Pathways to Sleep I: An Introduction
It is during the last hours of sleep (when both the first and second stages are dominant) that we find the greatest amount of REM sleep. This was why I stayed up all night at the dream lab. I was always quite tired when these late-night dreams were being recorded—but I was always gratified. This was the “pot of gold” for dream researchers. These three stages (One, Two and REM) tend to interweave and many dreams of considerable length and colorful detail are produced. These later night dreams are often the ones we remember when we awake in the morning.
It is also important to note that this interweaving of these three stages is particularly prevalent as we grow older. Much of my own night of sleep involves stage one, stage two and REM. I experience an abundance of dreams – but not much of the restorative sleep of stages three and four. These are interesting tradeoffs as we age and may have significant implications for our own physical and mental health. What does all of this mean? The pattern of sleep stages is an important factor in determining quality of sleep – it is not just the amount of time we spend in bed.
Amount of Sleep Disruption
This third criterion of sleep quality is particularly important for those of us who are a bit (or a whole lot) older. It also is a criterion that is somewhat controversial—not as straight forward as the stages of sleep. Put simply, sleep disruption is about the number of times we wake up during the night and the amount of time we stay awake during the night. The critical questions to ask are: Is our sleep fragmented with many periods of wakefulness? Do we make infrequent (or frequent) decisions to get up out of bed and do something else – a midnight snack, a few minutes (or hours) or reading or watching TV, even getting a breath of fresh air by walking outside for a couple of minutes.
As we grow older, the tendency in our sleep pattern is to experience at least one major break. We sleep for part of the night and then wake up. We can’t fall back to sleep right away, but either lie in bed, frustrated by our inability to fall back asleep, or we get out of bed and perform our mid-evening ritual. Then, at some point we do return to our bed and fall asleep or we have remained in bed and eventually drift off to slumber land. The critical issue is often how we manage this bridge between the two sleep segments.
For many of us, the sleep bridge plays a central role in determining the quality of sleep. This bridge will be a focus in my discussion regarding the various pathways to sleep. Experts in the field of sleep improvement are still at a loss regarding how this bridge can be successfully crossed in the minimum amount of time. We hope eventually to find answers to this sleep bridge challenge, but at the present time can only offer some recommendations. These helpful suggestions are made by folks who have found their own unique way of crossing (or at least navigating) the bridge—be it by consuming certain foods, moving between hot and cold sleep environments, or engaging in certain kinds of visualization). So, stay tuned . . .