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The Science Behind Getting Healthier Sleep

Updated April 1, 2021

A popular productivity meme that’s been circling social media platforms for the last few years states, “You have the same 24 hours as Beyoncé.” Memes like this feed into the notion that constantly working toward your goals is worth the sacrifice of a good night’s sleep. A few late-nighters may not throw your health out of whack, but consistently getting poor-quality sleep can actually backfire on your productivity and profits.

According to researchers in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, organizations lose roughly $2,500 per year per employee due to sleep deprivation affecting productivity levels. With a survey of nearly 400,000 Americans revealing that  over 30% get six hours of sleep or less per night … that adds up to a lot of unproductive and tired people. In reality, getting in high quality zzz’s for at least seven hours per night leads to multiple benefits for your health, mindset, and work output. While you may never reach Beyoncé’s level of divinity, you can at least get a little closer with a proper snooze. Keep reading to learn the science behind getting healthier sleep.

The Importance of Sleep: 5 Ways Sleep Affects Your Health 

According to the National Sleep Foundation, the amount of sleep needed to properly function on the daily varies by age group. Here is the breakdown:

  • Newborns (0–3 months): 14–17 hours
  • Infants (4–11 months): 12–15 hours
  • Toddlers (1–2 years): 11–14 hours
  • Preschoolers (3–5): 10–13 hours
  • School-aged children (6–13): 9–11 hours
  • Teenagers (14–17): 8–10 hours
  • Younger adults (18–25): 7–9 hours
  • Adults (26–64): 7–9 hours
  • Older adults (65+): 7–8 hours

Infographic on the amount of sleep needed by age group

Basically, if you’re between the ages of 18 and 65, you should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep every night. We already touched on how sleep deprivation can affect your productivity levels at work, but have you ever thought about how it affects your short- and long-term health? Understanding the science behind the effects of negative sleep patterns can help you get better rest in the future. There are three factors by which to measure if your sleep is “good enough”: length of time per night, consistency over time, and quality. Here are just a few of the consequences you may experience if you skimp out on one of these aspects, as well as the benefits of hitting all three.

1. Short-term effects of poor sleep include mood swings, diminished concentration, and memory issues. 

Have you ever felt more irritable or found it harder to focus in meetings due to lack of sleep? You’re not alone. Studies have proven again and again the negative short-term effects that poor sleep can have on a person. In addition to mood swings and concentration issues, poor sleep can also affect emotional memory processing, stress responsivity, and “risk-taking” behaviors (particularly cigarette smoking and the use of narcotics).

2. Inconsistent sleep leads to obesity, diabetes, and high cholesterol.

A recent study financed by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) proved just how crucial it is to keep up with a consistent sleep schedule. The study results showed that getting varying hours of sleep each night led to a higher risk of obesity, high cholesterol, hypertension, and high blood sugar. Specifically, a person can have as much as a 27% greater likelihood of developing a metabolic disorder based on every hour of variability in their sleep schedule. One of the authors of the study, Tianyi Huang, Sc.D., epidemiologist at the Channing Division of Network Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, was quoted by NHLBI as saying “[Before,] we didn’t know much about the impact of irregular sleep, high day-to-day variability in sleep duration and timing. Our research shows that, even after considering the amount of sleep a person gets and other lifestyle factors, every one-hour night-to-night difference in the time to bed or the duration of a night’s sleep multiplies the adverse metabolic effect.” Clearly, consistency is key.

3. Your body can only properly recover while you’re sleeping. 

Working, exercising, socializing, and everything else you do day-to-day takes a toll on your body. While you’re catching zzz’s, your body is putting in work to properly recover from the day’s activities. This recovery period includes healing damaged cells, boosting your immune system, and rejuvenating your heart and cardiovascular system. Getting a good night’s sleep means your body can work even better for you the next day.

4. Quality sleep can possibly prevent depression and lower the risk of suicide. 

The link between sleep and mental health has been studied for years. Findings from an American Health and Nutrition Examination survey showed that people who reported insomnia-related sleep issues also reported increased rates of depression and poor physical health. Additionally, a study by JAMA Psychiatry sought to understand whether an association existed between high rates of sleep disturbance in older adults and later-life suicide. Results illustrated that poor sleep quality increased the risk of suicide 10 years later.

5. The built-up effects of sleep deprivation can lead to dementia. 

Research findings published in the January 2019 issue of medical journal Science Translational Medicine make the connection between bad sleep patterns and languishing brain health. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that people who get lower amounts of slow-wave sleep – the kind of sleep needed to fortify memory collection – possess a higher amount of tau. Tau is a brain protein that, when elevated, points to signs of Alzheimer’s disease and diminishing cognitive abilities.

What Causes Poor Sleep?

Hopefully, learning about the short- and long-term effects of suboptimal sleeping patterns has made you want to understand more about sleep and what exactly keeps people up at night. There are several factors that can play into a bad night’s sleep, many of which are based on your habits during the hours leading up to lights out. Let’s dive in.

— Screen time

The first habit to consider is your screen time. It’s no secret that we as a society are hooked to our phones … and laptops … and tablets. We often bring them into the bedroom with us to aimlessly scroll through social media until we fall asleep. All that stimulation and artificial light make it that much harder to fall asleep at a decent hour. While you may see a lot of stores touting their “artificial-light-blocking” glasses, the best thing to do is just put your phone out of arm’s reach by a specific time each night.

