Getting proper sleep is vital to maintaining your physical and mental health. Unfortunately, many people are waking up tired, even after getting eight hours of sleep. Some want to get eight hours of sleep every night, but they can't fall asleep or stay asleep. Why is getting a restful sleep so difficult for many of us?
The answer lies in the quality of our rest, not the quantity. A lot of sleep advice focuses on how long we sleep for, but we also need to consider how to sleep well.
What Makes You Feel Like You Got a Good Night’s Sleep?
When we think about the factors that go into a good night's sleep, we have to go back to the basics. The first step starts with our biology and the processes that sleep involves. To understand how to feel rested, you need to understand your sleep cycles.
What Are Sleep Cycles?
When we drift off, our brains and bodies keep working. In fact, we cycle through different types of brain waves, and our bodily processes subtly change throughout the night. Sleep doesn't happen in only one way — instead, it consists of five different stages. A complete sleep cycle has all five stages. So, when your body finishes the fifth stage, you complete a sleep cycle.
The Link Between Sleep Cycles and Feeling Well-Rested
During each stage of the sleep cycle, your body rests in different manners. Scientists do not entirely understand how each stage impacts your health and well-being, but they do know going without a particular stage can negatively affect your mind and body. Beneficial sleep consists of adequate amounts of each stage. So, when you wake up feeling groggy, you might not have gone through your sleep cycles properly, or perhaps you woke up in the middle of one.
How Do Sleep Cycles Work?
When we don't get balanced and full sleep cycles during rest, we don't get the most out of our sleep. In the best-case scenario, this leaves you feeling a little drowsy when you get up. When you have significant problems with sleep cycles, you can have a difficult time waking up and functioning during the day. Sleep cycles are responsible for achieving the primary goals of sleep — rest and restoration. Not experiencing sleep cycles properly leaves you with lower-quality sleep, making you feel tired even after eight hours of rest.
While each sleep cycle you go through throughout the night has the same stages, they provide different kinds of rest. Health advice mentions rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep often. During REM sleep, your brain works the hardest out of all your time sleeping. As the name implies, our eyes move rapidly during this kind of sleep. Since our brains have so much activity during this period, we experience the most dreams when undergoing REM sleep. Experts have observed a connection between REM sleep and memory, mood and thinking. To keep our minds in top shape, we need the right amount of REM sleep.
You may have already heard of REM sleep, but do you know about non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep? REM sleep is vital to getting proper rest, but we can't underestimate the power of NREM sleep, which happens during the rest of the sleep cycle. During NREM sleep, your brain and body slow down instead of speeding up, and your sleep gets gradually deeper. We spend most of our time sleeping in NREM sleep with shorter periods of REM sleep. NREM sleep involves slow-wave sleep, which affects learning, the nervous system and physical recovery.
Sleep Cycles and REM/NREM Sleep
We experience about four to six 90-minute sleep cycles throughout the night. Each sleep cycle looks a little different from the others, having a different proportion of REM sleep. Our first two to three sleep cycles mainly consist of NREM sleep, while the last two to three involve more REM sleep. How long you sleep also affects the amounts of each sleep type you get during your sleep cycles. During the earlier parts of the night, we tend to have more NREM sleep. Meanwhile, we spend more time with REM sleep late at night and in the very early morning.
Every sleep cycle follows a similar five-step progression. You start with four stages in which light sleep gets deeper. Once you reach the deepest level of sleep, you transition back to light sleep, which becomes the fifth stage, REM sleep. Then, the sleep cycle starts over, beginning again with light sleep.
What Are the Five Different Stages of Sleep?
Depending on whom you ask, sleep cycles can have four or five stages. Sleep experts use a four-stage framework, while some people separate the slow-wave sleep stage before REM sleep into two stages. No matter how you categorize sleep stages, they still progress the same way. We will use the original five-stage names first, with the new names in parentheses.
Stage 1 (N1): The Transition Period
When you feel yourself drift off, you're starting the first stage of the sleep cycle. During this stage, your body makes the switch from awake to asleep. Your brain waves and muscle movements slow down. You might have sudden muscle jerks that accompany the feeling of falling, also known as a myoclonic jerk. If you have ever fallen asleep only to get startled by the sensation of falling, you were in the first sleep stage.
When undergoing stage 1 sleep, you can wake up very easily. You feel very drowsy and drift in and out of sleep, perhaps nodding off or getting weary-eyed. Stage 1 sleep doesn't give you deep rest, but it can relieve some fatigue if you take a short nap. This stage of sleep lasts around five to 10 minutes.
Stage 2 (N2): Slowing Down
At the second sleep stage, your mind and body begin to slow down to prepare for slow-wave sleep. Your eye movements completely stop at this point in the cycle. Additionally, your body temperature starts to decrease, and your heart rate becomes slower. Occasionally, your brain will create sudden bursts of rapid waves, and your muscles will tighten. These moments are often called sleep spindles.
Since stage 2 sleep is still light sleep, you can wake up without feeling too groggy. You haven't transitioned to sleep deep enough to give you dreams, but your brain will create them soon. Stage 2 sleep happens for about 15 to 20 minutes at a time.
Stage 3 (N3): The Start of Deep Sleep
When you reach the third stage of sleep, your brain slows down even further, and your body begins to repair itself. Tissue regrows, bone and muscle rebuild and your body sheds dead cells. This deep sleep also maintains your immune system. Your brain produces slow delta waves with occasional smaller and faster waves, beginning the slow-wave sleep part of the sleep cycle. Even though your body starts doing serious work, you still breathe slower and have a lower heart rate.
Once you enter stage 3, it becomes much harder to wake up quickly. Sleep experts often group this stage with stage 4 and refer to it as N3. The N3 stage can take anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes.
Stage 4 (N3): Even Deeper Sleep
Stage 4 has many traits in common with stage 3, causing many scientists to group them together. In the fourth stage, your brain makes even more delta waves than in stage 3 and fewer fast waves. Think of stage 4 as a more intense version of stage 3, where you sleep more deeply. When you need more sleep than usual, your slow-wave stages last longer than they usually do.
REM Sleep: When Dreams Happen and Your Brain Repairs Itself
After about 85 minutes of the four NREM stages, you enter REM sleep, which offers different and significant benefits. Your brain becomes active again — so active, in fact, you might experience dreams. While your brain goes into overdrive, your body doesn't move at all. REM sleep acts as a "cleaner" for your brain, clearing out unwanted cells. If you become deprived of REM sleep, your mind and body will try to enter REM sleep more often and stay in the REM stage longer.
How Do Sleep Stages Impact How I Wake Up?
As you can see, some sleep stages are easier to wake up from than others. If something interrupts your sleep in the middle of the third or fourth stage, you won't only feel groggy, but you'll miss out on the REM benefits from that cycle. Meanwhile, waking up at the end of a sleep cycle or during the first two stages lets you feel more rested. That's why shorter naps can make you feel more energized than longer ones. At the same time, you need prolonged amounts of sleep at night to get the rest each stage provides, so you can't rely on naps alone.
In some cases, your sleep cycle might get interrupted in the middle of the night, denying you access to restful REM sleep. You might sleep eight hours, but not all at once. To feel refreshed in the morning, you need continuous sleep.
What Time Should You Go to Sleep?
We do not have a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Everyone has unique schedules, lifestyles and responsibilities. A third shift worker will have to go to bed at a different time than someone who works nine to five. If you understand how your sleep cycles work, however, you can adjust your bedtime to fit any wake-up time.
As we mentioned earlier, a typical sleep cycle lasts around 90 minutes. When you wake up at the beginning or end of a sleep cycle, you don't experience the drowsiness that comes with waking up from slow-wave sleep. So, you can decide on your bedtime by counting backward from your wake-up time in 90-minute increments. Tools like online sleep calculators can help you do the math.
When you create a sleep schedule, keep in mind your rest might not involve exact 90-minute sleep cycles. It takes an average of 90 to 110 minutes for a sleep cycle to go through all the stages. If you try the 90-minute approach and still don't feel rested, add or subtract a few minutes from your alarm time. You should also consider how long it takes you to fall asleep and add that to your total time.
How Much Sleep Do You Need?
Even though you can wake up feeling refreshed just from one sleep cycle, you still need to get a full night's rest every night. Everyone should plan a sleep schedule that lasts for four to five sleep cycles. If you have a 90-minute sleep cycle, that means you should sleep for six hours or seven and a half hours. You may have to adjust your plan if you don't think your sleep cycles last for 90 minutes. Experimentation can help you figure out your body's natural rhythm.
Of course, the amount of sleep you need also depends on your age and other individual factors. As we age, the amount of time we spend in each sleep stage changes, as well as the total time we should rest at night. Children and teenagers gradually need less sleep as they age, going from as high as 20 hours as an infant to only nine as an adolescent. The standard recommended amount of sleep for adults is seven to eight hours, but some people need as much as nine or as little as six.
