Inside: Why is sleep so very important? What are the phases of sleep and what does “quality sleep” actually look like? How much is “enough quality sleep”? How does it do these amazing things for health and wellness? And, most importantly, how can you get better sleep?
In my previous post I shared that if you feel overwhelmed by life, one of the kindest and wisest things you can do is to gift yourself an abundance of REST. Rest boosts creativity, helps us maximize our productive hours, and creates breathing room in our life so that we can focus on our honest priorities. We need both rest and quality sleep to thrive and feel well, mind-emotion-body, to walk out our values consciously rather than living on autopilot, and to engage fully, wholeheartedly, in every season of life.
Rest matters. A lot. Yet THE most important thing that deeply impacts our brain and body, both in the short and long-term, the thing that some researchers say “guarantees wellbeing and mental health”?(1), the thing we all “know” is important yet neglect for all sorts of reasons, is quality sleep.
Good sleep will help you:
- Improve performance and productivity
- Boost concentration and memory
- Lift your moods and mental health
- Get over infections more quickly
- Decrease road accidents and conflict
Why is sleep so very important? What are the phases of sleep and what does “quality sleep” actually look like? How much is “enough quality sleep”? How does it do these amazing things for health and wellness? And, most importantly, how can you get better sleep?
For answers to all these questions, read on. And remember, if you have a sleep disorder or any health conditions, speak with your healthcare professional for a proper diagnosis and treatment strategy.
Why is quality sleep so important?
Sleep is intimately linked to your health and wellness. Getting enough quality sleep boosts your health in so many ways, which we’ll talk about. And, it’s a two-way street. The quality and amount of sleep you get is affected by your health, as you might have noticed. Trying to get a good night’s rest when you’re in pain or struggling with a cold is a real struggle.
Not getting enough quality sleep can be a huge factor when it comes to deteriorating physical and mental health, economic issues, and even death.(1) It increases your risk of developing and worsening several serious conditions, including:
- Heart disease
- Metabolic issues like diabetes
- Autoimmune conditions
- Neurodegenerative diseases
- Moods and mental health issues
- Performance and productivity
And my own anecdotal contribution: whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed or feeling like life is too hard – the best thing I can do is climb into bed early. The next day I generally feel calmer and more capable of showing up to whatever is on my plate. Sleep is a panacea for everything.
In fact, sleep researchers encourage clinicians to educate patients about sleep hygiene and good sleep habits because of its proven benefits for diseases.(2) Later in the post I’ve included 18 tips to help you with this but you can jump ahead now if you’d like.
What are the stages of sleep and why do they matter?
From the outside, sleep looks like a pretty passive activity. But, even though you’re not conscious and are not fully aware of many things going on around you (e.g., noises), both your brain and body are active while you sleep.(2)
Sleep is regulated by two processes that create your personal biorhythm.(A) The first one—your sleep-wake process—regulates how you sleep, and the second—your circadian process (or rhythm)—regulates when you sleep.
There are four stages of sleep:
- Stage 1 – The stage between wakefulness and sleep.
- Stage 2 – Light sleep before you enter deep sleep. This makes up about 50% of the total sleep time.
- Stage 3 – Deep sleep, also known as slow-wave sleep (SWS). It helps you feel refreshed in the morning and makes up about 20% of total sleep time.
- Stage 4 – Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is when your brain activity is almost as high as when you’re awake—most dreams occur here. REM sleep makes up about 20% of total sleep time.(2,3)
Each cycle through these four stages takes about 90 minutes. That means, during an average night of eight hours of sleep, you would go through this cycle about five times. As the night goes on, the SWS stage shortens while the REM stage lengthens.(2) This means that the longer you’re asleep the more of your sleep is in the REM stage—and REM sleep is great for your body and brain. Studies show that when learning a new physical task, people’s performance can improve overnight—but only as long as they get enough REM sleep.(4)
What is “enough quality sleep”?
So far we’ve seen some of the benefits of getting enough quality sleep. But, how much sleep is “enough”? The official recommendations for adults are to get 7-9 hours of sleep every night.(5) And younger people need even more.
I’ve always needed a bit more sleep than most people I’ve known. This may be due to my high sensitivity and introversion and feeling maxed out more easily than non-HSPs. In any case, it’s part of my wiring and embracing this helps me love myself well and show up with joy to life. The reason I mention it here, is that the highly sensitive humans I work with often feel judgement around their need for ample rest and sleep. Learning that this is normal and healthy helps them release judgment and shift into curiosity as they deepen self-awareness.
