Not everyone can be Sleeping Beauty

When it comes to sleep (and more), we are all different. For example, there are those who sleep like a baby, those who sleep so lightly that they wake up with any noise or dim light, and those who have insomnia. And, of course, there are those who love to sleep long after the sun rises, and those who consider the act of sleeping merely functional, preferring to get up early.

Perhaps the character who understands the most about how to sleep well is Sleeping Beauty – according to the original story, the princess’s deep sleep lasted 100 years and it’s no coincidence that this is one of the nicknames applied to someone who sleeps a lot. Whatever your relationship to sleep, staying awake is not an option – sleep is a basic human need and a fundamental function of survival. More than “falling” asleep, you need to sleep well. But what does this entail?

What does it mean to sleep well?

As with eating, sleep is a complex biological process. It has a direct impact on physical and mental health, allowing the body to function properly. Although we don’t realise it, there’s a lot going on while we’re sleeping.

To sleep well, each person must go through four to six sleep cycles per night, each with four distinct phases. In the first three phases, which fall into the category of non-REM sleep (where REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement), brain activity decreases, the muscles relax, and breathing is regular. The fourth stage is REM sleep, in which brain activity is similar to what we experience when we are awake, with an increase in heart rate and more irregular breathing.

What is the meaning of REM?

REM sleep - the acronym for "rapid eye movement" - is a phase of sleep associated with dreams and memory consolidation. It was discovered in the 1950s when scientists studying babies' sleep noticed that there were periods when their eyes moved rapidly from side to side. These rapid eye movements gave REM sleep its name.

The Four Stages of Sleep

  • Stage 1:

    It takes place just after falling asleep, lasting between 1 and 7 minutes.

  • Stage 2:

    It can last up to 25 minutes and, just like in stage 1, sleep is light, and it is easy to wake up.

  • Stage 3:

    The third stage is deep sleep – this is when hormones are produced, and cells recover. It is the most biologically important stage and lasts 20 to 40 minutes.

  • Stage 4:

    The last phase, REM sleep, goes on for 10 to 60 minutes and is when the most vivid dreams occur and memories are formed, being essential for the brain.

These phases repeat for each of the four to six sleep cycles. With each cycle, the REM time increases, occurring mostly during the second half of the night.

This so-called “sleep architecture” helps to understand why “sleeping well” is not merely related to the number of hours of sleep. Most adults need about two hours of REM sleep per night, so ensuring that the time we spend sleeping is of quality, that is, that we complete these four to six cycles per night, is essential for the body’s recovery. Each cycle, with all sleep phases, takes about 90 to 120 minutes.

What is the relationship between sleep and food?

Have you ever noticed that if you lose sleep, you eat a greater amount of food and crave for sweeter or saltier foods? There’s a reason.

While you sleep, the body produces hormones that regulate feelings of hunger and regulate insulin levels. If you do not produce enough of these hormones, the functions they perform are also affected. In other words, sleep deprivation causes hormonal dysregulation, which can contribute to a higher caloric intake, especially from foods high in fat and carbohydrates and, particularly, with a sweet or salty taste. If you’re craving chocolates, chips, or other foods high in fat or sugar, it could be an indicator that you’re not getting enough sleep.

While a sedentary lifestyle negatively affects health, resting and sleeping well have the opposite effect, given that lack of sleep is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.

The type of food you eat, especially before going to bed, can also affect the quality of your sleep. Avoid food that is hard to digest (especially those high in fat) and stimulants (chocolate, sugar or sugary foods/drinks, caffeinated drinks or alcoholic beverages) before going to sleep. Discover some tips to reduce fat in your diet and suggestions to replace sugar.

Infographic about balanced diet and sleep

What are the best foods before sleep?

A balanced diet can help you sleep well, and the Mediterranean diet can be your sleep’s greatest ally – it recommends several foods that provide tryptophan and melatonin, essential for a good night’s sleep.

Melatonin and tryptophan: what are they?

Melatonin is a molecule responsible for inducing sleep. Its production is lower during the day and increases as it gets darker, in response to decreased exposure to light. Melatonin is produced by our body from tryptophan, an essential amino acid obtained through food. The brain then converts Tryptophan into serotonin. Combined with two important nutrients (magnesium and B vitamins), it produces melatonin, which is released into the bloodstream.

Eating foods that provide us with tryptophan, especially at night, can help you get quality sleep. This amino acid is present in dairy products, meat, fish, whole grains, legumes, oleaginous fruits and seeds. But there are also foods that directly provide us with melatonin, especially cereals such as corn and rice, tomatoes, strawberries, walnuts and almonds.

How to have a good sleep hygiene?

Sleep hygiene is a set of behaviours and habits that promote restful sleep. To get a better sleep, try these tips:

Power nap

A power nap can have several benefits, such as a greater sense of alertness and improvements in mood and memory. Just beware to not let it have the opposite effect and make you even more sleepy and reactive – power naps should only last between 10 and 30 minutes.

Extra tip: If you have insomnia, can’t control your food impulses, or experience any other symptoms related to sleep and eating, see a doctor or nutritionist.

As for Sleeping Beauty, the real question is: after 100 years of sleeping, what did she feel like eating when she woke up?

Sweet dreams!

Some curiosities about sleep: