Your Helpful Guide for Sleep

Your Helpful Guide for Sleep


Sleep is an integral part of every daily routine. In fact, humans spend an average of one-third of their lives doing it. Not only is it key to survival, but quality sleep provides a plethora of benefits, including improved mood and brain function. Furthermore, not getting enough sleep can seriously affect one’s health and quality of life. 

But why is sleep so important? What happens when we sleep? Why do we dream? In this guide, you can learn more helpful information about sleep, including the stages of sleep, sleep patterns, how much sleep humans need on average, and much more! 

Why Sleep is Important

Have you ever tried to stay up all night? What about for a couple of days? Chances are, at some point, your body shut down and went to sleep, even if it wasn’t your plan. Humans need sleep. While it’s unclear how long a person could survive without sleep, it won’t take long for you to begin to feel the effects of sleep deprivation. 

Sleep is an essential bodily function that affects every process in the body, including the ability to fight off infection and disease, your physical and mental function, and your risk for chronic illnesses. When humans are deprived of sleep, they experience impairment in cognitive, behavioral, and bodily functions. 

What Happens to Your Body and Brain During Sleep?

Nearly every part of your body experiences notable changes while you’re asleep. Here’s a closer look at some core bodily processes that change while you’re sleeping. 

Heart Rate

As any Fitbit or sleep monitoring device can tell you, your heart rate slows during most stages of sleep. The only exception is when you’re in REM sleep, where your heart rate and pulse quicken to around the same rate as they would be if you were awake (learn more about REM and sleep stages in the Stages of Sleep section).  However, it slows again when you reach the next stage of sleep.  


Like your heart rate, your breathing rate generally slows and becomes deeper during non-REM stages of sleep. Additionally, your breathing can become irregular when entering and during REM sleep. 


Your muscles typically relax, and the amount of energy your body expends is reduced during every stage of sleep. Additionally, most of your muscles become extremely still while in REM sleep to prevent your arms and legs from flailing in response to your dreams. This is known as atonia. 

Hormone Levels

Many hormone levels fluctuate during the different stages of sleep, including the following: 

  • Growth hormones, which support metabolism and bone and muscle development 
  • Cortisol, an integral part of your stress response system 
  • Ghrelin and leptin, which contribute to appetite control 
  • Melatonin, which helps promote restful sleep 

Brain Activity

Your brain remains active during sleep, and precise brain patterns are associated with every step of sleep. Brain waves slow considerably during the first stage of sleep and are most active during REM sleep. Additionally, different types of notable brain waves occur during REM sleep, which is why this sleep stage is most associated with vivid dreams. 

What Brain Structures Are Involved With Sleep?

Many structures in your brain are involved in sleep, including the following: 

  • Hypothalamus and Brain Stem: These brain structures work hand in hand to control the transition between sleeping and waking and play vital roles in REM sleep by inducing atonia. 
  • Thalamus: The thalamus is an integral part of the brain that helps process short and long-term memory information. During REM sleep, this part of your brain is incredibly active, aiding in your dreams’ images, sounds, and sensations. During other stages of sleep, it remains quiet and helps your body tune out the outside world. 
  • Pineal Gland: Your pineal gland produces melatonin, an important hormone that assists in your natural wake-sleep cycle and sleep drive. 
  • Amygdala: Your amygdala helps you process emotions and is most active during REM sleep. 

Why Do We Dream?

Some people may remember all of their dreams, while others might not remember their dreams at all. On average, humans spend around two hours each night dreaming. Dreaming can occur in any stage of sleep, but it’s generally most prevalent during REM sleep, where dreams commonly become more immersive or even bizarre.  

It’s not entirely clear why humans dream. However, many experts believe that dreaming helps you analyze and consolidate memories or help you prepare for challenges you might face during the day. 

The Stages of Sleep

There are two types of sleep: 

  1. Non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep
  2. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep 

NREM is divided into three stages, each linked to specific neuron and brain wave activity.  These stages account for around 75% to 80% of your total sleep. 

Typically, you cycle through all non-REM and REM stages of sleep every night, with deeper and more extended periods of REM occurring toward the later part of your sleep. Continue reading the sections below for a closer look at each stage of sleep. 

