How Do We Sleep?
We sleep in stages, moving from light sleep to deeper sleep and finally to REM sleep. The journey through these sleep stages is known as a sleep cycle, and you repeat this process throughout the night. There are five sleep stages, although some sources refer to stages 3 and 4 as one stage:
- Stage 1, also known as “light sleep.” This is the transition from wakefulness to sleep and lasts about 1 to 7 minutes when you first drift off. Disruptive noises can easily wake you up in this stage.
- Stage 2 is a deeper sleep stage and is thought to be important for memory consolidation and learning a new task. It spans about 10 to 25 minutes in your first sleep cycle and increases in each successive cycle.
- Stage 3 and 4 are slow-wave sleep stages. Stage 3 lasts only a few minutes, while stage 4 lasts about 20 to 40 minutes in the first cycle.
- REM sleep is characterized by rapid eye movement. It lasts about 1 to 5 minutes during the first sleep cycle, with more time spent in REM sleep as the cycles continue. Differences between non-REM sleep and REM include increased heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and sympathetic nerve activity. Dreaming is often associated with REM sleep.
Your first cycle lasts about 70 and 100 minutes, while later cycles can last around 90 to 120 minutes. Most of us experience about five cycles a night.
For the best night’s rest, you want to sleep undisturbed for 7 to 9 hours. Early awakenings can prevent you from spending enough time in the deep sleep stages for better recovery.
One of the theories why we sleep is so that our bodies have a chance to repair and recuperate. Studies show that a lack of sleep compromises our immune system, and processes such as muscle growth, tissue repair, and protein synthesis happen mostly or only while we’re asleep.
What’s Your Perfect Bedtime?
The key to a consistent sleep schedule is setting yourself a good bedtime. You can figure out a good range by working backward from when you need to wake up.
For example, let’s say you need to wake up at 6:30 a.m. to get ready for work. Most adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep, so if we count backward from 6:30, you’ll see you should fall asleep between 9:30 and 11:30 p.m.
It would help if you also accounted for how long it takes you to fall asleep. Many of us drift off within 15 minutes, but some of us need longer to fall asleep.
Falling Asleep the Right Way
Of course, figuring out the best bedtime for you is only step one of crafting your perfect sleep routine. To get the best night of sleep possible, make sure you have a relaxing bedroom and bedtime routine.
Create a Relaxing Bedtime Routine
Most of us can’t just switch from daytime work to falling asleep in bed. Our brains and bodies need to unwind and relax before we’re ready to sleep. Establishing a bedtime routine helps signal to your body that it’s time to make that transition.
You might want to relax with a soak in a warm bath, a conversation with your family, or a few chapters of a good book. Some people like to journal about their day before sleeping, which can be particularly helpful if you’re the type of person who has worries creeping up on you when you lie down in bed.
Those are all examples of good activities before bed, but what about activities you should avoid? One big no-no is using electronic devices within an hour or two of bed. The blue light from a screen can suppress melatonin, a hormone that your body produces to help you fall asleep at night.
It’s also a smart idea to avoid heavy meals and caffeine close to bedtime. Both food and caffeine can stimulate your system and make it difficult to fall asleep. You should try to schedule your last meal so that you have at least four hours to digest it before bed.
Caffeine can take several hours to exit your system, and you’ll want to limit your intake at least 6 hours before bed. Some even recommend you avoid consuming any caffeine past noon.
Set Up Your Bedroom to Promote Rest
If you find it difficult to fall asleep at night, it might be your bedroom’s fault. It may not be dark enough or too noisy, or it’s just filled with things that keep your thoughts straying from falling asleep.
Perhaps most important is making sure you’re sleeping on the right mattress. Your mattress should leave you feeling refreshed when you wake up, not sore and stiff. If you’re waking up in pain or tired even after a full night’s rest, it’s probably time to replace your mattress.
Don’t overlook the importance of sleeping on the right pillow as well. A pillow that’s too thick or too thin is often the cause of morning neck pain or headaches. Pillows usually need to be replaced every few years since they lose support and collect allergens that can irritate your sinuses.
Your bedding should be breathable to prevent you from sleeping hot. Try to change it every week to prevent dirt and allergens from accumulating on your mattress.
Once you have your perfect bed set up, make sure that the rest of your bedroom is equally soothing. Keep it dark, cool, and quiet:
- Blackout curtains and an eye mask can minimize light disturbances.
- Set your thermostat between 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
- If you can’t eliminate background noise, try sleeping with a pair of earplugs.
Your alarm clock should be facing away from you for two reasons. First, it prevents the LED display from disturbing your rest. And second, it can stress you to look at your clock and overthink falling asleep. Ironically, that stress will keep you awake.
And try to keep your bedroom as neat as you can. Clutter can stress and frustrate you, and if you’re thinking about all you need to clean and put away when you’re lying in bed, it’s more difficult for you to fall asleep.
There’s no bedtime that’s best for everyone. Your ideal bedtime should let you get at least 7 hours of sleep, with some leeway for sleep disturbances. The simplest way to figure out your bedtime is by counting backward from when you want to wake up.
Ideally, you should be getting at least 7 hours of sleep a night for a full recovery. Your daily performance suffers from a lack of sleep, and getting less than 7 hours usually leaves you with dulled physical and mental capabilities. But any amount of sleep is always preferable to skipping it entirely.
For most people, yes. A two-hour nap can throw off your sleep schedule and cause you to stay up too late, preventing you from getting a good night’s rest. There are exceptions, such as professional athletes benefiting from napping for an hour or two.
We need a lot of sleep when we’re newborns and gradually need less sleep as we get older. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention break it down by the following age groups.
Sleeping more than nine hours on a regular basis is usually considered excessive for adults, and it can be just as bad for you as too little sleep. Long sleep times have been tied to higher body weight and fat gain, increased stroke risk, and greater mortality risks. There are exceptions, such as professional athletes benefiting from 10 hours of sleep.