How to Sleep Better by Understanding the Science of Sleep

Who hasn’t wanted to learn how to sleep better at some point in their lives? Whether you’re an overloaded student, an overworked professional, or an overwhelmed full-time parent, everyone can benefit from getting better rest each and every night.

We’re a bit obsessed with high-quality sleep and helping people to get it, so we’ve created this easy guide to understanding the science of sleep to serve as a roadmap to better sleep through understanding the process and how you can improve your health and life by warding off sleep deprivation.

You’ll get a chance to discover the science of sleep, including the whole purpose of sleep, how much sleep you really need, what sleep deprivation costs you, and the validity of the theory of “catching up on sleep” according to experts.

We’ll also talk about how sleep works by going over just the sleep-wake cycle and circadian rhythm are and how they relate to you being able to catch some Z’s, as well as the process by which sleep is regulated.

And you’ll learn how to fall asleep faster, improve the quality and duration of your sleep, find out how to establish daily habits for better sleep, and take a more in-depth look at natural sleep aids.

What Exactly is Sleep’s Purpose?

Given the fact that the average adult will spend one-third of their lives in a state of quiet hibernation, it’s no wonder that sleep is seen as such a strange activity when you really start to think about it.

For more than 36% of our lives, we go from active and vibrant to totally comatose when we’re catching Z’s, and if you’ve ever wondered why the heck that is, you’re far from alone!

But what exactly is sleep and why is it so important to our health and happiness? And how does being asleep affect our waking lives? Let’s take a look at the different aspects of the science of sleep.

The first of the many important roles sleep plays in the essential well-being of our bodies and brains is restoration. While we sleep, our brain is refreshed by an all-natural waste-removal service.

As we snooze, our glymphatic system clears out the metabolic waste that’s accumulated in our brains during our waking hours, helping us to wake up with a clear mind and even to help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Amazing, right?

Another purpose of sleep is to consolidate our memory, which helps us to maintain crucial long-term memories, as well as keep our emotional state in balance.

Sleep is also imperative to our metabolic health, as the more sleep we get, the more energy we’re able to burn during our days, which helps us to gain muscle and lose fat while we’re at our most physically active.

How Much Sleep Do You Really Need?

Are you starting to see why sleep is one of the best things we can do for our mental and physical health? Now, it’s time to take a look at just how much we need of it to perform at our peak.

One thing’s for certain – we’re all individuals and we each have our own needs. You might be able to get by with less sleep than your partner, or you might need more than the recommended minimum amount of sleep, as opposed to someone who needs less.

And that’s okay! According to sleep experts, as long as you are doing your best to avoid creating a “sleep debt” in your life by not getting enough sleep (7-9 hours for most of us) on a regular basis, you should do just fine, as long as you’re listening to your body.

If you find your work performance is declining, you’re having trouble remembering things or struggling with being able to concentrate, or if you notice that you’re becoming irritable much more easily than you used to, it might be time to reevaluate your sleep needs.

What’s the Cost of Sleep Deprivation?

If you’ve ever found yourself not getting enough sleep in your life, you’re probably beginning to worry about your own sleep debt, and what a lack of good-quality sleep on a regular basis could be costing you.

You might be interested to know that a sleep debt starts accumulating immediately when you’re getting less than 7 hours of sleep per night. And you start feeling the scary effects of sleep deprivation pretty much right from that first night of missed slumber.

Not to frighten you, but if you’re not getting at least the bare minimum amount of recommended sleep at night, you could start feeling the impact of sleep loss right away, which includes daytime drowsiness, increased anxiety and stress levels, poor coordination and an inability to focus, and higher blood pressure or even an increased risk of a heart attack.

Can You Catch Up on Sleep?

By now, you’re starting to see how important getting enough sleep is, and you’re probably also wondering if there’s any way for you to make up for missed sleep, right?

After all, there are going to be times in life when sleep takes the back burner to professional or social obligations. Who hasn’t pulled an all-nighter or two when they were in college or stayed up late to celebrate a birthday?

Well, this is one of those times when compromise comes into play. While you can do some catching up on the weekend by sleeping in longer than you would on work days, researchers have found that you can’t ever truly repay your sleep debt totally.