Your physical and mental activity during the day can require you to get more sleep to feel fully rested. Genetics can play a role in the best amount of sleep for you, too. If you adjust your amount of sleep to no avail, you may want to get tested for a sleeping disorder like sleep apnea. Sleep disorders can interrupt your sleep cycles, making it difficult to manage them no matter how hard you try. You could also have a condition that causes you to feel tired during the day, making it seem like you don't get quality sleep.
Tips for Getting a Good Night’s Sleep
Once you have a good understanding of your sleep cycles and how they impact your energy levels, you can figure out what interrupts or delays them. Having difficulty falling asleep in the first place makes it tricky to plan your sleep schedule. Waking up in the middle of the night forces your body to start sleep cycles all over again, preventing you from taking advantage of that sleep cycle's REM phase. Many factors can get in the way of proper rest, but we can help. The following healthy sleep tips can help you improve the quality of your rest.
1. Follow a Sleep Schedule
After you create the sleep plan we mentioned in the last few sections, you should follow it as closely as possible. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even when you have the day off. If you have an unpredictable schedule, try to sleep during a time when you usually don't have to work. A consistent sleep schedule trains your body's internal clock to signal sleepiness at the time you want to fall asleep. Going to bed at the same time every day also helps you stay asleep, letting you avoid any interruptions during your sleep cycles.
2. Eat a Sleep-Friendly Diet
If you eat certain foods close to bedtime, they can interfere with both your sleep quality and quantity. Caffeine is a big offender. Coffee drinkers don't have to deny themselves their cup of joe in the morning, but avoiding caffeine about eight hours before bed can stop it from keeping you awake. Spicy and greasy food that causes uncomfortable indigestion can keep you up if you eat them within a few hours of bedtime. If you get hungry before bed, feel free to eat a light snack about 45 minutes before you try to fall asleep. You don't want your hunger to keep you up, either!
3. Form Relaxing Bedtime Habits
About an hour before bed, you should only do activities that help you wind down. Stay away from anything that makes you feel excited, stressed or anxious. Bright screens can make sleeping harder, too, so avoid electronics if possible. You can at least use a screen filter program on a computer or phone to reduce the impact of the blue light they give off. If you think of something that makes you worried, or a problem you need to solve, write it down and save it for when you're awake. Popular relaxing activities to do before bed include reading, journaling and listening to soothing music.
4. Create an Association Between Your Bed and Sleep
You can train your subconscious to make a stronger connection between sleep and your bed. Even doing calming activities like reading in bed can keep you awake. If you work, study or even just watch movies in bed during the day, move those actions somewhere else. During your bedtime routine, you can do your favorite relaxing activity in a comfy chair or couch to help you calm down. If you can't fall asleep or wake up in the middle of the night for an extended period, get out of bed and do something calming until you feel tired again.
5. Nap Carefully
Naps can be your biggest friend or foe in the fight against sleeplessness. The difference lies in sleep cycle management and paying attention to your energy levels. Shorter naps during the day can boost your energy and make you more productive as long as you keep them shorter than 30 minutes or aim for about 90 minutes. In other words, plan your nap around your sleep cycles for the best result. However, if you have trouble getting to sleep, you can try getting rid of naps entirely or taking them earlier in the day. Napping too close to bedtime can throw off your internal clock.
6. Eliminate Distractions in Your Bedroom
Even if you use earplugs and a sleep mask, you could still have a distracting sleep experience. Many factors you wouldn't think of could interrupt your sleep. For example, if you sleep with a partner, you could each have a separate blanket so you can have the least distracting coverage. Even though we love our furry friends, pets can interrupt your sleep if they cuddle with you in bed or come into your room to play. An uncomfortable environment counts as a distracting environment, too. A fix as simple as wearing socks on your cold feet can mean the difference between sleep and restlessness.
7. Exercise Regularly
If you have the time, resources and ability, getting some physical activity on a regular basis can help you manage your energy levels. Remember, exercise doesn't necessarily mean running on a treadmill or doing intense cardio. Even light exercise for a few minutes every day can improve sleep. Do what works for you. You can find free workout videos and instructions on the Internet, dance to your favorite song or do light weightlifting without leaving the house. Think of what inspires you and use that to find the right exercise activity.
Address Any Health Issues That Interfere With Sleep
When all else fails, you might need professional help to get the most out of your sleep. Sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea can make good rest hard unless you see a doctor who can treat the underlying cause of your condition and help you to get a well-rested sleep. Mental health issues like anxiety and depression can also interfere with sleep when untreated. Even physical conditions like chronic pain can keep you awake.
Whether or not you already have a diagnosis, health professionals are here to lend a hand and advise you on how to wake up refreshed and energized.