Here are the general recommendations according to age:
- Newborns (0-3 months) need 14-17 hours
- Infants (4-12 months) need 12-16 hours, including naps
- Toddlers (1-2 years old) need 11-14 hours, including naps
- Preschoolers (3-5 years old) need 10-13 hours, including naps
- School-aged children (6-12 years old) need 9-12 hours
- Teens (13-18 years old) need 8-10 hours
- Adults (18+) need 7-9 hours
Note that too much sleep is linked to other health problems, too. Believe it or not, excessive sleep can actually increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and even death.(1,6) It can also worsen mental health issues, including mood disorders.(7)
What exactly is quality sleep though? A good (or quality) night’s rest looks something like this.
- You fall asleep fairly quickly.
- You sleep for a long enough duration.
- You don’t wake up during sleep.
- If you wake up, then you fall back asleep quickly.
How long you sleep is very important. What’s even more important for your health and wellness? It’s having a regular sleep schedule.(1)
Sleep disorders affect your quality of life and wellbeing
Wellbeing is when you feel happy, healthy, and productive. When you enjoy a high quality of life, feel optimistic, and are emotionally stable, you’re “well.” It may not surprise you that sleep disturbances may affect and be affected by your level of wellbeing.(1)
We all have trouble sleeping sometimes, but a sleep disorder is more than the occasional restless night. But they aren’t always easy to identify. It’s even possible to have a sleep disorder and not even know it! The three most common sleep disorders are obstructive sleep apnea, insomnia, and restless leg syndrome. Experiencing these disorders can have a significant effect on your quality of life.(1) You might consider the possibility you have a sleep disorder if you’re struggling with any of the following:
- Lack of or low vitality, energy, and motivation
- Poor work performance
- Decreased ability to think clearly, learn, remember things, and make decisions (cognitive functioning)
- Difficulty with emotional regulation and relationships
- Changes in your physical function and abilities
There are effective treatments for sleep disorders that can lead to significant improvements.(1) See your healthcare professional including a local cannabinoid clinic if you have any health concerns, or think you may have sleep disorder.
Sleep, pain, and mental health
When you feel stressed and irritable, do you ever relate that back to not getting enough quality sleep the previous night (or nights)? There’s a relationship between lack of sleep and feeling more sensitive to everyday stressors. Plus, lack of sleep increases inflammation and sensitivity to certain types of physical pain (According to one study, sleep problems, along with stress and life dissatisfaction, can predict back pain in people in there forties (1)). Lack of sleep also decreases how you feel about the quality of your life. These can all lead to emotional distress, mood disorders, memory deficits, and the ability to think clearly, learn, and make decisions (cognitive function).(1)
Even if you don’t have physical pain, if you think sleep affects your moods you’re right. Studies show that there are more mental health issues (e.g., anxiety, depression) in people who don’t get enough quality sleep (remember, adults need 7-9 hours per night). As lack of sleep worsens, so do mental health symptoms.(7) Increased feelings of worry and anxiety are some of the biggest consequences of sleep deprivation.(8)
Sleep disorders like sleep apnea are linked to mood disorders, lower levels of wellbeing, and lower concentration and memory.(1) On the other hand, sleeping excessively long (hypersomnolence) is common in people with mental health issues, particularly mood disorders.(1,7)
quality Sleep impacts brain (cognitive) function and aging
I think we can agree, that we all want to be able to think clearly, concentrate, learn, make decisions, and remember things?(1,3) Well, sleep affects these brain functions no matter how old you are.(3) Plus, recent research shows that sleep helps to flush out compounds in your brain that build up while you’re awake.(3,9) This works because of your brain’s “glymphatic” system. This system drains waste products from the brain (including the beta-amyloid protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease) and is more active during sleep.(9)
Sleep also plays a crucial role in brain aging. Many neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s have sleep symptoms in common. In fact, struggling with an irregular sleep cycle (circadian rhythm) may be an early symptom of these diseases and may be a key factor in making them worse. And, vice versa: Cognitive impairment may be a sign of an undiagnosed sleep disorder.(1)
It’s important to get enough sleep, no matter your age. While it may be harder to get enough sleep as you get older, all adults—even older adults—need 7-9 hours each night. According to Harvard Health, “We don’t outgrow our need for sleep; it’s just harder to come by.”(4)
Sleep issues are more common in older adults for many reasons: health conditions, taking several medications, and even social factors like family, housing, and finances.(1) As we age, many of the things that gave our lives a natural rhythm, like raising children, or going to work, or sharing dinner with a spouse, may no longer exist for us. Having an inconsistent daily schedule can have negative effect on sleep.(10)
Building rhythms or healthy routine into your life at every age, then, can help regulate sleep as well as help us live on purpose. My Purposeful Printable Pack will encourage you to set intentions for the year ahead, identify what you want in this season, track the habits that align with your vales and priorities (we progress in what we track!), and otherwise live an intentional and meaningful life.
Sleep, immunity, and inflammation
Sleep helps you stave off infection and too much inflammation. And, if you’re well-rested and get an infection, your immune system can fight it better.
