• Micah Kidd

Sleep Basics

Sleep is our #1 Occupational Hazard

Teachers often treat sleep deprivation as a badge of honor. You can often see teachers posting memes depicting a person who survives by getting by on nothing but caffeine but, sleep is vitally important to our health and many teachers are simply not getting enough of it.

Sleep is not a passive state.

People often think of sleep as a nothing state, just something you do when you are tired. The truth is that the body is actually quite busy while we sleep.

During sleep our body is very busy secreting hormones that are essential for good health. In particular, the pituitary gland, sometimes called the master gland because it controls the function of other glands. Pituitary activity is very much affected by poor sleep so when we see it suffer, there begins this domino effect that impacts other systems.

I think most people can appreciate that sleep helps to restore our physical and mental energy, but that’s not all it does. Another just as equally important role of sleep is conservation of energy, and it is during sleep that our respiratory system, our cardiovascular system and our central nervous system get essential resting time.

Without adequate sleep our cognition declines, causing poor mood, poor thinking processes and sometimes unpredictable behaviour. Our metabolic system is put under stress, reducing our

body’s ability to control our metabolism and appetite. Our immune system is weakened and our body’s ability to protect us from infection and disease is impaired.

In short, we our mood worsens, we gain weight and become sicker more often. These are the short term effects, the long term outcomes can be much more catastrophic.

The brain is very active while we sleep. There are in fact two different neurobehavioral states while we sleep. One is REM (Rapid eye movement) and the other is NREM (Non-rapid eye movement.

There is also a third neurobehavioral state “wakefulness” which is hopefully the state you are in now, if not, go back to sleep!! I don’t think anyone would argue that wakefulness is an important state, why would anyone debate that the other two neurobehavioral states are not just as important?

There are essential functions that can only occur in each of these sleep states and cycles, they must happen if we are to function normally.

We Sleep in Cycles.

Each sleep cycle is about 90 minutes long and it is important that you complete the sleep cycles as there are certain complex functions that occur within each stage. You can’t just take a bunch of 20 minute naps, it simply does not work this way. Just as our body is controlled by a circadian rhythm, our sleep also has a certain rhythm to it. Sleep is an ordered process.

It takes the average person 15-20 minutes to fall asleep beginning with NREM sleep. NREM sleep is divided into three stages: stages 1, 2 and 3. You may have heard of stages 1 and 2 being referred to as light sleep and stage 3 being called deep sleep. It is generally very hard to wake a person from stage 3 NREM sleep. If you’ve ever awoken with that really foggy disoriented feeling (not sure what day or time it is) you were probably awoken from stage 3 NREM sleep. Following stage 3 NREM sleep, we cycle to REM sleep and then the cycle begins anew. It isn't even quite this simple, the stages and cycles oscillate through very complex physiological mechanics. Our brightest scientist don't even completely understand how sleep works.

We need 5-6 sleep cycles in a 24 hour period.

I am sure that you’ve heard the advice that humans need 7-9 hours of sleep and that is true. Another way of looking at this however is in terms of sleep cycles. since teachers often struggle to get a solid 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep.

The interesting thing is that not all sleep cycles are the same, we begin our night with cycles dominated by NREM sleep and as the night goes we shift to a more REM dominant cycle. Scientists are not sure why this is, but for this reason it is important to get at least 3 consolidated sleep cycles.

Since it is necessary to complete a sleep cycle, naps of about 90 minutes are going to be much more effective than the 20 minute power nap. The 20 minute power nap is effective in increasing some of our wakefulness, but it will not do much in terms of restoration.

The big takeaway here is to try to get at least 4.5 hours of sleep in one session and then add at least a 90 minute nap during the day, preferably 3 hours. You can even break it up into two 90 minute naps if that fits your schedule better.

We need to respect sleep, we must proritze sleep, we must protect sleep at all cost. We can not simply skip sleep and get by on four or five hours. Sure you can survive but you won’t be living your best life.

Tips for a better night's rest

1. Take charge of your health. You are in 100% control of your health, no exceptions!

2. Focus on improving the quality of your sleep as opposed to stressing out on how little sleep you are getting.

3. Keep it moving. To stay energized our bodies need to exercise. Even if you’re feeling totally exhausted, try and allocate as little as 10 minutes a day to exercise. A leisurely walk around the block can work wonders on your mental and physical health. Just don’t do it right before bedtime

4. Enlist your family and friends for support. Their help and understanding when it comes to certain sacrifices that you will have to make will make a tremendous difference to your life.

5. Stop eating junk. Instead eat quality whole foods. Just like an engine won’t run on contaminated fuel, nor will your body perform well if it’s carrying extra weight and toxins.

Further Reading:

Why We Sleep


Health impacts of sleep deprivation


Sleep Stages



The information on this website is for general information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure any disease.

The sole purpose of this site is to serve as a resource of online ESL teachers. To educate and promote safe occupational health measures that to enhance the teaching experience.