Stage 1

This NREM stage of sleep is usually the shortest and lightest stage of sleep. It’s the stage of sleep you transition into from wakefulness. During stage 1, your eye movements, brain waves, breathing, and heartbeat begin to slow, and your muscles start to relax.

Stage 2

Stage 2 is a transitionary period from lighter to deeper sleep. During this sleep stage, your muscles, breathing, and heart rate slow further. Your core body temperature is typically reduced. When you sleep, you’ll spend more time in stage 2 than in any other sleep stage. 

Stage 3

Stage 3 sleep is a non-REM sleep that’s deeper and critical to feeling refreshed in the morning. You tend to remain in this sleep for longer during the first half of your sleep. At this stage, your breathing and heart rate generally fall to their lowest levels. Since you’re in a deeper sleep, you’re more difficult to wake. If you are awakened, you may feel more groggy or disorientated momentarily. 


Your brain is most active during REM sleep. Your heart rate increases to near-waking levels, your breathing becomes irregular and faster, your eyes rapidly move from side to side behind your eyelids, and you’re more likely to dream. The first REM typically occurs within around 90 minutes of falling asleep. The older you are, the less time you spend in REM sleep each night. 

How Long is a Sleep Cycle?

Generally, you cycle through the various stages of sleep multiple times each night. Each sleep cycle takes around 70 to 120 minutes to complete. However, the amount of time spent in each stage varies throughout the night, with more time spent in NREM stages during the first half of the night. 

How Much Sleep a Person Generally Needs

Most adults need between 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night. However, the amount of sleep that you may need depends on your age and other personal factors. The table below contains the total hours of sleep the CDC recommends for every age range. 

Age RangeRecommended Hours of Sleep Each Night
0-3 Months14-17 hours
4-12 Months12-16 Hours
1-2 Years11-14 Hours
3-5 Years10-13 Hours
6-12 Years9-12 Hours
13-18 Years8-10 Hours
18-60 Years7+ Hours
61-64 Years7-9 Hours
65+ 7-8 Hours

Circadian Rhythm, Homeostasis, and Sleep Drive

Some individuals may notice they begin to feel tired around the same time each day, or that they are more alert during certain times. Often referred to as an internal body clock, these patterns result from the circadian rhythm and homeostasis. 

Homeostasis is the balance of the need for sleep and wakefulness. You regain it while you sleep, diminishing your sleep drive that tells you when it’s time to sleep. At the same time, your drive for wakefulness grows, helping you wake up and remain alert during the day. 

Your circadian rhythm works hand in hand with homeostasis by coordinating environmental cues, such as sunlight (or lack thereof) to tell your body when it’s time to sleep and further your sleep drive. For most people who work and function during the day, their internal body clock follows the patterns of the sun. 

When exposed to sunlight, your body’s temperature rises, cortisol is released, you feel more alert, and melatonin production is suppressed. Conversely, when it becomes dark outside, your body’s temperature is reduced, and melatonin production increases, making you feel drowsier. 

How Sleep Drive Changes With Age

Did you know that your sleep drive can change with age? It’s one of the reasons why we need different amounts of sleep in our life. Circadian rhythms typically undergo changes at three key life stages: infancy, adolescence, and old age. 

For example, newborns can require up to 18 hours of sleep, but it’s broken into many short periods because they haven’t developed a circadian rhythm. After about four to six months, babies begin to sleep in larger blocks of time as their circadian rhythm develops. 

Adolescents face their own sleep-related challenges. For example, many teenagers experience a “sleep phase delay,” where changes in their circadian rhythm make it challenging to become more tired earlier in the evening naturally. This can make reaching their ideal amount of sleep a real struggle, since school often begins early in the day. 

Finally, some older adults may experience a loss of consistency in their internal clock, and sleep drive changes cause many seniors to become tired earlier in the evening and more wakeful in the early morning hours. 

Can You Sleep Too Much?

The short answer is: yes, you can sleep too much. Sleeping well beyond your recommended sleep amount can result in excessive daytime sleepiness, make it more difficult to fall asleep at night, reduce the amount of deep sleep you get, and impact your overall quality of sleep. 