Sleep, immunity, and inflammation are delicately intertwined. Getting enough quality sleep promotes a healthy immune system and a balanced level of inflammation (download the PDF below to learn more). It can help you overcome infections when you get them.(2)
Lack of quality sleep can trigger long-term low-grade inflammation—the same kind of inflammation linked with diabetes, heart disease, and neurodegeneration.(2,6)
Sleep’s impact on stress, heart disease, and diabetes
Sleep and stress are very intertwined. How much cortisol (a stress hormone) you release is directly related to the quality of your sleep. Better sleep equals lower stress.(1) Not getting enough quality sleep increases your risk for(6):
- High blood sugar
- Impaired glucose tolerance
- Type II diabetes
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
Layer stress on top of this and it makes things worse. Stress can lead to serious sleep disorders like insomnia. Insomnia can then make you even more sensitive to stress.(1) It’s a vicious cycle! Also, there is a link between lifestyle factors such as smoking, lack of physical exercise, and alcohol use and people who sleep less.(6)
Interrupted sleep affects your blood sugar by reducing insulin sensitivity and impairing glucose tolerance. People who sleep just 4 hours per night tend to crave sweet and/or salty foods more than those who sleep 7-9 hours per night. Not getting enough sleep also reduces the amount and intensity of people’s physical activity.(6)
Getting adequate sleep has the opposite effect. It improves insulin sensitivity, reduces appetite, food cravings, and the amount of sugar consumed.(6) These all help to reduce your risks for heart disease and diabetes.
Sleeping patterns: hypnotype, chronotype, and shift work
Your personal sleeping pattern is made up of your hypnotype and chronotype. Hypnotype describes whether you are a “long-sleeper” or “short-sleeper.” Too little (short sleeping hypnotype) or too much sleep (long sleeping hypnotype) can have negative health impacts.(1)
Chronotype is whether you’re a “morning person” or an “evening person.” When you go against your chronotype, you get worse sleep. It’s not too surprising that, when “early birds” take on night shifts or when “night owls” get early shifts, they get worse sleep.(1)
Even if you get the recommended amount of sleep (7-9 hours for adults), if your job makes you go against your morning/evening preference, that can have negative health effects.(1) About one in five people in industrialized countries work shifts that are outside of the typical 9-5 jobs, hours that go against most of our internal body clocks. It’s not surprising that there is a link between shift work, insufficient sleep, chronic disease, and accidents.
A recent study of over 270,000 workers found that shift work (day and/or night) is associated with sleep disorders, reduced wellbeing, disease, and depression. “Shift work disorder” is when you have excessive sleepiness, insomnia, or both as a result of shift work.(1) Working shifts affects the quality of your sleep, too. And the effect can continue long after you no longer work shifts. This is especially true if you previously worked shifts for many years.(1)
This means that going against your chronotype can give you both worse sleep and worse health! Lack of quality sleep is connected to increased risk for tobacco use, sedentary behaviour, nutritional habits that don’t help us thrive, and even musculoskeletal disorders.(1)
Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.Thomas Dekker
18 science-backed tips to help you get better sleep
If you’re not getting your recommended amount of sleep (7-9 hours) every night, there are a few things you can try. Start by choosing one or two that resonate most with you. If you can, try the number one recommendation below first because it’s the most important.
1. What’s your sleep schedule?
Having a consistent sleep schedule is one of the most important things you can do. Our society promotes round-the-clock activity. This can affect anyone, not just shift workers and students. Time dedicated to sleep is often consciously reduced due to work demands and social activities.(1,3,10,11) Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, including weekends, as much as possible.(12)
2. Create a calming bedtime routine and practiCe it regularly.
Whether that includes bedtime yoga, a relaxing bath, warm herbal tea, and/or a soothing book, do what works to help you wind down for the night.(3,10,12)
3. Bright light in the day; block the blue LIGHT at night.
Expose your eyes to bright light during the day, especially in the morning. This also means avoiding bright lights at night wherever possible because it can extend the time it takes you to fall asleep. This includes watching screens (blue light) before bed. Why? Because your eyes respond to cues from light. When the light is dimmer and has more red wavelengths (think of a sunset), your brain makes the “sleep hormone” melatonin.(3,12,13)
4. Is your bedroom comfortable?
Your bedroom should be cool and dark so you aren’t woken by being too hot or cold or when the sun gets too bright.(3,12) Your mattress should be comfortable, too. If sounds bother you, consider blocking them out with a fan or white noise machine.(11)
5. Regular exercise positively impacts quality sleep.
Exercising 20-30 minutes each day can help, particularly aerobic exercises like walking, jogging, or swimming.(11) Try to finish your exercise a few hours before you plan to go to bed so you have time to relax.(1,3)
