We’ve mentioned the dangers of not getting enough sleep in other posts. However, we didn’t really get into what sleep actually was or how it can help our vision. If you are like many people you probably think that your eyes are still and relaxed during sleep, during part of your sleep period this would be true.
Research into sleep disorders and the different stages of sleep our bodies go through is fairly recent, with scientists really beginning to look into it in the 1950s.
Researchers found that while we sleep our eyes continue to move, but only sometimes. Being scientists, they named this discovery “rapid eye movement” (REM) sleep.
The early research was conducted on infants so at first it was assumed that REM sleep only occurred in infants. But, further research showed that all humans and most animals experience REM sleep, usually several times during a sleep period. Do you remember your dreams when you wake up? Have you ever had episodes where you were sleep walking? Both of these are the results of different types of sleep.
Two Types of Sleep We Experience
1. Rapid Eye Movement or REM Sleep
Most people experience three to five episodes of REM sleep throughout the night. Research has shown that as we age we experience less REM sleep. It appears that the dreams we can remember upon waking occur during REM sleep. Some researchers feel that this is a sign that REM sleep is a more shallow sleep pattern.
Infants spend almost 80% of their total sleep time in REM sleep, while people over 70 may only experience 10% of REM sleep throughout the night. This has led to some speculation concerning the connection between REM sleep and learning, to date nothing has been proven though. It is possible, however, that we are reliving what we learned or what happened to us during the day.
During REM sleep most of our muscles “turn off”, but this is not true of the eyes obviously. During REM sleep the eyes can reach up to 1,000 degrees of movement per second.
Does REM sleep help to keep eye muscles toned? No one knows for sure. One thing we do know is that lack of sleep can be linked to many serious eye problems. The Mayo Clinic conducted studies which showed that lack of sleep or interrupted sleep can lead to problems such as:
- Blurred vision
- Loss of vision in a single eye upon waking
- Eye vexation
- Vision deterioration
- Ischemic optic neuropathy (a vascular optic nerve lesion)
- Papilledema (Swelling of the optic nerve)
2. Non-REM or NREM Sleep
Non-REM sleep actually seems to be more relaxing than REM sleep. It is distinguished by slow brain waves, slow breathing and heart rate, and low blood pressure. Some researchers speculate that this is the type of sleep needed for the body to heal and fight disease.
Non-REM sleep is also associated with night terrors and sleepwalking episodes. It is very difficult to wake someone who is this deeply asleep. People don’t normally remember dreams, if they have any, during non-REM sleep. Because of this it has been suggested that while the eyes do not move during this type of sleep the brain may still be busy.
REM or Non-REM, We Need Our Sleep
The Mayo Clinic has published recommendations on the amounts of sleep we need:
Age group - Recommended amount of sleep
Infants - 14 to 15 hours
Toddlers - 12 to 14 hours
School – age children – 10 to 11 hours
Adults – 7 to 9 hours
For your eye health, as well as your overall health, make sure you get the sleep you need! Very few people actually get the amount of sleep that they really need for their eye health or overall health. Some people just can’t sleep, sleep disorders are more common than some people might think.
It seems to be a growing concern. Some doctors think that sleep disorders could be linked to the stress levels that we experience during our day. Stress while bad for our bodies is also just as bad for our eyes. Stress can often lead to high blood pressure and other physical ailments. High blood pressure can also lead to high eye pressure which can result in vision problems. Try to reduce your stress levels before you sleep.
Some Ideas to Help You Sleep
Have you ever lay in bed and tried to fall asleep only to have one thing after another go through your mind? You may want to try imagining a still lake or some other very calming scene. If your mind refuses to shut down on its own help it out with a calming vision.
Some people find, that if they can’t sleep, it may help them to start at their feet and slowly relax each muscle. Don’t let yourself be distracted by anything but the thought of slowly relaxing each muscle one at a time throughout your body. Generally by the time you reach your head you will have dozed off.
Some people find that a warm bath or shower will help them to relax right before they go to bed. Deep breathing exercises can also be calming and relaxing. Some people find that having music on at a low volume helps them to relax and doze off.
No matter what works for you it is vital that you find a way to get the sleep your body and eyes need.