Getting a good night’s sleep can mean the difference between a productive, fulfilling day and a sluggish, fruitless one. Many people focus on the number of hours they sleep per night to determine whether they’re getting enough, but that doesn’t tell the full story.

Understanding stages and quality of sleep, and having tools to help you get what you need are key to making the most of each day, optimizing your health and well-being, and even achieving your fitness goals, among many other benefits.

The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends adults ages 18-64 get 7-9 hours of sleep per night. In a typical night we go through 4-6 sleep cycles lasting an average of 90 minutes each. The sleep cycle is made up of four stages, and is the foundation of recovery and development in the brain and body.

Stage 1

We are transitioning from consciousness to slumber. The brain, heartbeat, eye movement and breathing begin to slow. As the body begins to relax, the muscles can sometimes twitch. In this brief phase that can last up to 5 minutes, the brain is still relatively active.

Stage 2

About half of a total sleep session is spent in this stage. As the body yields to sleep, the muscles begin to fully relax. The body temperature, heartrate and breathing drop and level off as you become much less aware of your surroundings. This can last 10-60 mins.

Stage 3

Known as ‘deep sleep,’ this stage promotes growth and recovery of the brain and body. Deep sleep is necessary for us to wake feeling revitalized. The brain waves are at their least active, and waking up from this state is difficult. We spend about 20-40 minutes in the deep sleep segment of each cycle.

Stage 4

This is the REM (rapid eye movement) phase. As the term suggests, the eyes shift around quickly, we have dreams, and brain activity picks up, nearing what it would be in a wakeful state. Breathing can quicken and even become irregular. This lasts about 10-60 minutes.

During the final two stages, the brain processes and stores memories, which contributes to learning, as well as developing short- and long-term memory. In these stages, cells regenerate, energy levels are reset, bones, tissue and muscles grow, and the immune system gets stronger to fight against illness and disease.

If you don't get the recommended number of hours and quality sleep over a long period of time, your risk of Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke can increase. Less serious but still debilitating risks include troubles learning, focusing, being creative, even making rational decisions or remembering things. Sometimes, lack of quality sleep can leave us feeling more emotional or lacking self-control.

Here are some common signs you might not be getting adequate sleep.

  • Weight gain
  • Feeling tired and irritable throughout the day
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Difficulty focusing or remembering things
  • Difficulty getting out of bed
  • Afternoon lethargy
  • Difficulty staying awake during meetings, while driving, or after a large meal
  • The need for a daily nap
  • Falling asleep before bed or a few minutes after going to bed
  • Mood changes, including depression, anxiety, stress, or paranoia

Try these tips to improve your sleep quality.

  • Go to bed and get up at the same time each day
  • Ensure the room you sleep in is quiet, dark, relaxing, and a comfortable temperature
  • Remove electronic devices from your room
  • Avoid daily naps
  • Avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bedtime
  • Exercise regularly

Sufficient sleep plays a significant role in our physical and mental wellbeing. To increase the likelihood of getting consistent quality sleep, take care of your physical health throughout the day by eating a well-balanced diet and getting regular exercise.

If you think you may be suffering from complications related to poor sleep patterns, be sure to consult with a medical professional.