6. Can you handle caffeine at night? Are you sure?
Caffeine reduces quality sleep. It works to wake you up by blocking the sleep-promoting effects of the compound adenosine. This reduces your ability to fall asleep. Caffeine can also increase the need to go to the bathroom, which can wake you up once you are asleep. The effects of caffeine on your body and brain can last several hours.(14)
A study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine shows that the more caffeine you have before bed, the more it disrupts your sleep. They recommend not having caffeine within 6 hours of going to sleep. So, if you go to sleep at 10 p.m., eliminate energy drinks, coffee, caffeinated pop/soda, tea, etc. by 4 p.m. at the latest. Ideally, you would cut those out even earlier in the day.(3,12,13,16) If you have caffeine within 3-6 hours of going to sleep you may not even know that your sleep is being disrupted—even though it might be.(15)
7. Avoid tobacco.
Nicotine stimulates your brain and your heart, making it harder to fall asleep.(14) Avoid tobacco products, including regular cigarettes and nicotine-containing e-cigs.(3,12) If you have a very difficult time quitting, avoid it for at least two hours before you want to go to sleep.(14)
8. Nix the nightcaps.
Avoiding alcohol before bed is a good idea because it negatively impacts sleep quality by reducing REM sleep.(14) Having alcohol before bed may seem okay because it can make you feel tired, but you don’t get quality sleep.(3,12,14)
9. Stomach issues?
Having a large meal before bed can disrupt sleep. This is especially true if you experience acid reflux.(12) Try eating throughout the day so you’re not too hungry when it’s time to sleep.
10. Nighttime bathroom breaks?
Drinking a lot of liquids before bed can wake you up to go to the bathroom, so try to hydrate throughout the day so you’re not thirsty before bed.(12)
11. Are you a clock watcher?
Watching your clock when you can’t sleep prevents you from falling asleep. This is because it increases your mental activity (worry), rather than decreases it. This can make falling back asleep more difficult. If you’re lying in bed awake for 20 minutes, try getting up and reading (with low or red/yellow-tinted light) or listening to soft music until you feel tired.(3,11,12)
12. Naps: do they promote good sleep or not?
Naps are necessary for small children, but if you have trouble falling asleep, try avoiding them. There is one exception, though. A study in the British Medical Journal suggests that if you’re a college athlete, napping may improve your performance.(12) If you need a pick me up in the day, try some of the ideas I’ve shared in this list of 7 ways to explore permission to rest if you feel overwhelmed by life.
13. Stop multi-purposing your bed.
Your bed should be used for two things only: sleep and sex. If you’re lying in bed awake, try getting out for a short time and trying again. There is strong evidence that this can help prevent insomnia and, over time, can improve the quality of your sleep.(12)
14. Calm your mind.
Along with the growing public interest in mindfulness and meditation, there is a growing body of research as well. A recent review of several studies showed that mindfulness and meditation significantly improved sleep quality.(17) You can also try breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation.(18)
15. Be social.
Feelings of loneliness can affect your sleep. If you feel isolated and have little social support, you are more likely to suffer from the effects of stress and have more difficulty falling asleep and maintaining sleep. If your partner feels lonely and has poor quality sleep, you’re more likely to be affected, too. Loneliness is associated with many sleep disorders, including insomnia, nightmares, and anxiety.(1) Try things to help you feel more connected like thanking people who help you in day-to-day life, reaching out to someone by email or social media, or signing up to volunteer in your community.
16. Try to sleep along with your natural chronotype.
If you’re an “early bird,” go to bed and wake up early. If you are a “night owl,” then try to create a schedule where you can wake up later in the mornings.
17. Sleep supplements?
Melatonin supplements might help you feel sleepy and there is some evidence that it helps with jet lag. But, before you try these, note that they’re not recommended for everyone and have many known interactions. Be sure to read the warnings and cautions on the label and check with your healthcare professional to be sure they’re ok for you.(19). Also note that some melatonin supplements are not meant to be swallowed but instead dissolved under the tongue (sublingual). Be sure to check your product labels to use it as recommended.
18. Taking medications?
Some medications can disturb sleep (e.g., beta-blockers, corticosteroids, analgesics, antidepressants).(2) If you’re taking medications, speak with your doctor or pharmacist to see if yours is one of them and if there may be alternatives to consider.
If you’re looking for a way to make meaningful change to your physical and mental health and to increase your general well being, start by making sleep a priority. Because all the other ways we know to improve our quality of life, like social connection, moving our bodies in joyful ways, or energy for the things that light us up… it all becomes easier when we get good sleep. Well rested, we are far more likely to handcraft a right-sized life that feels like home.
Quality sleep is an act of loving yourself well and will help you live with joy whatever else is going on in life.
NOW WHAT? In addition to these sleep tips you could learn more about sleep using the books I’ve shared toward the end of this post about rest and if you think you may have a sleep disorder, see your healthcare professional.