The Benefits of Getting Enough Sleep

Individuals may feel like they are more productive or in a better mood when they get enough sleep. Sleep plays a vital role in most bodily functions, so it’s only natural to see and feel the impact of quality sleep. Some of the most notable benefits of getting enough sleep include the following: 

  • Improved Brain Function: Getting enough quality sleep can help you concentrate better, be more productive, think clearly, process memories, and remember important details the next day. 
  • Better Moods: If you get enough sleep, you may be more likely to be in a better mood and feel happier, more motivated, and handle challenges more easily. 
  • Enhanced Physical Performance: Sleep can improve your overall physical performance because sleep helps heal muscles you use during the day. Additionally, you typically will have more energy and may be able to move faster or experience better coordination. 
  • Boosted Immune System: Your body has the chance to rest and recover during sleep. Getting enough sleep each night helps you combat infections and illnesses and overall helps boost your immune system. 

Signs You May Not Be Getting Enough Sleep

The CDC reports that around 30% of adults don’t get enough sleep every night. Here are a few signs that you may not be getting enough sleep each night: 

  • You’re Moody: If you’re not getting enough sleep, your mood is likely to be one of the first things to be affected. You may feel irritable, sad, anxious, or overwhelmed, worsening the longer you go without getting enough rest. 
  • You’re Less Productive: Have you ever gotten out of bed and already wished the day would hurry up and be over so you could get back in it? You may be sleep-deprived. Not getting enough sleep can make us feel unmotivated and can cause us to be less productive throughout the day. 
  • You’re Tired During the Day: Daytime sleepiness and having to reach for coffee or energy drinks to stay active is a sign that you may not be getting enough sleep each night. 
  • You’re Forgetful: Sleep helps your brain function and recall and store information throughout the day. When you’re overly tired, it can feel much harder to remember information or stay organized and productive. 
  • You Get Stressed Out More Easily: Sleep is vital in managing stress, remaining level-headed, and feeling more stable. Little frustrations may push you further when you don’t get a healthy amount of sleep, especially if you’re already feeling irritable or overwhelmed. 
  • You’re Struggling to Concentrate: Sleep significantly impacts your ability to concentrate. If you find yourself reading the same sentences twice, struggling to recall information, or having difficulty focusing on a task, you may need more sleep. 
  • You’re Having Trouble Coming Up With the Right Words: Did you know that sleep greatly impacts speech? When you don’t get enough sleep each night, you may have difficulty recalling specific words, slower reaction time, or stumble in your speech. 
  • You’re Experiencing a Lower Sex Drive: If you’re lacking sleep, you may be lacking energy or experiencing increased stress, none of which helps support a healthy sex drive. 

What is Sleep Debt?

Sleep debt is the difference between the amount of sleep you need and the amount of sleep you get. For example, if you need seven hours of sleep but get about five hours, you have two hours of sleep debt. Sleep debt can quickly add up. An hour here and there can still accumulate and impact your physical and mental performances. 

How to Avoid Sleep Debt

One of the ways to avoid the consequences of not getting enough sleep is to avoid having a sleep debt in the first place. If you’re not getting enough sleep or your quality of sleep is lacking, you may want to make changes in your life. You may need to visit a doctor.

You may need to sacrifice time you spend on other activities to ensure you get enough sleep. But getting an adequate amount of sleep every night can improve your quality of life, overall health, and mood, so it’s important to make sleep a priority every night. 

However, sometimes a loss of sleep is unavoidable. There may be work or personal obligations you can’t avoid, or you experience trouble falling asleep. That’s why it’s important to create a plan for how you can recover your lost sleep and to consult a doctor when needed.

How to Recover From Sleep Debt

There are a few helpful tips you can use to try and recover from sleep debt. The first is to take a brief, 10 to 20-minute nap during the day. A short nap can help you feel more refreshed, improve your mood, or increase your productivity and mental acuity. However, be sure to set the alarm, because lengthy naps can make it more difficult for you to fall asleep in the evening, furthering the overall problem. 

Alternatively, you can also try to catch up on sleep on the weekends. However, this is not a fix-all solution if you’re chronically not getting enough sleep each night. A brief weekend recovery won’t usually fix the underlying problems in your sleep schedule or sleep quality, and it shouldn’t be relied on as a long-term solution. 

Common Mistakes That Hinder Your Ability to Get Restful Sleep

Are you having trouble getting enough sleep each night? Let’s go over some of the most common mistakes people make that hinder the ability to get adequate, restful sleep. 

