Imagine you had a late night last night. You wake up feeling sleep-deprived, so you decide that you’ll go to bed early tonight to catch up on your rest. You think that by getting an extra few hours of sleep, you’ll wake up feeling refreshed the next morning.
Many of us have used this line of thinking, but how often does it work? You can probably recall times where you had perhaps 5 hours of sleep, but still felt energised and productive. There are likely other times when you’ve gone to bed early, but woke up feeling as though you barely slept.
Could it be that good sleep is more complicated than reaching a magic number of hours per night? Is it the quantity or quality of your sleep that affects how you feel?
More is better
Many of us grow up with our parents telling us that we should get more sleep. Babies sleep an astonishing 14-17 hours every day, while teens need 8-10 hours of rest. Adults can function well on 7-9 hours. From the parental perspective, more sleep is better for growing children.
That’s where the “more is better” mentality begins, but we have supporting evidence from our experience. Science tells us that we need to sleep to survive, and when you rest, your body can heal and recharge. You’ll feel more energized when you wake up. This thinking makes sense, but it is overly simplistic.
Think of it this way–your phone has a battery. No matter how long you put the phone to charge, it can’t go more than 100% It doesn’t create new ways to store energy. It just maxes out. Your body works in the same way. You need rest, but more sleep doesn’t necessarily give you an extra supply of energy.
Sleep studies from the past used to focus on the number of hours of sleep that people need. We’ve all heard of the need to get a certain number of hours per night to keep our bodies and minds in peak condition. Government health organisations further impress upon us the need to get a certain number of hours of rest.
Finally, studies on people with sleep deficiencies show that they have a shorter and poorer quality of life than people with adequate sleep. A sleep-deprived brain can behave like an intoxicated brain, and long-term cognitive issues can arise with continuous substandard sleep. It’s no wonder we all have the mind set that it is important to sleep as much as we can!
Is too much a good thing?
So if we have been told that it is important to get more rest, then is it really a good thing to sleep a lot? We’ve all woken up from a nap and felt terrible afterward. Studies have shown that sleeping too much is in actual fact, not good for you. Sleepers tend to have more issues with depression, increased pain, a higher risk of heart attack and stroke, and impaired cognitive function.
Too much sleep can leave you feeling tired and sluggish. Having a day where you sleep too much throws off your sleep cycle, which eventually hurts the quality of sleep that you have. People who insist that they can make up for lost sleep on the weekends sabotage their chances of being well-rested ultimately.
How you sleep is more important than how much you’re sleeping
Of course you need a reasonable number of hours of sleep to feel rested. Nobody would dispute that. Sleep quantity is just one part of the equation. How we sleep is more important than the number of hours we sleep.
Feeling refreshed after sleep has a lot to do with your REM cycle. REM stands for “rapid eye movement,” and describes the dream phase of the sleep cycle. You generally reach the first 10-minute REM cycle about an hour and a half after you close your eyes. You’ll continue to hit REM sleep every 90 to 120 minutes until it’s time to wake up.
Quality is key
One of the ways to ensure that you’ll wake up feeling rested is to access as much REM sleep as possible. What we’re doing in the time leading up to sleep is also important. Activities that give your brain the chance to get into REM sleep as often as possible are best for you.
New moms have a particularly tough time with this. In spite of the fact that they may be able to squeeze in about 7.2 hours of sleep over the course of the day, most new mothers have sleep patterns similar to people who suffer from sleep disorders such as sleep apnea.
If they’re technically getting an appropriate amount of sleep for an adult, then why are they so sleepy? It’s quite simple: new mothers don’t feel rested because they are awakened several times throughout the course of a night. This means that they don’t sleep long enough to enter REM sleep. Remember, it takes 1.5-2 hours to complete a sleep cycle, and REM comes at the end of the cycle.
Without this chance for restorative sleep, new moms feel exhausted. Though they can try to catch up on rest, sleep patterns follow a cycle. A mom who is awakened every two hours may not get enough full cycles of sleep, if she gets any at all.
