Sleep: should we bet on quantity or quality?

Imagine that you had a very short night last night. You wake up feeling sleep deprived, so you decide to go to bed early tonight to catch up on your rest. You think that by sleeping a few more hours, you will wake up feeling refreshed the next morning.

Many of us have used this way of thinking, but how often does it work? You can probably remember times when you’ve had maybe 5 hours of sleep, but feel energized and productive. There are probably other times when you went to bed early, but woke up feeling like you’d barely slept.

Does the quantity or quality of your sleep affect how you feel?

More is better

Many of us grow up with our parents telling us we should get more sleep. Babies sleep 14-17 hours a day, while teenagers need 8-10 hours of rest. Adults, them between 6 and 9 hours.

Science tells us that we need sleep to survive, and when you rest your body can heal and recharge. You will feel more energetic when you wake up. This way of thinking makes sense, but it is too simplistic.

Think of it this way: your phone has a battery. No matter how long you put the phone to charge, it can’t go over 100%. It does not create new ways to store energy. It’s just a maximum. Your body works the same way. You need rest, but more sleep doesn’t necessarily give you extra energy.

Sleep studies have focused on how many hours of sleep people need. We have all heard of the need to have a certain number of hours per night to keep our body and mind in top shape. Government health organizations also make us understand the need for a certain number of hours of rest.

Finally, studies on people with sleep disorders show that they have a shorter and worse lifespan than people with adequate sleep.

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A sleep-deprived brain can behave like an intoxicated brain, and long-term cognitive problems can occur with continued substandard sleep. It’s no wonder we all think it’s important to get as much sleep as possible!

Is too much, this is a good thing ?

So if we’ve been told it’s important to get more rest, is getting plenty of sleep really a good thing? We all woke up from a nap and felt bad afterwards. Studies have shown that sleeping too much is not good for you. People who sleep tend to have more problems with depression, increased pain, higher risk of heart attack and stroke, and impaired cognitive function.

Too much sleep can make you feel tired and lazy. Having a day where you oversleep disrupts your sleep cycle, which ultimately affects the quality of sleep you have. People who insist that they can make up for lost sleep on weekends are sabotaging their chances of being well rested down the line.

The way you sleep is more important than the amount of sleep

Of course, you need a reasonable number of hours of sleep to feel rested. No one would dispute that. The amount of sleep is only part of the equation. The way we sleep is more important than the number of hours of sleep.

Feeling refreshed after sleep has a lot to do with your REM cycle (Rapid Eye Movements). REM stands for « rapid eye movement » and describes the dream phase of the sleep cycle. You typically reach the first 10-minute REM cycle about an hour and a half after closing your eyes. You will continue to reach REM sleep every 90-120 minutes until your wake up time.

Sleep quality is key

One of the ways to ensure that you wake up rested is to have access to as much REM sleep as possible. What we do in the pre-sleep period is also important. Activities that give your brain the chance to enter REM sleep as often as possible are best for you.

New moms are going through a particularly difficult time. Although they can sleep around 7 hours a day, most new mothers have sleep patterns similar to people who suffer from sleep disorders like sleep apnea.

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If they technically get enough sleep for an adult, why are they so sleepy? It’s very simple: new moms don’t feel rested because they are woken up several times during the night. This means that they don’t sleep long enough to enter REM sleep. Remember that it takes 1.5 to 2 hours to complete a sleep cycle and REM sleep comes at the end of the cycle.

Without this opportunity for restful sleep, mothers feel exhausted. Although they may try to catch up on rest time, sleep patterns go through a cycle. A mother who is woken every two hours may not have enough full sleep cycles, if any.

Sleep and your health

Two studies assessed the impact of sleep quality and quantity on students’ health and well-being. The studies concluded that sleep quality was a better predictor of a healthy, happy life and better well-being than sleep quantity.

In the studies, subjects slept an average of 7 hours per night. People who said they had better quality sleep were able to feel more satisfied with their life, experience less anxiety, and feelings of depression, fatigue, confusion, and anger, compared to people who reported high amounts of poor quality sleep.

The sleep you experience when you go to bed can also affect the quality of your sleep. The more tired you feel when it’s time for bed, the more likely you’ll get a restful night’s sleep.

Quality triumphs over quantity

The old adage is true: quality is better than quantity. You are better off with 6 hours of high quality sleep than with 8 hours of mediocre rest.

This could explain why some people seem to be healthier with fewer hours of sleep. People who can access restful sleep more often or who can reach the REM phase more quickly will feel more rested. It’s not something everyone can do, however. Most of us need 7 to 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep to get fit.

You can improve your chances of getting good quality sleep

You may not be able to enter the REM phase, but you can set yourself up for successful sleep. Here are some ways to improve the quality of your sleep:

  • Take a hot bath before going to bed. Heat can soothe and relax sore muscles and prepare you for rest.
  • What about your electronic devices? The electronics emit blue light, which has been proven to disrupt sleep patterns. Turn off your electronic devices.
  • Drink chamomile tea to relax. The soothing properties of chamomile make it a remedy for nervousness and lack of sleep.
  • Drink hot milk. Forget alcohol. Alcohol can make you drowsy, but it won’t help you reach the REM phase any faster.
  • Sleep in a cool room. If you are too hot, you may feel uncomfortable and wake up. A cool room sets the stage for a restful night.
  • Do not make any noise. Just because you can fall asleep with the TV on doesn’t mean you should. Ideally, you will have little to no noise.
  • The lights should be dim. Our body is adapted to be awake when the sun is up and asleep when it is dark. We sleep better in the dark. Partially close your curtains so you can enjoy the benefits of being in a dark room and wake up naturally with the sun.
  • Stop caffeine. A caffeine rush can be very nice, but if you drink too much coffee or tea at the end of the day, you may have trouble falling asleep. Caffeine also affects the length of the phases of your sleep cycle, which can prevent you from reaching or staying in the REM phase for long.
  • Stick to the same sleep schedule every day. Catching up on lost sleep or sleeping in on the weekends will make it harder to get into a good sleep pattern.
  • Try other sleep cycles. If the other tips on the list don’t seem to work for you, or if you have a job that keeps you from going to bed at the same time every night, you might try different sleep cycles.
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