You might know that about ten minutes after your head hits the pillow, you drift away into a deep sleep until your alarm goes off the next morning, but do you know what actually happens when you fall asleep and why it feels so rejuvenating?
In this guide we will be breaking down sleep itself and what happens after you shut your eyes. We will also be providing you with research-based tips and recommendations for getting better sleep every night.
Getting good sleep is rooted in understanding how sleep works and then using that knowledge to make intentional changes in your life to promote healthy sleep.
To start, throughout this ultimate guide to sleep, we will be using a few terms you may or may not be familiar with. Here are some general sleep terms and their definitions:
To sum it up, a sleep cycle is composed of both REM and NREM sleep and your circadian rhythm is what regulates how many sleep cycles your body goes through.
As mentioned above, there are four stages of sleep; each one playing an important part in getting good sleep.
All four stages of sleep create a single sleep cycle and we move through multiple sleep cycles every night.
This is the lightest stage of sleep because it is the transition from wakefulness to sleep. It usually lasts around five to ten minutes and is the shortest portion of the sleep cycle.
This is one of the main reasons why going to bed in a dark, quiet room is so important. During N1, it is very easy to return to wakefulness due to any kind of outside disturbance.
During this stage, your heart rate and body temperature drop as you move into a deeper sleep. It usually lasts around twenty-five minutes and is also characterized by frequent sleep spindles and K-complexes; forms of brainwaves. These waves help your sensory processing and memory consolidation from the past day. They are both good signs of a healthy brain.
This is the deepest stage of sleep and is when the body repairs and regrows its tissues, builds bone and muscle and strengthens the immune system. During this stage, your muscles will relax, your breathing rate will slow and your blood pressure will drop.
This is why getting seven to nine hours of sleep each night is so important; so your body can go through multiple sleep cycles and go through this integral phase multiple times.
This is the one and only stage where dreaming happens. Interestingly, the brainwaves you exhibit in this stage are very similar to those when you are awake. Your eye muscles are active and your breathing rate is erratic and regular. This stage starts about 90 minutes after you fall asleep and each of your REM cycles gets longer throughout the night. The final one can last up to an hour; hence why your dream before you wake up feels like it lasts so long.
Sleep cycles and the four stages are important because they allow the brain and body to recuperate and develop. Failing to get enough of deep sleep (NREM sleep) and REM sleep may explain the significant negative effects on your thinking, emotions, and physical health.
This is exactly why doctors and scientists recommend that you get at least seven hours of sleep each night; so that your mind and body can reap the benefits of four to six sleep cycles.
While you can’t control your sleep cycle, you can take steps to improve your chances of experiencing a healthy progression through each sleep stage.
A critical step is improving what we like to call your sleep hygiene. This includes your sleep environment and sleep-related habits.
It is highly recommended that you sleep in a dark, quiet room that eliminates as much noise and light as possible. Specifically, scientists have found that blue light messes with your body’s ability to prepare for sleep because it blocks a hormone called melatonin which is what makes you sleepy. With this in mind, aim to remove any devices such as a clock or wall charger that emits light.
As for your bed, if you’ve had your mattress for more than seven years, you should look to replace it. Sleeping on a supportive mattress can significantly improve the quality of your sleep and help you stay asleep. Additionally, it is recommended that you keep your room cool at night because it will counteract your heart rate rising as you wake up.
Here are the benefits sleeping in a room that is below 70 degrees:
Achieving a more consistent sleep schedule can help you get more regular, good sleep.
You should aim to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. This will train your body to feel sleepy and awake at the right times and promote proper alignment of your circadian rhythm. Additionally, try to lower your light exposure as you’re getting ready for bed and stay away from alcoholic or sugary drinks.
If you find that you are experiencing excessive daytime sleepiness even though you are in bed for eight hours every night, you might have a sleep disorder. It’s important to immediately talk with your doctor who can guide you to an answer and solution or refer you to a specialist.
With busy days, demanding jobs, and family responsibilities, good sleep can sometimes be hard to attain; especially on a regular basis.
While you can’t change the amount of time you have in your day, there are certain steps you can take and habits to avoid to ensure you have an easy time falling asleep as well as maximize the hours you do sleep.