The bottom line is that if you’re not getting enough sleep every night of the week, no amount of time spent in bed on your days off is going to give you back the increased ability to focus (not to mention all the other health benefits) you’ll be missing out on.

Having said that, if you’re truly sleep deprived, don’t just write off some extra sack time! You might not be able to make up for the sleep you missed completely, but it’s never going to hurt to get some additional snoozing in when you have the chance.

What is the Science of Sleep?

The time has come for us to take a deeper look at what sleep is and exactly how it works to keep us happy, focused, energized, and running like well-oiled machines. Let’s start by learning about the different cycles and rhythms involved in sleep.

Sleep-Wake Cycle: This process is what determines the quality of sleep you’re getting and is made up of both slow wave (deep) and REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. If you’re not getting enough slow-wave sleep, your body won’t be able to repair itself or fight off illnesses. If you’re not getting enough REM sleep, your brain won’t be able to refresh and reboot, meaning that your mental abilities will suffer, including your memory and cognitive skills.

Circadian Rhythm: This is the 24-hour biological process that dictates the sleep-wake cycle. It’s based upon three factors, which include light, time, and melatonin (the hormone that regulates sleepiness). Everyone’s is a bit different, but most are a matter of how much daylight you’re being exposed to each day, if you’re sticking to a regular schedule, and if you have the right environment to produce melatonin, which means keeping things cool and dark.

The Stages of Sleep: While there are only two types of sleep (deep and REM), there are actually 5 stages of sleep that we all go through, and each serves its own purpose in helping us to get the rest we need. The 1st through 4th stages are all non-REM sleep, and they take us from when we first lie down at night, all the way up to totally deep sleep, when our bodies are getting the rest we need to restore and repair ourselves. In the 5th stage, REM sleep makes its appearance, and this is where we dream and when our brains go through their nightly reboots.

What Are the Best Tips for Better Sleep?

Now that you’ve learned more about how important sleep is for your health and well-being, what exactly sleep is and how it works, and how much sleep you really need to thrive, it’s time to give you some tips to help you get to sleep faster and easier.

Power Down: Turn off any devices that emit harmful blue light at least 30 minutes before bedtime, in order to help your body to produce the melatonin it needs to get to sleep. This includes cell phones, tablets, computers, and yes, even TVs.

Turn Down the Lights: Take this tip one step further by dimming the lights in your home when it starts getting close to bedtime. This will help your body and brain to naturally know when it’s time to sleep, thanks to encouraging your natural circadian rhythm.

Create a Sleep Haven: You should reserve your bedroom for sleep and intimacy with your partner only, if you want to get some seriously high-quality sleep each night. This means you should turn your bedroom into a sleep haven by banning any and all electronics, going with a neutral color scheme, and investing in some super-soft sheets.

Get Relaxed: Research has found that more than half of all insomnia cases are related to high-stress levels. If you’re finding it difficult to shut your mind down when it’s bedtime, you might want to try some relaxation techniques, in order to reduce your stress and fall to sleep faster and easier. Some great relaxation methods include daily journaling, meditation, gentle yoga, and deep breathing exercises.

Cut Back on the Coffee: This might not be popular with the Starbucks fans out there, but if you’re having trouble getting to sleep (and staying that way), one of the easiest tips to follow is cutting caffeine out of your life. If you can’t imagine saying goodbye to coffee altogether, try instituting a “no caffeine before noon” rule and see if that helps.

Try a Sleep-Friendly Beverage: While it’s been found that alcohol can actually disrupt your sleep and should be avoided too close to bedtime, so the old-school nightcap is out, there are plenty of non-alcoholic drinks that can help ease you to sleep, including chamomile tea, coconut milk, or cherry juice.

Want Even More Sleep Facts?

You’ve learned a lot in this guide to the science of sleep! But if you’re craving even more sleep knowledge, you might want to check out some of these helpful related articles and increase your sleep IQ even more.

Night Owls vs. Early Birds: 9 Science-Backed Differences

Discover the Top Causes (and Fixes) for Restless Nights

21 Sanity-Saving Tips for When You Just Can’t Get to Sleep