We often talk about the importance of getting enough good sleep. You likely already know you should be getting between 7 and 9 hours each night, and yes, 8 hours is just right for many of us. Not getting enough deep sleep can lead to all sorts of problems like:
- Difficulty learning
- Lack of concentration and focus
- Lack of motivation
- Increased appetite
- Food cravings
- Reduced sex drive
- Decreased immune functioning
- Reduced capacity to fight infections
- Longer recovery from illness
- Respiratory diseases
- Increased body weight
- Increased risk of type 2 diabetes
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
There’s no doubt that getting enough sleep is important. But a lesser discussed piece of the puzzle is sleep quality. Are you in bed for 8 to 9 hours each night but still waking up feeling foggy and fatigued? Then while you may be “resting” during that time, you might be missing out on the restorative properties of sleep.
What are the 5 Sleep Stages of Sleep?
During the night, your body goes through five stages of sleep, divided into two categories: REM and non-REM sleep. Can’t remember what REM stands for? It’s “rapid eye movement.” Let’s start with the initial non-REM stages of sleep.
Stage 1: During this stage, you move between being awake and being asleep. Your body functions start to slow, including your heart rate, respiration, and eye movements. Your muscles relax, and your brainwaves begin to slow. It’s a fairly short phase that lasts several minutes before you progress into stage 2.
Stage 2: This stage, on average, makes up about 50% of total sleep time and is the one you’re in the majority of the night. During this stage, your body continues to slow and relax as your temperature drops, your brainwaves slow, and your eyes cease moving.
Stages 3 and 4: This is where the magic begins to happen—it’s the deep sleep stages where your heartbeat and breathing slow even further, your brainwaves slow even more, and your muscles are even more relaxed. In these stages, even loud noises may not wake you.
During these stages, you’ll be in slow-wave sleep (SWS), which is characterized by the presence of slow brainwaves called “delta waves,” for between 45 and 90 minutes, and you typically enjoy more of this type of sleep in the initial half of your time sleeping with subsequent cycles becoming shorter.
Stage 5: Now you’re entering into REM sleep where your eyes begin to rapidly move from side to side, your brain activity increases to a more wakeful state as you dream, your heart rate and breathing actually increase to an almost wakeful state, but you may feel paralyzed—unable to move your body.
What are the Benefits of Deep Sleep?
All 5 stages are needed for a fully restorative, restful night of sleep, but ensuring you are getting enough deep sleep (Stages 3 and 4) leads to some very important shifts. For example, this is when glucose metabolism increases, which helps support both short- and long-term memory and learning. It’s also when your body releases hormones like HGH (human growth hormone), which is key to growth and development and is also important for aging gracefully.
Deep sleep is also key for restoring energy, regenerating your cells, improving blood supply to the muscles, promoting growth and repair, and powering up the immune system. It’s also when you process all of the information you’ve gathered throughout the day to be stored in your memory banks.
Not getting enough deep sleep has been associated with increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and even Alzheimer’s.
But don’t fret if you wake up in the middle of the night. That’s totally normal too, with most people waking up two to three times a night. It only becomes a problem if you start worrying about it and are unable to get back to sleep.
Interestingly, in our recent past—the late 17th century—many humans slept in two shifts separated by a period of wakefulness lasting from 1 to 3 hours. This pattern of “biphasic sleep” was the norm, and it provided time to read, write, meditate, pray, or talk and knoodle with your partner.
About a third of adults wake up in the middle of the night regularly, and half of them are unable to fall right back to sleep. If this sounds familiar, this could be your natural rhythm. If so, you may want to see if you get better, deeper sleep by going with your body’s own rhythm and staying awake for an hour or so before enjoying your second sleep phase rather than trying—and failing—to get 8 hours of straight sleep.
How Much Deep Sleep is Enough?
Around 25% of your sleep is REM sleep, and just 13 to 23% of your total sleep is made up by that much-needed deep sleep, and that amount decreases as you get older. Those under 30 can get 2 hours of deep sleep per night, while those over 65 might get a mere half hour. That being said, there is no set requirement for deep sleep.
To find out if you’re getting enough deep sleep, you may be tempted to track your body movements with a wearable device. While these can be useful, unfortunately, they aren’t always accurate. If you feel like you may have a serious sleep disorder, the next step would be to visit your doctor for a PSG (polysomnography) test that uses monitors to keep track of your breathing, oxygen, movements, heart rate, and brainwaves.
But the easiest way to determine if you’re getting enough deep sleep is to simply monitor how you feel. If you’re waking up feeling like you’re still exhausted or just not well rested—even after spending 7 to 9 hours in bed—then that’s a strong sign you aren’t getting enough deep sleep.
How to Get More Deep Sleep (6 Easy Steps)
Ensuring you’re getting enough sleep is the first step to getting enough deep sleep. Here are 6 steps to help you get more deep sleep:
Step 1: Create a sleep schedule and stick to it. Yes, even on weekends.
Step 2: Turn down the lights. At least one hour before bed, turn off the TV, power down the tablet, say goodnight to your phone, and turn down the lights. Removing blue light is most important, but if you are experiencing sleep disruptions, lowering all of the lights can be even more helpful for encouraging relaxation.
Step 3: Get warm. While it’s a good idea to sleep in a cooler bedroom (around 67 degrees), before you hit the sack, you can help get into the mood (for sleep that is) by raising your skin temperature with a hot bath, shower, sauna, or steam, which can help you fall asleep faster.
Step 4: Avoid stimulants in the evening. That doesn’t just mean caffeine, tea, or cocoa. It also means avoiding late-evening workouts (less than 3 hours before bedtime), large meals, and even intense conversations that can stimulate your mind and keep you awake.
And while alcohol may help you relax, the reality is that it disrupts sleep quality in a dose-dependent manner. In other words, the more you drink, the less restorative your sleep. Instead of reaching for an adult beverage, you may want to turn to the calming, relaxing power of magnesium, which can help ease feelings of stress and anxiousness and promote restful, restorative sleep.
Step 5: Set the stage. To help strengthen sleep associations, your bed should be only for sleeping and sex—not work, not binge-watching TV, and so on. If you aren’t sleeping, take your activity outside of the bedroom. And if part of your bedtime routine is making you feel anxious, remove it. Ensure you have a comfortable mattress and pillow, enough blankets, and a cool, dark environment.
Step 6: Slow down your thoughts. De-stressing your body and mind is easier said than done, but it is possible. Try some meditation, gentle yoga, stretching, or just deep breathing. To help your mind and body calm down, try the 4-7-8 breathing as you are closing your eyes for sleep.
That is, inhale slowly through your nose for a count of 4. Hold your breath for a 7-count, and then exhale for a count of 8. What’s most important is the ratio, so if this is difficult at first, just count faster until you can lengthen your breath. Repeat three more times. Notice how you feel (if you haven’t already drifted into stage 1 sleep, that is). And if it doesn’t work the first night or two, keep practicing. According to Dr. Andrew Weil, who originated this technique, after a couple of months, you’ll be able to fall asleep within a minute.
Put these 6 steps together for your nightly sleep ritual. Because you aren’t staring at your phone, computer, or TV, you’ll have plenty of time to really allow your body and mind to relax, preparing it for the relaxing, deep, restorative sleep you need to make tomorrow an even better day. You may also want to start keeping a sleep diary to help you better understand your own sleep patterns and what helps you get more deep sleep every night.
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