Sleep plays a major role in health and fitness. So it’s hardly surprising that along with regular nutrition and exercise, an 8- to 9-hour daily sleep cycle is considered essential.

Frequent episodes of disrupted and fragmented sleep cycles affect both, the mind and body. An 8-hour cycle gives you both mind and body benefits, including improved concentration, mental alertness, and regulation of the appetite hormones ghrelin and leptin. Fragmented sleep elevates ghrelin levels, which, in turn, increases appetite, and, therefore, calorie intake. It also lowers the blood leptin level, which, in turn, tells the body it is starving, leading to cravings. Anything less than 8 hours prevents your body from doing its job of repairing and restoring itself or refreshing the mind.

Once the lights are out, the brain secretes melatonin, the sleep hormone that is light sensitive and plays a vital role in improving metabolism, sex drive, and regulating appetite, among other things. Essentially, melatonin ensures you slow down and feel sleepy.

People alternate between two types of sleep cycles. The first is a slow wave sleep cycle, which makes up 75% of your sleep cycle and is characterized by moderate muscle activity, as well as an absence of eye movement. This is also called the non-rapid eye movement sleep cycle (NREM). This sleep phase works to restore the metabolic processes, body tissues and muscles.

This cycle is followed by the rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep, which works to restore the mind. The REM sleep cycle is characterized by rapid eye movements in every direction and a higher oxygen uptake by the brain. The heart rate, blood pressure, brain and muscle activity increase even as you sleep, leading to increased brain activity, somewhat similar to when you are awake. REM sleep is the phase in which dreaming occurs, along with memory consolidation. Typically, after the initial phase of rest, the NREM and REM cycles alternate. REM sleep makes up 20-25% of the entire 8-hour cycle.

So lifestyles that promote too many late nights may mean that sleep gets stepmotherly treatment. Here are some ways to remedy that:

Eat every 3-4 hours and exercise daily to restore that regular sleep-wake cycle. Our metabolism responds best to consistent, habitual routines.

A diet with regular consumption of complex carbohydrates like brown rice, millet, oats, brown rice, legumes, green leafy vegetables, broccoli, beans and mushroom, fruits like kiwi, musk melon and oranges, protein food choices like paneer, eggs, yogurt, seafood and poultry, nuts and seeds like almond and flaxseed, helps improve overall sleep quality.

Regular exercise, including cardio, weight training, stretching and Pilates, helps induce sleep. For some, morning exercise might induce sleep better than late-evening exercise. Those who lead a sedentary lifestyle should start a simple exercise plan of daily walking, weight training at least twice a week and Pilates or yoga twice a week.

• Avoid excessive intake of alcohol, caffeine and other stimulants. These can prevent the mind from calming down.

• Turn off the television and other bright lights an hour before bedtime to induce an increase in melatonin levels so that you fall asleep naturally and experience adequate amounts of both NREM and REM sleep.

• Avoid heavy meals at night. The body has to keep the metabolic rate up to digest a heavy meal and this could interfere with the initiation of a sleep cycle.

Madhuri Ruia is a nutritionist and Pilates expert. She runs InteGym in Mumbai, which advocates workouts with healthy diets.

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