— Caffeine and alcohol

There is a time and place for caffeine and alcohol, and it should never be right before bed. Drinking caffeine after 12 p.m. may help you through the mid-afternoon slump, but it’ll also keep you up for hours later in the night. The same goes for alcohol. There’s nothing wrong with a nightcap, but a drink too close to bedtime can severely fragment your sleep.

— Stress and environment 

A study by Lexington Law revealed that a third of Americans lose sleep due to work-related stress. This can be a tough topic to navigate, especially if you’re in a job or industry that calls for late nights and promotes an “always on” culture. Work stress can elevate anxiety levels, making you more likely to lay awake at night thinking about tasks for the next day. Try to carve out as little as 30 minutes in between working and bedtime to wind down with a meditation podcast, read a book, or chat with a loved one. Creating this barrier between work and sleep can help alleviate stress and set clear boundaries for your mind.

Sleep disorders 

If you experience poor sleep and none of the factors above stand out as a possible cause, you may be suffering from something more serious, like a sleep disorder. Here is a breakdown of some of the most common sleep disorders.

  • Sleep apnea: While not all snorers have sleep apnea, it’s a pretty strong indicator that something is wrong with your sleeping patterns. The National Institute of Health states that this disorder induces bouts of paused breathing that last between a few seconds and a few minutes, multiple times per hour. These pauses put an undue burden on your cardiovascular system and can leave you feeling extremely tired the next morning.
  • Circadian rhythm disorders: This type of disorder covers conditions in which a person’s sleep times are out of alignment. The most common disorder is jet lag, which occurs when someone adjusts poorly to traveling across several time zones and has trouble falling asleep at night.
  • Insomnia: Insomnia is perhaps the most widely-known sleep disorder, affecting as many as 35% of adults, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM). Insomnia materializes when someone has difficulty going to sleep or staying asleep despite having the time for a full night’s rest.
  • Narcolepsy: According to the AASM, narcolepsy affects one out of every 2,000 people. This sleep disorder can last a lifetime and typically causes excessive sleepiness during the daytime.
  • Restless leg syndrome: The main cause of restless leg syndrome is just like it sounds, stemming from a devastating compulsion to move your legs around. The sensation of wanting to get up makes it extremely difficult for sufferers of the disorder to fall asleep.

insomnia affects 1/3 of american adults

Understanding the Science Behind Sleep 

The science behind getting healthier sleep can best be explained by digging into the cycles our body goes through every night. Our brain steers our bodies through two cycles of sleep repeatedly: rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep.

Non-REM Sleep

Your body always cycles through the four stages of non-REM sleep first. Each of these stages lasts between five to 15 minutes. Stage one occurs as your eyes are closing and you’re starting to fall asleep. Stage two is when your heart rate starts to slow, your body temperature decreases, and you fall into a light sleep. Stage three and four are the slow-wave, or deep sleep, stages. During the non-REM cycle, your body is in repair mode: regenerating tissue, building muscle, and invigorating your immune system. Unfortunately, the older you get, the less non-REM sleep you achieve.

REM sleep

The REM sleep cycle typically kicks in about 1.5 hours after you have fallen asleep. The Cleveland Clinic defines this cycle as a time for heightened brain activity levels, muscle relaxation, and of course, eye movement (hence the name). Your body quite literally becomes paralyzed during this cycle as you start to dream the night away. However, research by American, Swedish, and Swiss facilities suggests we may dream during non-REM cycles as well.

How to Improve Your Sleep Quality

Now that you understand the science behind sleep cycles and the factors that can contribute to poor sleep, check out these tips for improving your overall sleep quality.

1. Practice better daily habits.

Little tweaks throughout your day can facilitate better sleep come nightfall. Try reducing your blue light exposure, particularly before bedtime. Check out the app f.lux, which regulates your computer’s lighting to match the time of day (i.e. less blue light at night). Also, do your best to get some sun earlier in the day and avoid afternoon naps.

2. Create a better sleeping environment.

You are where you sleep. Your bedroom should be a calm, cool, and comfortable zone for sleep and relaxation. Can’t afford a fancy mattress? Try adding a memory-foam mattress topper or pillows for extra comfort and support. Does your room get too hot to sleep comfortably? Purchase a small fan for your nightstand to ward off sweltering temperatures. If your bedroom has large windows, blackout curtains are an exceptional investment for blocking out external light.

image of a better sleeping environment

3. Track your sleep

Tracking your sleep can help you better understand what exactly is going on every time you hit the hay. If you own a smartwatch, there are several apps available to help you record your sleep cycles. For a less expensive option, try keeping a sleep diary for a week. A sleep diary helps you keep track of your bedtimes, consolidate your feelings when you wake up, and take notes on any disturbances or mood changes experienced during the night.

4. Take some safe, natural sleep aids.

If none of the habits above help, it might be time to bring in some sleep aids. Supplements like melatonin, magnesium, lavender, and glycine contain natural calming properties to help you get to sleep – and stay asleep.

The bottom line: Quality sleep is vital to all aspects of our lives, from our health to our performance at work and our ability to wind down at home. By understanding the science behind healthy sleep, you can take the necessary steps throughout the day and determine the proper habits at night to ensure you get higher quality zzz’s night in and night out. And that’s something you’ll never get tired of.