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Quality of Sleep More Important than Number of Hours Spent Sleeping for Immune System and Cellular Repair

Worried senior woman in bed at night suffering from insomnia. Old woman lying in bed with open eyes. Mature woman unable to sleep at home.

Worried senior woman in bed at night suffering from insomnia. Old woman lying in bed with open eyes. Mature woman unable to sleep at home.

by Paul Fassa
Health Impact News

Few are aware of the importance of good sleep, not necessarily measured by hours in bed, but the quality of sleep. This has been indicated by sleep polls over the past few years. The National Sleep Foundation’s 2018 poll or survey was up slightly in hours of sleep, but still low in quality of sleep.

Sleep quality is important for more-than-quality daytime or waking hours performance. It is a vital part of our immune system and efficient cellular repair that may slow down the body’s aging process.

Professor Matthew Walker, director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley says,

No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation. It sinks down into every possible nook and cranny. And yet no one is doing anything about it. Things have to change: in the workplace and our communities, our homes and families. (Source) [1]

It doesn’t matter much if you’re in bed during sleep time for eight hours if your sleep is not deep, or if it’s not cycled through the five stages of sleep with proper duration for each cycle, there is some measure of sleep deprivation. 

Not being able to get to sleep is merely one example of insomnia. Getting up frequently, inadvertently getting up too early, having problems getting back to sleep after being awakened, not feeling refreshed, or feeling irritable after putting in the hours of sleep that we normally seem to consider enough are all aspects of insomnia.

The Five Stages of Sleep

The five stages do not occur just once during your sleep time. They recycle a few times, each with a different emphasis and duration. If they are ideally experienced, they constitute quality sleep. 

If they are not fully experienced or are interrupted, your quality of sleep is impaired and so is your body’s regeneration, repair, and immunity. Researchers have determined the following five stages using brainwave monitoring and physical observations of human subjects. 

Stage one is where you feel yourself drifting off. If you were to forget about the alarm clock and allow yourself to wake up naturally, stage one sleep would also be the last stage before you fully wake up if you’ve recycled through the five stages. 

Stage two is still considered light sleep. Your brain activity starts to slow down, as well as your heart rate and breathing. Your body temperature falls a little and your body should be preparing to begin for the deeper sleep of stages three and four.

Stage three sleep is the start of deep sleep involving slower brain waves or delta waves. There may still be short bursts of faster brain activity with beta-waves of brain activity. Sudden awakening from this stage leaves you groggy and unfocused.

Stage four is when you experience your deepest sleep of the night. Your brain’s activity centers around slow delta-wave activity. This induces the strongest level of body repair and regeneration. Waking someone up from stage four is more difficult than the other stages. One awakened from this stage would likely be disoriented as well.

Stage five is the dream state or REM (rapid eye movement) stage. Dreaming dominates during this stage to release pent-up stress or present life solutions. Your heart-rate, breathing, and brain increase enough to be considered “active sleep.” 

Deep sleep stages three and four with their different densities of Delta waves have been determined to be the most beneficial for strengthening the immune system, while stage five is the notorious REM (rapid eye movement) cycle. That’s where we do most of our dreaming for stress relief. (Source) [2]

The South Beach Mt. Sinai Sleep Immunity Experiment

A few years ago researchers at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Miami Beach used EEG (electroencephalogram) [3] monitoring to determine that 10 men who tested positive for HIV, but were not showing signs of AIDS, spent 50 percent more time in stages three and four than average healthy people. This indicated a connection between deep sleep’s delta waves and the immune system. (Source) [4]

Many “normal” healthy people are not doing enough to bathe in those stage three and four modalities to get the benefits they need. 

Interruptions, discomfort, fitful sleeping, noises, too much light in the room, or WiFi and other electronic devices that remain on can interrupt or diminish those stages, leaving you without the rest you need to perform well, allow healing, and shore up your immune system.

Preparing Your Sleeping Environment

Natural Sleep Supplements 

Avoid pharmaceutical sleeping pills, prescribed or over-the-counter. See:

New Study Shows Sleeping Pills Linked to Increased Risk of Death and Cancer [8]

Though the sleep hormone melatonin is produced by the body, there are several external factors that disrupt that production. As you age, your production of melatonin may decrease. Thus supplementing may be necessary.

There are melatonin supplements [9] that induce sleep for most who have difficulty getting to sleep (sleep latency) or mild insomnia. There are some who challenge using melatonin supplements, but perhaps there are many more with mild sleep disorders who thrive on them. 

Those without sleep disorders who suffer from jet-lag find melatonin supplements very useful while traveling. Any other type of circadian interruption such as a shift change or extended overcast period can be handled with over-the-counter melatonin, which also has other health benefits [10].

Sublingual melatonin is a little pricier, but more easily absorbed because it bypasses corruption from the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. But if there’s concern about synthetically-derived hormones, tart cherry juice has been scientifically observed [11] as a natural source of melatonin. (Source) [12]

Another helpful supplement is 5-HTP (5-Hydroxytryptophan or oxitriptan) is the precursor for creating serotonin which in turn creates melatonin when it’s dark. This is another function that decreases as we age. So supplementing 5-HTP may be necessary.

It can alleviate any emotional chaos one experiences that blocks healthy sleep and also improve moods and depression. (Source) [13]

Other natural relaxants that are not sleep-inducing but help set oneself for getting to sleep with or without increasing melatonin. 

Our culture emphasizes production while covertly considering good sleep habits lazy. Dr. Maurice Ohayon, Director of the Stanford Sleep Epidemiology Research Center, says that the 2018 National Sleep Foundation poll shows how Americans disregard the importance of sound sleep. 

The data are clear: Good sleepers realize the benefits of a good night’s sleep and see themselves as more effective at getting things done the following day. It’s therefore disappointing to see so few people actually prioritizing their sleep. (Source) [14]

Ironically, good deep sleep results in better production and performance no matter what the task. We should emphasize sleep more and research ways to get better sleep on a personal level as much as we do on healthy diets and exercise.