Sleep and your health
Two studies assessed how sleep quality and quantity affected college students’ health and well-being. The studies concluded that sleep quality was a better predictor for a healthy and happy life and improved well-being than sleep quantity.
In the studies, subjects slept for an average of 7 hours per night. People who reported experiencing higher quality sleep were able to feel more satisfied with their lives, experienced less anxiety, and reduced feelings of depression, fatigue, confusion, and anger compared to people who reported high quantities of low-quality sleep.
How sleepy you feel when you go to bed can also affect your sleep quality. The more tired you feel when it’s time for lights out, the more likely it is that you’ll have a restful night of sleep.
Quality triumphs quantity
The old adage is true: quality beats quantity. You’re better off with 6.5 hours of high-quality sleep than you are with 8 hours of mediocre rest.
This could explain why some people seem to do well on fewer hours of sleep. People who can access restorative sleep more often or can reach the REM phase more quickly will feel more rested. This isn’t something that everyone can do, though. Most of us need 7 to 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep to restore ourselves.
You can improve your chances of having high-quality sleep
You may not be able to will yourself into the REM phase, but you can set yourself up for sleep success. Here are a few ways to increase the quality of your sleep:
- Take a hot bath before bed. The heat can soothe and relax sore muscles and prepare you for rest.
- Turn of your electronic devices. Electronics emit blue light, which has been proven to disrupt sleep patterns. Turn off your electronics, or at the very least, silence your notifications and turn on a blue shade to filter the blue light.
- Drink chamomile tea to relax. Chamomile’s soothing properties make it a go-to remedy for nervousness and poor sleep.
- Snack on cheese and crackers. This is a perfect snack because it combines carbs with calcium or a protein that contains tryptophan. These combos boost levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that helps you feel happy and calm. Indulge about an hour before bed so that your brain has time to reap the benefit before lights out.
- Drink warm milk. Skip the alcohol. Booze may make you drowsy, but it won’t help you reach the REM phase faster.
- Sleep in a cool room. If you get too warm, you’re likely to feel uncomfortable and wake up. A cool room sets the stage for a restful night.
- Keep it quiet. Just because you can fall asleep while the TV is blaring doesn’t mean that you should. Ideally you’ll have little to no noise. If silence is unnerving, white noise is fine, but you avoid loud or disruptive environments if you can.
- The lights should be low. Our bodies are adapted to be awake when the sun is up and asleep when it’s dark. We sleep better in the dark. Partially close your curtains so that you can experience the benefits of being in a darkened room and wake up naturally with the sun.
- Lay off the caffeine. A caffeine boost can feel great, but if you drink too much coffee or tea late in the day, you might have a tough time getting to sleep. Caffeine also affects the length of phases of your sleep cycle, which can prevent you from reaching or staying in the REM phase for long.
- Stick to the same sleep schedule every day. Making up for lost sleep or sleeping in on the weekends is going to make it harder to get into a good sleep rhythm.
- Experiment with alternative sleep cycles. If the other tips on the list don’t seem to be working for you, or you have a job that prevents you from going to bed at the same time every night, you could try some different sleep cycles including:uberman, dymaxion, everyman, and biphasic. 
If you try the uberman, you’ll only sleep about two hours per day. Sleep is spaced out over 6-8 naps lasting about 20 minutes each. Dymaxion isn’t for the faint of heart either. If you need to increase the amount of time that you’re awake, this cycle allows you to get by on as little as 2 hours of sleep per day. You get four 30-minute naps spaced throughout the day.
The everyman sleep cycle is one 3.5-hour stint of sleep followed by three 20-minute naps over the course of your day. Biphasic, the least extreme of the alternative sleep cycles, involves sleeping in two segments. This pattern requires 5-6 hours of uninterrupted sleep at night and one nap in the middle of the day.
Getting good sleep is about more than blocking off a few hours in your schedule
Having enough sleep is important, but what is enough varies from person to person. Getting high-quality sleep is about more than setting aside 7-9 hours for rest. You can set up your environment and schedule to make the most of your sleeping hours.