It’s a common myth that giraffes only require 1.9 hours of sleep per day. While it would be nice if this were true for humans, the reality is far from it. Sleep is an essential aspect of our lives that we cannot do without. Although it may seem like sleeping less allows us to ‘get more done’, a quality night’s sleep is actually essential for our health and overall well-being. By prioritising sleep, other key health and lifestyle markers begin making significant improvements, including energy, focus, happiness & concentration.
In this article, we explore what sleep is, why it is essential for humans, the benefits of good sleep, and some tips on improving sleep quality.
What is sleep and why is it so important?
Sleep is a natural state of rest characterised by a temporary suspension of consciousness, voluntary muscles, and reduced metabolic activity. During sleep, the body repairs and restores itself, and the brain consolidates memories and processes emotions, clearing the brain of toxins and aiding weight loss. Sleep is essential for physical and mental health and for our well-being and overall quality of life. However, sleep is not just a passive activity, it is essential for us to perform to the best of our ability.
Stages of Sleep
A good way to look at sleep is similar to an orchestra. In an orchestra there are all different instruments, coming together in harmony to create an amazing sound – and it’s similar with sleep.
Sleep is not binary, it’s not as simple as we are either ‘awake’ or ‘asleep’, that’s not how sleep works.
Sleep is broken down into 4 key stages; Light, Slow Wave Sleep (SWS), REM & wake –
No one stage of sleep is not more important than the other, to use our orchestra analogy, the trumpets aren’t more important than the flutes, they just play different roles – the same as sleep.
It’s more about creating the symphony and harmonic blend of the varying sleep cycles, as they all play an important role, and the key is to get them all working together.
Light sleep represents the physiological process taken to transition to deep sleep. Some of the restorative characteristics that define deep sleep occur in this phase, but with less frequency, as your body is more responsive to your environment in light sleep. In fact, there is a theory that light sleep exists to allow the body to be aware of its surroundings and to wake quickly in the event of a threat.
Slow Wave Sleep (SWS), also known as deep sleep, is the time when your muscles repair and grow. During this stage the body produces 95% of its daily supply of growth hormones. As an athlete, training sessions break down muscle tissue so that it can rebuild and grow during slow wave sleep.
REM sleep is when the brain is restored. It is at this time that ideas and skills acquired during the day are cemented as memories. Any time you are practicing a technical skill, the actual consolidation and retention of that learning happens during REM sleep.
Wake is included as a sleep stage because it is natural to be awake for brief periods many times in the night. These periods are known as arousals, and it is normal to experience anywhere from 10-20 per night. While they only last a few minutes and you’re not conscious of them, you can lose upwards of an hour of sleep in the Wake stage due to disturbances.
The time spent in each stage of sleep will vary night by night, however, a healthy breakdown to aim for is:
- 50% Light Sleep
- 23% REM
- 22% Slow Wave Sleep (SWS)
- 5% Wake
Health Benefits of Sleep
Better Cognitive Function: As mentioned earlier in the article, during sleep the brain consolidates memories and sorts through information gathered during the day. Lack of sleep has been shown to impair cognitive function, including attention, concentration, and decision-making abilities. Studies have also found that getting enough sleep can improve problem-solving skills and creativity.
Improved Physical Health: Again as discussed earlier, sleep is essential for physical health as it allows the body to repair and rejuvenate. It also helps to regulate hormones such as insulin, which is necessary for maintaining healthy blood sugar levels. Lack of sleep has been linked to a higher risk of developing chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. In addition, sleep plays a crucial role in immune function, and lack of sleep can increase susceptibility to infections and other illnesses.
Emotional Well-being: Good sleep has been linked to lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. During sleep, the body produces hormones that help regulate mood, including serotonin and cortisol. Lack of sleep has been linked to higher levels of cortisol, which can lead to feelings of anxiety and stress.
Better Physical Performance: Sleep is essential for physical performance, as it helps the body repair and builds muscle tissue. It also plays a role in hormone regulation, which can affect energy levels and athletic performance. Studies have shown that athletes who get adequate sleep perform better and have a reduced risk of injury.
How much sleep should I be getting to perform at my best?
STAT: If we were to take the percentage of the population who can function optimally on 6 hours of sleep, and round that to a whole number, the percentage would be 0% – Dr Matt Walker.
A person’s recommended amount of sleep can vary depending on several factors, including age, lifestyle, and health. It’s essential to understand that everyone’s sleep needs are different, and the recommended hours of sleep are just general guidelines.
However, it’s our opinion (and that of many experts) that 7 hours of sleep is the absolute minimum amount of sleep for an adult.
Everyone is different, many people require more, but less than 7 statistically is not recommended.
Athletes and children need even more. Sleep should be a priority, not an afterthought.
Adults between the ages of 18-60 generally require 7-9 hours of sleep per night. However, some individuals may require more sleep depending on their individual needs. Older adults over the age of 60 may require slightly less sleep, around 7-8 hours per night.
Children and teenagers require more sleep than adults. Newborns require between 14-17 hours of sleep per day, while toddlers and pre-schoolers need between 10-14 hours. School-age children and teenagers require between 9-11 hours of sleep per night.
In addition to age, lifestyle and health can also affect the amount of sleep a person needs. People who are more active or have physically demanding jobs may require more sleep than those with sedentary lifestyles. People with underlying health conditions or chronic illnesses may also require more sleep to support their immune systems and overall health.
It’s important to listen to your body and determine how much sleep you need. Some signs of not getting enough sleep include feeling tired during the day, difficulty concentrating, and irritability. On the other hand, if you consistently wake up feeling refreshed and alert, you may be getting enough sleep.
Tips for better sleep
While there is no simple formula for boosting the amount of time you spend in any of the stages of sleep, there are behaviours you can adopt in order to give yourself the best chance at an efficient night of sleep.
Here are some good practices, based on leading studies on sleep science, that can be implemented to improve sleep quality:
The darker your room, the better you sleep. Light influences the wake stage of sleep so the darker you can get your room, the more time you will get in the restorative stages.
Set your room temperature at or around 68 degrees. You will fall asleep quicker when your bedroom is slightly cool.
Your bed is not a multi-use space. The more you can train your body to associate your bed with sleep, the more adept you will be at falling asleep in that space. As such, avoid work and leisure time spent in your bed.
Screens are stimulating and keep you awake. Avoid using your phone or computer in bed, screen time makes it more difficult to fall asleep.
Set a cut-off time for caffeine intake. Caffeine has a lingering presence for many hours after consumption. For greater sleep efficiency, consciously refrain from caffeine consumption at least 4 hours before bed.
Plan ahead when consuming alcohol. Just as caffeine intake impacts the body hours after consumption, so too does alcohol. Keep this in mind on a night out so that your sleep performance doesn’t suffer.
Fall asleep and wake up at similar times each day. We call this sleep consistency, and studies have shown it can improve the quality and efficiency of your time in bed.
Exercise regularly. Regular exercise can help improve sleep quality and make it easier to fall asleep at night. Aim to get at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week.
Practice relaxation techniques. Techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation can help reduce stress and promote relaxation, making it easier to fall asleep at night.
Stick to a regular sleep schedule. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, even on weekends, can help regulate your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle and promote better sleep quality.
Avoid napping. Napping during the day can interfere with your ability to fall asleep at night. If you must nap, keep it to 20-30 minutes and avoid napping late in the day.
Manage stress. Stress and anxiety can interfere with sleep, so it’s important to manage stress levels. Try techniques such as journaling, talking to a therapist, or engaging in relaxation techniques to help reduce stress and improve sleep quality.