Inconsistent Sleep Schedules

Going to bed or waking at different times each day can impair your body’s homeostasis and sleep drive. An inconsistent sleep schedule can make it more difficult for you to fall asleep each night or wake up feeling well-rested. Therefore, it may help to stick to a consistent sleep schedule that allows you to get your recommended sleep amount as much as possible. 

Aiming for Less Sleep Than You Need

It’s common to underestimate the amount of sleep you need, especially when there are other activities you’d rather do or responsibilities you need to take care of. You may be able to get through a day on five or six hours of sleep, but it may not be healthy or sustainable.

Napping Too Much

A nap can give you a quick charge and help you feel more awake and alert during the day if you didn’t get enough rest the night before. However, naps should be kept to brief 10-30 minute increments to avoid falling into a deep sleep. Napping too much or taking a long nap can interfere with your natural sleep cycle and make it more difficult to fall asleep later. 

Using Electronics Before Bed

Electronic devices like phones, TVs, and laptops stimulate our brains and emit blue light that can disrupt your body’s sleeping and waking cycle. It’s best to turn off electronic devices at least one hour before bedtime to give your mind and body a chance to relax. 

Having an Afternoon Energy Drink or Coffee

Caffeine can be a great way to help you wake up in the morning and feel more alert during the day. However, caffeine remains in your system for several hours, so it can impact your ability to sleep at night if you drink caffeine too late in the day. Therefore, you may want to avoid coffee, energy drinks, and other caffeinated beverages in the afternoon and evening. 

Drinking Alcohol Before Bedtime

Alcohol can make you feel relaxed and drowsy, so this may surprise you. It may be alright to have a drink or two in the evening, but drinking too much alcohol close to bedtime negatively affects your sleep cycle after falling asleep. Alcohol puts you into a deep sleep faster, disrupting your natural sleep cycle and interfering with your REM cycle, the most important stage of sleep. 

Exercising Before Bedtime

When you exercise, your brain releases hormones like cortisol and dopamine, which can interfere with your natural sleep cycles. However, while exercising too close to bedtime can make it more challenging to get quality sleep, exercising in the morning or afternoon can help you sleep better. 

Eating a Large Meal Before Bedtime

Your body’s digestive system gets to work after you’ve eaten a meal, which can make it harder for your sleep cycle to relax many of your body’s functions. Additionally, large meals before bedtime can interfere with your sleep cycle’s ability to lower your body temperature. 

Tips for Improving the Quality of Your Sleep

Even the most minor changes may be able to help if you want to improve your sleep quality. It’s not all or nothing, so don’t feel like you need to change everything about your bedtime routine, sleep environment, or day-to-day routine all at once. 

If you want to take a new approach to sleep and develop a strategy that works best for you, here are some tips for improving the quality of your sleep. 

Winding Down for Bedtime

Do you have a difficult time falling asleep? Do you find yourself lying down, only to be filled with to-do lists, daily reflections, or worries? You may need to create a better pre-bedtime routine. What you do leading up to bedtime can play a crucial role in how quickly you fall asleep. While changing bedtime habits can take time, the sleep you can gain can be well worth the effort. 

  • Spend 30-60 Minutes Winding Down: If you want to doze off smoothly, it’ll be easier to do so if you’re already relaxed. Work toward getting yourself into the right frame of mind for sleep by doing a relaxing activity before bedtime, such as reading a book, listening to soothing music, or doing some low-impact stretching. 
  • Dim the Lights: Our bodies are hardwired to wind down when there is less light, so an easy bedtime transition is to avoid bright lights before bedtime to help promote sleep. If you work at night and sleep during the day, you could invest in quality blackout curtains to help you feel more restful. 
  • Turn Off Your Electronics: As mentioned, electronics keep your brain wired and can interfere with gaining restful sleep. Therefore, it is recommended to turn off electronic devices at least an hour before bedtime. 

