Some of us can wallow in a deep slumber night after night, blissfully unaware of clatters or strange sounds going on, while others are woken by every cough or turn from their partner in bed. But why are there such profound differences in the way we sleep and how do we get a better quality of sleep, i.e. more of the deep stuff we know to be so refreshing?
Firstly, to understand sleep issues, it's important to consider what happens to the body after we close our eyes at night. When we sleep, our bodies flow through 4 stages - stages 1 and 2 are light sleep stages. Stage 3 is deep, restorative sleep. Finally, stage 4 is rapid eye movement, or REM sleep. You'll take around one and a half or two hours to complete a full cycle of those stages of sleep and will rotate through them around four or five times a night.
Your deepest sleep in stage 3 is referred to as non-rapid eye movement or slow-wave sleep.
So what does it mean to be a deep sleeper and what happens to the body when we're in a deep sleep?
When we're in stage 3 or our deepest sleep, the brain and body cool right down so you can restore energy. Your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, also known as the rest and digest mode whereby your heart rate slows and blood pressure drops. This aids digestion and helps eliminate waste from the body.
Your hormones are working hard too, with your pituitary gland sending out human growth hormone to help your body repair and recover muscle and other tissues from any injuries or wear and tear. It also strengthens the immune system. We all know that children sleep deeper and for longer than adults and it's no coincidence that this is while they're growing. Growth hormones surge to your bones during slow-wave sleep meaning your child may just wake up that tiny bit taller!
Meanwhile, in adults, studies show that deep sleep is important for glucose regulation. It is thought that a lack of stage 3 sleep can lower your insulin sensitivity meaning you aren't able to use glucose as productively and you may end up eating more during the day.
All in all, a deep sleeper usually wakes feeling more refreshed, more energetic and ready to take on the day than those of us who have had less deep sleep.
Deep sleep or slow-wave sleep occurs in stage 3 of the 4-cycle sleep stage we go through every night. When we close our eyes, our bodies go through stage 1, stage 2 and stage 3 and then REM sleep.
It is during stage 3, which occurs every 90 minutes or so, that we get our deepest rest. In this stage, our body tissue repairs and grows and the immune system recharges. It occurs most frequently in the first half of the night - you'll be difficult to wake during this time.
Heart and breathing rates slow, muscles relax and brain wave activity is more leisurely.
We'd all benefit from a little more deep sleep each night to awaken feeling on cloud 9. Thankfully, there are a few healthy habits to ensure we can make this happen:
Working out at roughly the same time in the morning and afternoon on a regular basis will ease your body into a good sleep routine, although exercising too close to bedtime may hinder sleep. As little as 10 minutes of exercise can give you a good night’s sleep.
A warm relaxing bath before bed initially raises your body temperature which then cools when you get out and dry yourself thus preparing your body for feeling sleepy.
Giving yourself enough time to sleep - between 7 and 9 hours - and getting up at the same time every day will help get you into a regular sleep routine. This also means setting an alarm on weekends!
Give some thought to your bedtime environment. Make sure your bedroom is cool, but not cold, and dark and avoid scrolling through your phone before bed. If you can, keep your phone out of the bedroom entirely. Phones and devices emit blue light which prevents your brain from secreting melatonin.
More than 10 hours of regular sleep may leave you feeling drowsy and this may be an indicator of an underlying health problem.
It is recommended that alcohol is not consumed in the last four hours before you go to bed. It may cause you to feel sleepy initially and drift off into what feels like a deep sleep, but it also interferes with the quality of your sleep and breathing issues. The nightcap is a myth!
It's no secret that caffeine is a stimulant. Drinking coffee or a caffeinated product - that includes chocolate - just before bed can leave you feeling very awake. This delays your body clock, having a knock-on effect for the next day. Try to cut out caffeine six hours before bed if you're experiencing sleep problems.
Natural sunlight sets your body's circadian rhythm. Getting some exposure to light during the day lets your body know that's the time to be awake, so when the sun goes down, it also knows that is your time to feel sleepy. People who commute on long journeys or work shifts and only see dark skies find their circadian rhythms become confused.
Load up on beans, broccoli, avocados and berries which are all high in fibre if you want to spend longer in deep sleep. Cutting back on sugar and difficult-to-digest foods such as fried, spicy or high-fat food will also mean you're not going to bed with an overactive digestive system.
If you live in a noisy environment you may benefit from white noise, whether it's a fan near the bed or a white noise app playing on your bedside table to block out sounds that stop you from falling to sleep.
Practising yoga or meditation is a great way of switching off and preparing the body for its rest period. Yours app has specific yoga for sleep classes which teach you the best poses alongside resting poses which get you ready for bedtime. Alternatively, you may like being lulled into slumber with a sleep story. Yours has a range of soothing and relaxing voices that will help you drift off to a better quality of sleep.
All the sleep cycles we experience at night are important. Each comes with its own benefits. However, stage 3, which is when we enjoy our deepest sleep, is often considered the most important. This is due to the vital pick-me-ups and restoration it provides our bodies after a long day:
Unfortunately, you can't exactly rewire your brain to become a deep sleeper if, traditionally, the slightest noise or change in environment wakes you up. However, there are still ways for even the lightest sleeper to get the most rejuvenating sleep they can with changes to external stimuli.
Maintaining a good pre-bed routine, with good sleep habits such as exercising regularly, spending time being more mindful before bed with yoga or meditation and trying foods or supplements known to promote better quality sleep should give you the kickstart you need. Allow your body to do the rest.
We've all got the golden eight hours ringing in our ears but how much deep sleep do we require? Newborns and babies need the most deep sleep - around 2.4 to 3.6 hours a night. Children aged one to 12 need around 2 - 2.8 hours of deep sleep and teenagers should be getting 1.7 to 2 hours very night.
Once we hit adulthood the body requires between 1.6 and 2.25 hours but sleep physiology changes as we get older. Our bodies need less growth and development and while deep sleep is still important, we won't need quite as much as we move into our senior years.
Despite what you may think, it doesn't always work out that deep sleepers get the best sleep. It's a combination of quality and quantity that you need for a well-rested slumber. Heavy sleepers can sleep for a significantly shorter period of time than light sleepers but if they've alternated through the sleep stages for adequate periods of time then they'll awake feeling more refreshed and better rested.
Before seeing your doctor about prescribed sleep aids, it's always worth trying some of the recommended natural remedies that have been proven to help. But note, just because these are natural, they aren't without side-effects or health risks if misused so still check with your doctor before introducing them to your bedtime routine:
There are many different foods to try that are thought to get you feeling tired and promote good quality sleep when used as part of a healthy diet:
It's not just foods that are lauded for their sleep boosting hormones and brain chemicals. Try these drinks before bed too to help you fall asleep faster and deeper.
Too much sleep can have dangerous side-effects, including increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. Some studies also suggest that getting too much sleep in any of the sleep stages may leave you feeling as tired as if you've not had enough. Adequate time in deep and REM sleep is ultimately what will make you awake feeling refreshed. Unfortunately, your body has its own drive as to the time it spends in each stage, all you can do is ensure that you establish a soothing and comfortable sleep environment where your body can unwind and naturally rest. If you can concentrate on getting enough uninterrupted sleep then your body will do the rest.
Our bodies naturally produce melatonin before we sleep and taking a booster in supplement form can be useful for a night or two. However, we'd recommend avoiding melatonin supplements for long periods of time unless your GP has recommended them. Too high a dose can have adverse effects in actually reducing the time spent asleep and sleep quality. It can also cause headaches, nausea and dizziness.