Ask almost any person how they’re feeling and they’ll most likely answer “I’m tired.” As many as 76% of the working population feel tired throughout the week. Why is it that so many of us struggle to get through the day? 30% of people feel like they don’t get enough sleep, but that doesn’t account for everyone.
So what’s the big deal? Why is it that we feel so tired, even though some of us are getting the right amount of sleep? Chances are, you aren’t getting the restful sleep your body needs.
What is Restful Sleep?
Restful sleep is when you feel refreshed after you wake up. It isn’t reliant on the amount of sleep you get as much as the quality of your rest.
The best quality of sleep happens when you go through all of the stages of sleep without interruption. Those who don’t feel rested when they wake up often haven’t gone through all of the stages, or have a hard time getting deep sleep and experiencing the benefits of this stage of the sleep cycle.
When you start to feel sleepy and relaxed, this is your body’s way of telling you that it is ready to sleep. If your head starts to nod, or your eyes start to flutter, this means your body wants to fall asleep. Many times, when we start to feel this way, we aren’t able to put everything aside and take a nap. But if it’s late at night and you’re starting to feel this way, you should get yourself to bed right away.
This stage of sleep is usually what’s called dreamless sleep. Your mind and body are relaxed and you’ve just begun to doze off. If you’re a snorer, this is where you might start to make some noise. You can be easily roused from this stage of sleep without disrupting your rest too much.
Also called slow wave sleep, this period of sleep actually consists of two stages. This is where your body and your mind get the most rest and rejuvenation. Your brain activity will go down, making your brain waves appear slower. This is also part of your cycle where your brain processes memories and recovers from your day.
Rapid Eye Movement (REM)
REM sleep is where your dreams happen. Your brain is incredibly active at this stage, while your body is completely still. REM makes up about 25% of your sleeping time, and occurs 70-90 minutes after you first fall asleep. REM is also thought to help with long term memory, replacing neurotransmitters, and improving brain performance. The longer you sleep, the longer your body stays in REM sleep with each sleep cycle.
Why Does Sleep Quality Matter?
Getting a good night’s rest does more than keep you from feeling tired. It’s one of the fundamental aspects of having good health.
Focusing on the amount of sleep we get doesn’t seem to help us sleep any better. In fact, getting too much sleep can be just as bad as not getting enough. Too much sleep can lead to heart disease, weight gain, diabetes, mental fog, and mood swings.
So if getting more sleep isn’t the problem, how can better quality sleep help?
Improves Emotional Welfare
Those who struggle to get a good night’s sleep can tell you that their mood suffers greatly with each night of bad sleep. Not getting good quality sleep makes it difficult for you to deal with stress, and increases your likelihood of being irritable. Research shows that restful sleep helps you better regulate your moods and emotions by giving your body a way to cope with stress levels.
Increases Brain Function
As you sleep, your brain is creating chemicals called neurotransmitters. These brain pathways connect neurons that control everything from telling your heart to beat to helping you react in a dangerous situation. Types of neurotransmitters include serotonin, which helps regulate the mood and balance levels of other brain pathways; dopamine, which helps to combat depression and improve your focus; norepinephrine, which helps to dampen your mood, regulate hormones and can also cause anxiety; and epinephrine, which is related to your stress and excitement levels. Good sleep helps your body maintain regular levels of these neurotransmitters, and improves your overall brain function.
Boosts Your Immune System
Our bodies create disease fighting cells while we are sleeping. These beneficial cells help us fight off viruses like the common cold and also keep inflammation at bay. It also drastically improves your body’s ability to heal itself after an injury.
Keeps You Safe
If you go to the gym or get in the car after a poor night’s sleep, chances are good that your reaction times have suffered. One study found that just one night of poor sleep can noticeably affect your reaction time. When it comes to driving, poor sleep is estimated to cause 100,000 accidents every year. By getting good sleep, you’ll keep yourself and the people around you a little safer.
How to Get Quality Sleep
Now that you know the benefits of getting good sleep, how can you go about making the most out of your resting hours? While many adults say they have a hard time sleeping, there are some easy things you can change to help you get to sleep faster and easier.
Things That are Affecting Your Sleep
There are many things in your life and in your sleeping environment that can make it difficult for you to get quality sleep. Some of them are easy to change, while others may take medical help to address.
- Stress: stress causes your brain to go into high alert, making it difficult for it to relax and shut down for the night. Those who experience chronic stress are more likely to experience insomnia. With each night of sleep lost, your stress levels increase, creating a vicious cycle of losing sleep and getting more stressed as the day goes on.
- Noise: sound can have a beneficial or disruptive effect on sleep. While white noise can help light sleepers drift off, even low levels of noise can interrupt sleep at any cycle. Living in a noisy area or listening to certain kinds of music can make it difficult for you to get the kind of sleep your body needs.
- Light: being exposed to light right before sleeping can trick your biological clock into thinking it’s daytime. This will make it harder for you to fall asleep during beneficial hours and damage your sleep quality when you do finally manage to get to sleep. The prevalence of screens in our daily life makes it difficult to get away from the kind of light that can trick us into thinking it’s light outside at one in the morning.
- Temperature: when you are sleeping, your body temperature tends to drop. If the temperature in your room is too hot or too cold, your body will have a hard time regulating where it needs to be. Being too hot when you sleep makes it harder for you to reach REM sleep.
- Caffeine and Alcohol: caffeine is a stimulant that we use to help us stay awake when we feel more sluggish during the day, but like any stimulant, it can disrupt sleep by blocking the chemical in our brains that helps us feel tired. Some people use alcohol to help them fall asleep, but it actually makes the quality of sleep worse. As a sugar, alcohol will increase your blood sugar as it’s metabolized which can disrupt sleep. Along with increasing the amount of times a person may wake up in the night, it has also been shown to reduce the amount of REM sleep achieved.
Things You Can Do to Promote Better Sleep
Luckily, there are a number of things you can do to make sure you get better sleep each night. Instead of leaving your night’s rest up to fate, try implementing some of these changes over time.
- Practice Good Sleep Hygiene: sleep hygiene involves the practices you participate in that affect how you sleep. Having good sleep hygiene includes things like making sure you get enough exercise every day, getting a good amount of sun exposure, and keeping screens out of the bedroom.
- Have a Nightly Ritual: different doctors or articles will suggest you do certain things before you sleep from what you eat for dinner to when you can start exercising. But you know your body best, and what works well for others may not work well for you. Figure out what you need to do before you sleep, and things that help you unwind. Then make sure you do those things at the same time before you get into bed.
- Go to Bed at the Same Time Every Night: many people have different bed times for weekdays and weekends. But studies show that getting to bed, and waking up, at the same time every day can make it easier for you to fall asleep. Your body starts to expect your bedtime and helps you mentally prepare for it.
- Set Your Bedroom up for Success: having an environment that encourages rest will help your brain know that it’s time to sleep. Keep your room dark and noise free, or use a white noise generator to drown out the noises of the city around you. Do what you can to keep the temperature of your room between 60-70 degrees. If you want a little something extra, try incorporating essential oils and aromatherapy that promote relaxation and rest.
- Meditate Your Way to Sleep: if you have a hard time talking yourself down to sleep, guided meditation can be a great way to get your brain to relax. Try out one of these guided meditations, or give binaural beats specifically designed for sleep a try. Make sure you’re using headphones, as that will enhance the experience.
Getting restful sleep can sometimes feel like a battle you can’t win. But the consequences of not getting quality sleep can be devastating and mess with your life. By setting yourself up for success in keeping good sleeping habits, you’ll feel less stressed and better equipped to tackle your day.