, when memories are solidified, and when the cortical neurons can actually rest. A phase of light sleep, called rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, on the other hand is when we experience our dreams. REM sleep is also called "paradoxical sleep" because our brain's physiology is most similar to the physiology of being awake - similar brain wave patterns, similar high brain oxygen consumption, and a similar neurotransmitter chemical profile.

Despite having the brain activity similar to a waking state, It is difficult to wake someone during REM sleep. Because chronically sleep deprived people immediately fall into REM sleep, many scientists believe that REM sleep is a physiological necessity. Since dreaming happens during REM sleep, you will know if you wake up in the middle of a REM cycle - you'll vividly remember your bizarre and disjointed dreams. The worst scenario is when your alarm clock screams at you while you are in the middle of deep sleep. Upon awakening, your brain will feel hazy; you'll feel groggy, confused, and completely disoriented. Overall, you'll hate your life for the next 20+ minutes.

The trick waking up quickly and well rested? Try to wake up at the end of a REM cycle. The idea is that since REM sleep is important for our brains and bodies, we should try to maximize the amount of time we spend in REM sleep. But the brain quickly goes into deep sleep afterwards, which should not be interrupted, so the ideal compromise is to set your alarm right at this junction point. Unfortunately, it it difficult to know what phase of sleep we are in, because, obviously, we're asleep. Understanding how long your individual sleep cycle lasts is the secret to waking up feeling refreshed.

To figure out your personal sleep cycle, put a notebook beside you before hitting the hay. Next, you'll want to think about how long it takes you to fall asleep once you lie down. (If you don't immediately knock out within a 10 minute window, try some of these strategies to encourage quickly falling asleep, such as limiting computer screen exposure or conditioning your body to become sleepy on your bed.) Try setting your alarm clock for 6 hours + the time it takes you to fall asleep. For me, it's around 5 minutes, if not quicker. Try keeping this schedule as best as you can for a week. Each morning, jot down how you feel when you wake up, and how awake you feel in the morning - definitely don't snooze! Try adjusting your alarm clock by 10 minutes at a time until you find that ideal amount of sleep per night that your body needs to feel well rested in the morning.

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