November 13, 2023

Sweet Dreams: The Science of Quality Sleep and How to Get It

by SHIFT Team

Many people find it impossible to get consistent, quality sleep. In the United States, one in three adults falls short of getting the quality sleep essential for peak mental and physical health. Understanding the quality and adequacy of your own sleep patterns is the first step toward a healthier, more productive life (or a “more productive you”). Restful sleep is not only essential for daily functioning but also plays a critical role in maintaining physical and mental well-being.

In this article, we not only explore the importance of sleep but also provide practical ways to ensure you’re getting the best sleep possible. Start transforming the way you sleep by learning about each unique sleep cycle and why each is crucial to your sleep quality.

Sleep Science: Sleep Cycles and Their Importance

During sleep, we transition between two primary stages: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM sleep. Ideally, this cycle progresses uninterrupted throughout the night, restarting every 80 to 100 minutes. On average, we undergo four to six cycles, with brief moments of wakefulness in between.

Non-REM Stage 1

Non-REM sleep consists of three stages. Stage 1 starts as soon as we fall asleep. In this phase, there is a noticeable reduction in our heart rate, respiratory rate, and eye movements, along with overall muscular relaxation.

During this stage, the brain remains relatively active, generating theta waves predominantly in the frontal lobe. This initial stage of non-REM sleep is brief, typically lasting several minutes.

Non-REM Stage 2

Most people spend about half of their sleeping time in non-REM Stage 2. During this stage, awareness of our surroundings fades; there’s no eye movement, the body temperature lowers, and both heart rate and breathing become regular.

Brain activity also slows down during this period; however, short bursts of electrical activity, called sleep spindles, are present. These spindles are essential for processing and solidifying the memories we’ve formed during the day.

Non-REM Stage 3

In Stage 3, we progress into deeper sleep. This means it becomes harder to wake someone up from this stage compared to the earlier stages. In non-REM Stage 3, also known as “delta sleep”, slow and deep delta waves are dominant.

During this stage, you are unlikely to be disturbed by noises or other external factors. Your muscles fully relax, your breathing becomes deeper and slower, and your blood pressure decreases.

This stage is vital for memory consolidation of factual data, personal experiences, and broader knowledge. Additionally, delta sleep is the time when the body conducts physical repairs, which help to bolster the immune system and promote recovery.

Failing to get enough non-REM Stage 3 sleep can leave you feeling fatigued the next day, regardless of how long you’ve slept.

REM Sleep

About 90 minutes after we fall asleep, our brain enters the REM sleep stage. Here, our eyes move quickly, our breathing quickens and becomes less regular, and dreams often occur.

Remember, REM sleep isn’t just about dreaming. It’s a vital time for our brain to process and store memories, especially those tied to emotions.

Typically, the first period of REM sleep lasts only 10 minutes. However, with each subsequent sleep cycle, the duration of REM sleep increases. By the final cycle of sleep, REM periods can extend to 60 minutes or longer. Over the course of a typical night, a person spends approximately 20-25% of their sleep in REM stages.

Just as in non-REM Stage 3 sleep, our body repairs itself during REM sleep. Our cells rebuild, and our body releases hormones that help muscles and bones grow. 

After each cycle of REM sleep, we circle back to non-REM Stage 2, and the sleep cycle starts over.

Sleep and Well-Being: Why Getting Enough Sleep is Paramount

Failing to get enough sleep can affect your entire body and all its functions. Sleep deprivation can cause short-term effects, such as:

  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Slowed reflexes
  • Mood problems 
  • Concentration and thinking issues

Even worse, chronic sleep deprivation affects long-term health by increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, cognitive issues, and type 2 diabetes.

Sleep is essential for forming memories, and it also helps your brain prepare to learn and create. The brain even has a drainage system that removes toxins while you sleep. Your entire body, from your immune system to your blood vessels, uses sleep to repair itself.

How to Improve Sleep Quality and When to Consider Medical Assistance 

If you find yourself constantly asking, “Why am I so tired?”, it’s high time to reassess your sleep habits. While many individuals can improve their sleep quality through lifestyle changes, it’s vital to recognize when medical assistance may be necessary. 

SHIFT recommends the following practical steps to enhance your sleep quality:

  1. Exposure to Bright Light: Ensure you receive ample bright light exposure during the day to stabilize your circadian rhythm. 
  2. Caffeine Management: Avoid consumption of caffeine late in the day because it can interfere with your body’s ability to relax before sleep.
  3. Consistent Sleep Schedule: Maintain a regular wake-sleep schedule to preserve your circadian rhythm and overall sleep quality.
  4. Minimize Blue Light Exposure: Blue light disrupts your production of melatonin, a hormone vital for relaxation and sleep. Try to enforce a digital curfew from screens at least 60 minutes before bed.
  5. Limit Alcohol: Alcohol negatively affects melatonin and the circadian rhythm, so we recommend reducing overall consumption, but especially avoiding drinks close to bedtime.
  6. Optimize Your Sleep Environment: Aim to keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet. Turn down your lights by dimming or turning off unnecessary lighting for 90 minutes before bed and be sure to cool down your bedroom temperature before getting into bed.
  7. Relaxation Techniques: Incorporate relaxation techniques 90 minutes before bed. Try breathing exercises, meditation, reading, journaling, or even taking a warm bath to prepare your body and mind for sleep.

If you’ve implemented these strategies and continue to face persistent sleep problems, it might be time to consult your physician. We recommend getting a comprehensive health assessment to better evaluate your individual sleep issues and determine whether medical intervention, such as sleep therapy or medication, is necessary to help you attain the quality sleep you need to live a healthy lifestyle. Reach out to your SHIFT primary care physician or contact us at for assistance. 

-The SHIFT Team


quality sleep, real health, recovery, Sleep, sleep hygiene, sleep science

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