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With a comfortable memory foam mattress beneath you, sleep comes easily, but most people are unaware that during the course of a typical night, they actually experience several different kinds of sleep and can even go through brief periods of wakefulness that are quickly forgotten.

Rather than being one continuous activity, a good night’s sleep is made up of a number of cycles, each of which has a key role to play in helping the brain and body to feel fully rested and refreshed.

There are two main types of sleep; slow wave, which is also known as deep sleep, and REM – rapid eye movement - which is associated with dreaming. When you first go to bed you begin with slow wave sleep which is usually split into stages, each one getting progressively deeper, as your brainwave activity begins to slow down. During this time your pulse rate, body temperature, blood pressure, metabolism and respiration rate all begin to fall.

Each set of four stages of slow wave sleep lasts around 90 minutes in total and at the end of this you go through a period of REM sleep lasting somewhere between 5 and 30 minutes. REM sleep is not as restful as slow wave sleep and during this time your brainwave activity is remarkably similar to that which is seen when you are fully awake. Your pulse, blood pressure, breathing all become irregular and your eyes dart back and forth rapidly even though your eyelids remain closed.

Researchers believe that REM sleep stimulates the metabolism to release brain chemicals that make learning easier. This means that if you miss out on this type of sleep, your performance on everyday tasks is likely to suffer.

One of the most important parts of the sleep cycle generally occurs between the seventh and eight hours of sleep. During this time the final stage of sleep is entered and it is then that the brain’s neural network is stimulated. This is the equivalent of the brain recharging its batteries and this process is essential for retaining new ideas, insights and strengthening memory. If you continually miss out on this process the brain’s neural network begins to deteriorate.

Most people in the UK are suffering from what is known as a ‘sleep debt’. Studies show that the optimal amount of sleep the average person needs is about an hour more than they are actually getting. One little-known symptom of sleep depravation is having to rely on an alarm clock to get up in the morning. If you are still fast asleep when the alarm sounds and struggle to fully wake up, then you are simply not getting enough sleep.

If you find yourself suffering from problems that you believe could be linked to a lack of sleep, trying going to bed 20 minutes earlier ever night. Keep adding a further twenty minutes until you feel awake all day. You know you are getting the optimum amount of sleep when you are still fully alert throughout the afternoon. With the right amount of sleep you will also find yourself becoming less reliant on the alarm clock and waking up naturally each morning.

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