Who doesn’t enjoy waking up refreshed and rejuvenated? Take a look at your sleep over the past week or month: how many mornings have you actually woken up “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed”? With long work hours, increased stress, and influence of technology, getting a good night’s sleep is harder than it used to be. So, what does good, healthy sleep entail? Why is it important for us to sleep at all? This article answers these questions and provides some tips for better sleeping; snuggle in and get ready for a new look at sleeping!
Everyone is different, and so is their sleep! Our sleep schedules are influenced by our genetics, diet, schedules, activity level, and our environment. One thing that we all have in common are the levels of sleep, and the processes that occur while we are sleeping (more about that in the next section). In order to have healthy sleep, humans must spend time in all stages of sleep1; there are 3 non-REM stages, and 1 REM stage that I will get into detail on in a bit. The National Sleep Foundation provides insight on what healthy sleep entails for the “average” human. If these apply to you, there’s a good chance your sleep is on track!
If any of the above statements does not apply to you, you may have some wiggle room to be unique, and you may consider some of the sleep tips provided at the end of this article. If you’re thinking about your family’s sleep as well as your own, here’s a table of suggested sleep times for different age groups1*:
Time Asleep (Hours)
|Newborns (0-3 months)||14-17 hours|
|Infants (4-11 months)||12-15 hours|
|Toddlers (1-2 years)||11-14 hours|
|Preschoolers (3-5 years)||10-13 hours|
|School-Age Children (6-13 years)||9-11 hours|
|Teenagers (14-17 years)||8-10 hours|
|Young Adults (18-25 years)||7-9 hours|
|Adults (26-64 years)||7-9 hours|
|Older Adults (65+)||7-8 hours|
*Note: the times listed above do not always indicate continuous sleep, i.e. you can take naps!
What Happens While We Sleep?
Did anyone else notice that none of the times on that table were less than 7 hours of sleep? Raise your hand if you regularly sleep for 6 hours or less (I’m assuming that’s most of us). What’s the big deal, right? There’s always caffeine! I love a good dark roast, and I get that a lot more is going on during sleep than just “shutting down” because it’s dark and the office is closed. I left you hanging earlier regarding the stages of sleep: I mentioned non-REM and REM sleep. These two types of sleep alternate throughout the night and I will now use them as the structure to convey what happens while we sleep.
NON-REM sleep takes up 75% of an entire night’s sleep and is broken into three stages:
- N1 is “light sleep.” It’s the phase right in between being awake and falling asleep. Typically, in this stage it’s easier to tune out softer noises, but a loud noise or someone saying your name would stir you.
- N2 is the onset of sleep. At this point, you become disengaged from your surroundings, your heart rate and breathing rate are normalized, and your core body temperature drops. You may require a little more to wake up, like a nudge or a very loud noise.
- N3 is your deepest and most restorative sleep. Your blood pressure drops and breathing becomes slower while your muscles relax. This is when the magic happens: there is an increase in blood supply to the muscles allowing for tissue repair and growth both at the muscle and other body tissues. This is also the stage of sleep that hormones get into action, particularly growth hormone, which is essential for growth and development. As your body is repairing and resting, energy is getting saved up (your “tank” is getting refilled), and memories are being consolidated.1
REM sleep takes up the other 25% of sleep, and has just one stage:
- This is when the brain is most active and the stage where dreams occur. Your muscles turn off, causing your body to completely relax and become immobile. REM sleep is also the stage in which “rapid eye movement” is experienced. This stage occurs about every 90 minutes throughout the night, with each subsequent stage being longer than the one before.1
What Happens If We are Not Sleeping Well?
Okay, you get all of the REM cycle stuff, but does it really matter? Can’t our bodies just adapt to what we need them to do? Unfortunately, not. Solid repair through adequate sleep is irreplaceable. You may have noticed a few of these cognitive signs and symptoms show up when you have been particularly sleep-deprived (or perhaps this is just a state of being at this point!):
- Finding it difficult to concentrate or make decisions
- Feeling irritable or grouchy
- Feeling exhausted throughout the day
- Having trouble with learning or memory
- Having difficulty with reasoning or problem-solving2
Along with cognitive effects, lack of healthy sleep can impact your well-being and immune system. People with inadequate sleep patterns are at a higher risk for weight gain, high blood pressure, depression, bone loss, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and stroke.2 The fascinating part of all of these effects is that lack of sleep also hinders our ability to realize that our performance is dropping.2 We will not know the effects of poor sleeping patterns until we have experienced healthy sleep!
Now what? How do we get better sleep? The Better Sleep Council has some suggestions about how to “sleep clean,” including:
- Dealing with your sleep equipment: Comfort is important for a good night’s sleep!
- If you have lumps and bumps in your mattress and/or it is 5-7+ years old, it’s time to replace2
- The sheets you use and the pajamas you wear should also be comfy! Consider 100% cotton, or moisture-wicking if you sweat at night1,2
- Check out the infographic to the right on ideal equipment and positioning!
- Prepare your body: diet and activity around bedtime can set the stage for your night!
- Sip on something other than alcohol or caffeine; try a warm “sleep brew” (chamomile and lavender are great!) about an hour before bed2
- Eat light before bed and consider a snack that is light on the stomach and includes carbohydrates and healthy fats. These macros make a component of a sleep hormone more readily available to the brain (i.e. you could fall asleep more quickly)1
- Relax your muscles; try to avoid strenuous workouts before bed; consider some gentle stretching or yoga2
- Create a sleepy space: your sleep environment plays a major role in how you sleep
- Lights out! Try to make your room as dark as possible and avoid using bright screens immediately before bed.1,2 Being in a dark space will signal to the brain structures involved in sleep-wake cycles that it is time to shut down.
- Manage the noise around you by playing soft, soothing music or white noise to block out unwanted sounds.1,2
- Use your nose! Evidence shows that smelling lavender helps decrease heart rate and can provide greater sleep satisfaction1,2; consider using essential oils or a candle before bed to take in some soothing aromas.
- Stick to a routine: Create a structure to go through before bed every night to signal to your brain that it is time for sleep.1 For example, you may check over your schedule for the next day, plug in your phone, wash your face, put on pajamas, brush your teeth, and do a bit of light reading each night.
These are just a few suggestions to start getting your sleep on track, and there could be other structures that work for you. If you notice that you have any irregularities that impact your daily activities and performance, speak with your health care provider about what strategies you can put into place, or to inquire about treatment options. Humans were made to perform extraordinarily on this planet, and healthy sleep can give us the extra boost we need to up our game!