The Guide to Counting Sheep: Better Sleep Tonight

Have you ever wanted just five more minutes of sleep in the morning? Dreaded the ringing of that alarm clock that feels just a little too early? Tossed and turned at 2 AM, hoping and praying to finally get some shut eye?

Like almost anyone, you’ve wrestled with the importance of sleep at some point in life. You know that sleep is important. But between busy schedules, late nights out, or simply being unable to feel restful and calm when bedtime arrives, you struggle with getting the right amount of sleep on a regular basis. It sometimes feels as if you’re going through life never feeling fully rested.

Fear not! A healthy, hygienic sleeping pattern is possible, but it might take some changes to your daily schedule to accomplish. The payoff? Improved brain function, more energy, and reduced health risks that will make you wonder how you ever survived on less sleep.

Why is sleep so important?

Considering sleep accounts for one-quarter to one-third of the human lifespan, there must be some pretty important processes going on for it to take up so much of our time. In the past, many believed that sleep was a time in which the mind and body went “dormant.” But in fact, the opposite is true.

 “It turns out that sleep is a period during which the brain is engaged in a number of activities necessary to life—which are closely linked to quality of life,” notes Johns Hopkins sleep expert and neurologist Mark Wu, M.D., Ph.D.

Experts agree that sleep significantly impacts brain function. It’s directly related to “brain plasticity,” or the brain’s ability to adapt to input. It also helps the rest of your body perform important restorative functions that, if denied, can worsen health risks. These include risks like high blood pressure, depression, heart disease, diabetes, migraines, and stroke. Lack of sleep can also impair the immune system and metabolism in otherwise healthy individuals.

Researchers also believe that sleep helps in the removal of waste products from brain cells, and that this process occurs much less efficiently when the brain is “awake.”

How much sleep am I supposed to get?

For most adults, seven to nine hours a night fits the bill. But let’s take a deeper dive to better understand exactly why seven to nine hours is the right amount of sleep, and why you might be on the lower or higher end of that range.

Sleep health: The 4 stages of sleep

The first thing to understand is that there are two types of sleep: REM (rapid-eye movement) sleep and non-REM sleep.

Non-REM sleep, which is what you experience first, is made up of three stages:

Stage One: The first transition between being awake and falling asleep

Stage Two: Light sleep, when heart rate and breathing become normal and body temperature drops

Stage Three: Deep sleep

After stage three, you’ll enter REM (rapid-eye movement) sleep. The name comes from the fact that, during this phase, your eyes are moving rapidly under your closed lids, which you may have seen in a sleeping partner who is in REM sleep.

During this type of sleep, your brain waves are similar to those during wakefulness, your breath rate increases, and you usually experience your most vivid dreams. Your arm and leg muscles also become temporarily paralyzed to keep you from accidentally hurting yourself while you dream.

Experts are still not sure exactly what is happening during REM sleep, but they believe that important steps like memory consolidation and bodily restoration are occurring during both deep sleep and REM sleep.

This cycle—the three stages of non-REM sleep followed by REM sleep—repeats itself, and it typically takes about 90 minutes to complete one cycle, although this can vary by individual. Since most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep to feel fully rested, that accounts for roughly 5-6 complete sleep cycles.

How can I get better sleep?

If you’re reading this article (or sending it to a loved one!), it’s most likely because you’re interested in getting better sleep. In fact, the best way to improve your sleep is not about sleeping itself, but what you do during the day and in the moments leading up to sleep.

Consider adding the following routines into your daily schedule to help improve your sleep hygiene:

Regular exercise, which can aid in feelings of tiredness and sleepiness as the day ends; however, try to avoid exercising too close to bedtime

A wind-down routine 30-60 minutes before bed that doesn’t involve screens; this can be stretching, meditation, reading a book, or journaling

Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day; this helps “train” your body to follow your sleep schedule more closely

Avoiding naps during the day

Avoiding caffeine after 12 PM and alcohol (which can impair healthy sleep)

Another key feature to healthy sleep hygiene is the set-up of your bedroom. Try to avoid bright lights in your bedroom, especially in the evening. Keep the room at a comfortable to cool temperature. Don’t watch TV or use a computer in your bedroom, as the bright screens can hinder your body’s readiness to sleep. Try to keep your bedroom “exclusive” to preparing for sleep and sleeping.

I get enough sleep, but I still feel exhausted!

If you’re getting seven to nine hours of sleep each night but you’re still experiencing exhaustion or fatigue throughout the day, it’s possible that you’re not getting healthy or restorative sleep.

The reasons for this vary, but one of the more dangerous causes of chronic fatigue or tiredness is sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a disorder that causes breathing to repeatedly stop and start during sleep. The most common cause of sleep apnea in adults is excess weight or obesity, and is more common in African Americans, Hispanics, and Pacific Islanders than in whites.

Common symptoms include loud snoring, abrupt awakenings with gasping or choking, intermittent pauses in your breathing noticed by a sleep partner, or excessive daytime drowsiness that leaves you feeling fatigued or irritable.

You should consult with your doctor or a medical professional if you or a loved one is experiencing any of these symptoms. Sleep apnea is a potentially dangerous disorder that should be treated immediately once diagnosed.

Other sleep disorders that may be preventing you from getting restful sleep include narcolepsy or a delayed sleep phase. Regardless, consult with your doctor if you’re not getting restful, restorative sleep. They will consult your medical history and might encourage a sleep test to help determine what’s going on.

Visit your onsite health center for more tips

Are you an Everside patient, or do you have access to an onsite Everside health center? Your onsite clinical team is equipped to partner with you and your personal health goals. Have a chronic condition like diabetes or high blood pressure that needs to be controlled? Looking to lose weight, tackle chronic stress, or learn more healthy sleep habits? Your dedicated clinicians are trained in the science of behavior change, which considers both your readiness to change and the tools you need to make healthy habits stick for life. Interested in connecting with us? Stay up-to-date on new developments, news, and helpful content by liking and following the Everside Health Facebook page.