Improve Your Sleep Environment

To maximize your sleep quality, you may need to make your bedroom a sleep-inducing room of comfort and relaxation. There are several ways you can improve your sleep environment, including the following: 

  • Limit Your Bedroom Activities: Did you know your brain learns to associate different places with different things? So, if you spend time working, watching movies, or engaging in other activities in your bedroom, you may have more difficulty winding down at bedtime. 
  • Use a High-Quality Pillow and Mattress: You spend around a third of your life sleeping, so a high-quality pillow and mattress may be worth the investment. Choose a pillow that provides better support to help you avoid aches and pains that leave you tossing and turning at night. For a mattress, look for one that best suits your sleeping and firmness preferences. Quality mattresses may not be cheap, but it’s your sleep quality we’re talking about, so try to find the best mattress for your budget range. 
  • Make Sure Your Bedroom is Dark: Light disruptions can interfere with your body’s natural circadian rhythm, making it more difficult to fall and stay asleep, especially if your sleep schedule has you snoozing when the sun comes up. You may want to look into installing quality blackout curtains or using sleep masks to prevent light from interfering with your rest. 
  • Choose an Agreeable Temperature: Feeling too hot or cold can interfere with your ability to get a good night’s rest. Many experts recommend sleeping in a cool room of around 65 degrees for optimal sleep. 
  • Choose Quality Bedding: Like your mattress and pillow, the sheets and blankets you choose play a significant role in ensuring your bed is comfortable, inviting, and sleep-inducing. Bedding can also alter temperature, giving you more control if your room gets too stuffy or chilly during the night. 
  • Keep Out the Noise: Noise should be kept to a minimum while sleeping. If you cannot drown out all the outside noise, or if the silence does more harm than good, consider investing in a white noise machine or fan to help you sleep. 
  • Consider Adding a Pleasant Aroma: Light-scented air fresheners and essential oils can do wonders for your sleep quality. Consider adding a pleasant aroma to make your bedroom more relaxing and inviting, such as lavender, jasmine, or other natural fragrances. 

How Long Should it Take to Fall Asleep?

It takes an average of around 10 to 15 minutes for most people to fall asleep. Are you struggling to fall asleep each night? If so, take a look at your current sleep habits, make sure you’re not making one of the common mistakes that hinder your ability to sleep and use our tips for improving sleep and what to do when you can’t fall asleep. 

What to do if You Can’t Fall Asleep

Tossing and turning while trying to fall asleep can be frustrating, especially if you have work or other responsibilities to take care of in the morning. Here are some tips for what to do when you can’t fall asleep. 

  • Don’t Stay in Bed: While it may seem counterproductive, it’s best to get out of bed if you can’t fall asleep after about 20 minutes. Doing so will help you avoid the frustration that can ultimately make it more difficult to fall and stay asleep. If you can’t sleep, try getting out of bed and going into another room. Avoid bright lights, checking your phone, or looking at the time. Instead, do something relaxing for a few minutes or get a drink of water before returning to bed. 
  • Try Relaxation Techniques: Rather than focusing on trying to fall asleep, just try to relax. Several relaxation techniques can help you fall asleep, including progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, guided imagery, and controlled breathing. 
  • Track Your Sleep and Sleep Changes: As you embark on a journey of creating a better sleep schedule, being more mindful of your sleeping habits, or changing your bedroom environment, keep track of these changes. Track your sleep either through a daily journal or by using a sleep tracker to help you learn more about what works for you and what doesn’t. 

Tools You Can Use to Help Improve Sleep 

Are you a light sleeper? If so, you may struggle to remain asleep, especially in earlier non-rem stages of sleep. Fortunately, there are a few tools you can use to help you improve your sleep quality and stay undisturbed through the night. 

  • Sleep Masks: Sleep masks are padded, comfortable masks that cover your eyes and help block out light while you sleep. Some masks have additional features, such as those that apply heat or cold to help you relax. 
  • Ear plugs: If outside noise wakes you in the night or prevents you from falling asleep, try using earplugs. Ear plugs are made of various materials, so you can find pairs that are most comfortable for you. Additionally, some brands provide a greater ability to block out noise. 
  • Sound Machines: If you find ear plugs uncomfortable or they prevent you from hearing your alarm in the morning, sound machines are another great solution. You can choose a sound machine that plays white noise or opt for one that includes different outside sounds, such as rain, thunderstorms, creeks, or ocean waves. 

How to Adjust Your Sleep Schedule With Minimal Sleep Quality Interference

Adjusting your sleep schedule is not always easy. While it may help to stick to the same bedtime and waking schedules when possible, sometimes you need to change your sleep cycle temporarily, permanently, or to get back on track. 

If you need to adjust your sleep schedule, you may want to do so gradually so you don’t interfere with your sleep quality. It’s better to make schedule adjustments over time, with a maximum adjustment of up to two hours per night.

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