“Sleep is not just a loss of consciousness for eight hours”

The Beauty Sleeper; interview with sleepexpert

Sleep is both mysterious and complicated…
Interview with Birgitte Rahbek Kornum, sleep expert, author, professor at the University of Copenhagen and former researcher of sleep at Stanford University, USA.
Birgitte Rahbek Kornum unlocks the mystery of sleep as she opens the heavy but still calm gate into her universe of sleep.

Years of research in small specific corners of the world of sleep, has given Birgitte a deep understanding of what sleep is all about and especially what happens when we don’t get enough.

Lack of sleep is a phenomenon that affects most of us in the modern world and this is what inspired Birgitte to sit down and write her first book “Forstå din søvn“ which translates into “understand your sleep”.

Pillars of health: Sleep – food - exercise

Sleep is now finally looked at as one out of the three great pillars of health alongside food and exercise and what a relief that is to most of us, who love a good night’s sleep and now have the most valid excuse to hit the hay earlier than in the past and even get the bonus of a healthier body and mind.

All though sleep is mysterious and complicated, it is also quite simple: the fact is that if we don’t get enough sleep tonight we will wake up tomorrow morning feeling unrested and our brain will not perform as it should do.

It is kind of okay if we cut down on sleep for a very short period of time when needing to met an urgent deadline, since sleep is flexible and will let us catch up a few days later and put us back on track.

But the trap is that if we continuously miss out on two or three hours per night we will then start making mistakes at work, being short tempered at home and before we know it both our mental and physical health will suffer.

We all need to know more about sleep” says Birgitte.

Most of us have a common knowledge about what food to go for and how much exercise to aim for and it’s about time we all got a better understanding of sleep, an understanding that will help us make wise decisions about it.

The majority of us do need the famous eight hours of sleep within every 24 hour, but is not all that important to achieve this goal in one stretch of time. We can easily opt for going to bed late and still getting up early if we make sure to enjoy a long nap in the afternoon – as long as the total hours we sleep add up to eight.

Napping is a wonderful thing, but quite impossible most days because of long working hours and busy lifestyles – so taking that into consideration we need to be asleep by 11 pm if we must get up at 7 pm.

Men are experts in napping.....

Birgitte has not done any research in this subject, but talking about napping, don’t we all recall our childhood with our fathers or grandfathers taking their all-important nap in the afternoon?

Birgitte laughs when she tells me that no research has been done yet, but her theory never seems to fails …. Men are experts in napping!

Men can have a cat nap almost anywhere at any time and most women, like Birgitte and myself, struggle to fall asleep even on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon……. Why that is remains a sleep mystery still to be uncovered in the future.

What happens when we sleep

Sleep is not just a loss of consciousness for eight hours. Sleep is divided into four unique stages, with the first one being a very light sleep almost a stage between wakefulness and sleep.

In stage two our body temperature drops and our sleep is slightly deeper, but not so deep we won’t get disturbed by our partner’s heavy snoring in bed next to us or perhaps our dogs attempt to get under our duvet.

But then finally we enter the bliss of stage three, which is the deepest phase of our nightly sleep. The only period during our 24 hours where our body completely relaxes and both our muscles and eyes take a well-deserved break with hardly any movements at all.

If someone dares to wake us in this stage we will most likely be like a person returning from another planet – maybe that planet of deep sleep we all fantasize about on those days when our world seems to fall apart.

We will be disorientated and confused and in some cases, we will have just finished a small walk around in our home or a conversation with ourselves, since stage three is when we talk and walk in our sleep.

Our sleep in this phase basically function as a washing machine where our brain is being rinsed through by a clear liquid detergent and after eight hours all waste in our brain will have been washed out and we will wake up feeling ready for a new day.

The last but probably most fun time during the night is the fourth stage when we get swallowed up by mysterious, devastating, fun or exciting adventures, the so called famous REM sleep.

Rapid eye movements are what categorize our dream zone and if we wake up from this fascinating stage we are most likely to remember our dreams. Sometimes we dream the craziest things and other dreams will guide us in our lives to help us make better choices.

In REM sleep we strengthen the connections between the memories we have and the things we know, this way all puzzles in our daily life are collected and new patterns are being constantly built into our way of thinking and living our lives.

These four stages of sleep are put on repeat in cycles of 90 minutes, which means we are going through these cycles up to four to five times per night depending on how many hours we are lucky to get that night. At the beginning of the night when our body and mind are worn out from a long day, we are spending longer time in the deep sleep phase, but as the night moves on and we get time to heal inside, we need less of that kind of sleep and tend enjoy more time in REM sleep and that is why we often wake up in the morning well rested and with no difficulties in remembering our dreams. REM sleep has been found by some studies in the US to process emotional stress and I guess it makes sense, since what often seems to be a big problem late at night always seems easier to deal with when we wake up the next morning.

The phrase “I need to sleep on it” is probably one we ought to use some more to avoid upsetting ourselves and people around us.

Turn down the lights, turn down the bed. Turn down the voices inside my head

Such beautiful lines from the song by Bonnie Raitt and turning down the light is what Birgitte advices us to do at night to help our body to produce melatonin, the hormone that controls our sleeping and waking cycles.

But before night comes day, and a general healthy circadian rhythm is supported by spending time outside in the day light - even if it only adds up to 30 minutes in our lunch break it will do the world of good for us.

The sunlight goes straight into our eyes and has a direct route into our brain and as our day comes to an end the lack of light from outside starts preparing us for winding down and going to sleep.

Birgitte has a lot of very valuable advice about what we can do to improve our sleep, but Birgitte herself is one of these women, who usually sleeps well at night.

I am still curious to find out what a sleep expert turns to when she once in a blue moon, finds it difficult to fall asleep.

I have a little guilty pleasure....I play Crazy Cupcakes on my phone when I can't fall asleep - it is so boring that within 10 minutes I'm nodding off - it's like meditation to me!

 Knowing that Birgitte would never put Crazy Cupcakes on her list of good sleep tips for us, it is still important to remember that we are all individuals and whatever works for us is what to go for in life. 

So, if a few minutes on our mobile phone is what sends us to sleep on that occasional restless night, we simply must remember that all-important blue light filter and the eight hours of beauty sleep!