We all know that to stay healthy we need between 7-9 hours of sleep every night. But turns out, how long we sleep is not as important as how well we sleep. Go figures, give us insomniacs more things to worry about while we lie in bed waiting for sleep to come. Thanks science.

To help us understand what actually counts as good, quality sleep, we need to first understand the sleep stages and the role they play.

Understanding The Different Stages Of Sleep

To better understand how sleep is structured, think of it as cycles of sleep that last about 90 minutes each. Throughout each of these cycles, we go through a series of stages that all contribute to the quality of sleep.

It starts with non rapid eye movement sleep known as non REM or NREM. The first stage is when we doze off into a light sleep. Then we enter the second stage of light sleep where we may be able to respond to someone speaking to us, or, claim that we were not really asleep. In the third stage of NREM, we enter deep sleep, more commonly known as slow-wave sleep, during which brain-wave activity is about 10 times slower than it is when awake.

By the time we reach the final stage of the cycle, we’re in our deepest sleep, at which point we experience rapid eye movement or REM sleep. This is the time we dream. Oddly enough, our brains are just as active during REM sleep as they are while awake. At this point, REM of brain wave activity is nearly identical to that of a brain at it’s most awake and alert.

The Importance Of REM And NREM Sleep

A balanced amount of REM and NREM sleep is essential for both physical and mental health. If this balance is off, it can result in cognitive decline, exhaustion and even accident proneness. There is also a risk factor in health issues namely hypertension, obesity, diabetes and mood disorders.

Each sleep stage plays an important role in taking care of our brains and bodies. During REM sleep, our breathing and heart rate changes. This important stage of sleep helps with learning and emotional processing.

During NREM sleep our brains slow down. And our sleep is at its deepest. During this stage, our body works to strengthen the immune system, rebuild bone and muscle and repair and regenerate tissues.

This is why sleep quality matters much more than sleep quantity – particularly when sleeping in a defined period of time. Sleep quality is often represented by having consolidated sleep. In other words, sleeping in one big chunk instead of having little pieces of sleep spread throughout the day or night.

While brief awakenings are normal, the human body can get more rest and recharge for one continuous span of sleep. Having an extended sleep period allows us to naturally move through all the stages of sleep . The body’s ability to go through the cycle multiple times is important for sleep quality which is another reason why consolidation of sleep to one span is essential.

Not only does one have to go through each cycle multiple times, but with each cycle, the ratio of nonREM to REM sleep changes, with a higher proportion of nonREM sleep at the beginning of the night and a higher proportion of REM sleep  in the morning hours. 

The brain craves different sleep types at different parts of the night, so shortchanging at either end can seriously disrupt quality sleep. Too much sleep can also be detrimental to our health. Most adults average about 7 – 71/2 hours sleep per night. If sleep increases beyond this amount, mortality risk also increases.

You know you have had a healthy balance of both REM sleep and non REM sleep is when you wake up feeling refreshed and rested.

Improve Your Sleep Quality With These Tips

Sleep quality is directly linked to your health, satisfaction and overall happiness, so it’s important to make quality just as big a priority as quantity. Sleep quality relies heavily on what you do over the course of the day and how you wind down to get ready for bed, as these actions can significantly impact on how well you sleep.

Two key areas to focus on are light and temperature which both help regulate sleep. Cool temperatures and darkness stimulate sleepiness, so run your air-conditioner 20 minutes before bed to get your room cool and inviting.

Limit the use of your bed for just sleep and sex. That means, avoid watching TV or scrolling through social media, because you want your brain to associate the bedroom with sleep.

Another method to promote quality sleep is to wake up at the same time every day, regardless of what day it is. This sucks a lot if like me, you enjoy rolling around in bed on the weekend. Also try to stay active in the daytime, and take a warm shower or bath before bed and be sure to steer clear of naps especially late in the day as this can disrupt the idea of consolidated sleep.

While getting enough sleep matters, the quality of the sleep is more important. Making simple lifestyle changes can go a long way in making this happen