Here are five fact-based tips for better sleeping habits:
The sleep-wake cycle is one of the most important and well-known circadian rhythms your body follows. Circadian rhythms are natural, internal 24-hour cycles that help regulate essential functions and processes within your body. In other words, imagine your body has an internal clock that repeats every 24 hours. This clock is influenced by environmental cues; specifically light. This is why you feel more awake and alert when it’s light out and the opposite as it gets dark.
When your natural sleep-wake cycle is aligned with the time you’re actually going to bed and waking up on a regular basis, it can help promote more consistent and restorative sleep. On the flip side, when your circadian rhythm is thrown off, it can create sleeping problems.
For an adult, the ideal sleep-wake cycle is seven to nine hours of sleep and then 15 to 17 hours of wakefulness. Let’s say you’ve got a lot of responsibilities and seven hours is the most you can get. If you can go to bed at midnight and wake up at seven every morning, then you will be able to stay within your natural sleep-wake cycle and feel more rested than if you slept the same number of hours at different times each night.
If you can’t sleep at normal times due to travel or your job, here are some suggestions for how to slightly adjust your cycle:
Research is also showing that disrupting your circadian rhythms can have negative impacts on both your physical and mental health.
While napping is a good way to make up for lost sleep, as mentioned above, napping can also cause sleep difficulties or make your current ones worse. This is why it is important to time your naps well. The goal of a nap is to help your body and mind feel more refreshed throughout the day, but can throw off your sleep-wake cycle by taking a nap that lasts too long. A beneficial nap will only go into the first and second stages of sleep, which is beneficial. However, if you nap closer to a full sleep cycle which is around 90 minutes, your brain will produce different wavelengths that release specific hormones when it shouldn’t.
The recommended nap length is around 20 minutes in the early afternoon.
Additionally, aim to fight after-dinner drowsiness. If you give in to taking a nap after dinner, then you may wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble falling back to sleep.
Your exposure to light during both the day and the night can impact your sleep-wake cycle. This is due to melatonin which is a naturally occurring hormone that helps regulate your sleep-wake cycle. The amount that is released is controlled by light exposure; your brain secretes more melatonin when it’s dark, which helps make you sleepy, and less when it’s light which helps keep you more awake.
Avoid bright screens within 1-2 hours of going to bed. The blue light emitted by your phone, computer, or TV is specifically disruptive to your sleep because it blocks the release of melatonin.
If you need to use devices, you can minimize the impact with smaller screens, turning the brightness down, or using light-altering software.
Avoid reading with backlit devices. Tablets that are backlit are actually more disruptive to your sleep than e-readers that don’t have their own light source.
When going to sleep make sure to cover any electronics or unplug anything that produces light.
People who exercise regularly experience many health benefits, but two positives that aren’t mentioned as often are better sleep at night and more alertness during the day.
Please note that it can take several months of regular exercise before you experience the positive impacts on your sleep quality. The more intensely you exercise the more powerful the sleep benefits, however, a 10-minute walk can help. So aim to do what you can!
For better sleep, it is important to time your exercise right. This is because exercise speeds up your metabolism, stimulates the production of hormones such as cortisol, and raises your body temperature. This won’t impact your sleep if you’re exercising in the morning or afternoon, but if you’re sweating it out too close to bedtime, you might be awake for much longer than you intended.
Try to finish working out at least three hours before going to sleep.
On the other hand, yoga and other low-impact exercises can be great for sleep!
It’s no surprise that your eating and drinking habits can affect your sleep. Did you know that caffeine can cause sleep problems up to ten to twelve hours after drinking it?
Here are the items you should avoid before bed:
For the recommended daily sugar limit and healthy alternatives, check out our blog, Recommended Daily Sugar Limit and Healthier Sugar Alternatives.
That being said, if you’re hungry, there are some yummy snacks you can eat before bed that will help ease you into a peaceful night’s rest:
For some, a light snack before bed can help promote sleep, but for others, eating before bed leads to indigestion which makes sleeping more difficult. Make sure to listen to your body and follow what it is telling you.
Getting the recommended amount of 7-9 hours of sleep each night is about more than being in bed for the optimal amount of time.
Good sleep starts with your day and how you consistently engage in healthy habits such as waking up at the same time every morning and being physically active on a regular basis. It’s also important to set good sleep as a priority and remember how vital it is to your mental and physical health.
Want a nightly checklist you can print out and use before bed to help you get into more good sleep habits? Download here!