A Guide To The Science Of Sleep & How You Can Maximize Your Zzz’s

Stages of Sleep

A Guide to the Science of Sleep & How You Can Maximize Your Zzz’s — Image by xiangying_xu via Pixabay

You know the feeling—you had a restless night followed by an early morning, and no amount of coffee can help stop you from dragging yourself through the day. That night you go to bed early, sleep straight through the night and bound out of bed with renewed vigor. We all know sleep is essential, but have you stopped to think about the science of sleep?

What Is Sleep Anyway?


While you’re awake, your brain produces the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine—these keep us alert while we’re awake. Those days when you feel like you’re dragging 20 pounds of rocks behind you probably indicates a dip in those neurotransmitters.

Your brain also produces neurons signaling your body to switch off the chemicals keeping you awake. All of this happens as part of your natural circadian rhythm. This is the 24-hour pattern your body follows to signal it’s time to sleep. This pattern is influenced partly by your environment like if it’s light or dark, loud or quiet or stimulating or calm.

Stages of Sleep


You ever watch somebody sleep—not all night, that’s weird—but just for a minute and notice how peaceful they look? Well, there’s a lot going on under those closed lids. There are several stages of sleep happening every night. There are two main phases of sleep—REM and non-REM.

Non-REM sleep comes in stages and gently slows down your heart rate, breathing rate and lowers your temperature—all designed to keep you asleep. If these stages don’t get interrupted, you drift into the most active stage of sleep—REM.

REM or rapid eye movement makes up one-quarter of our overall sleep. REM is marked by vigorous brain activity because the brain is consolidating and categorizing information it took in throughout your day and processing memories. This is why you’re tired after a highly stimulating day with a lot of new information being thrown at you—your brain has a lot of processing to do.

What Happens during These Stages of Sleep?


Well, that’s a great question and a big area in the study of the science of sleep. The brain is still a mystery in a lot of ways. What happens when we sleep has been studied and theorized about for decades. We know REM sleep is when your most vivid dreams occur possibly because your brain is dealing with emotions you didn’t address during your daily, waking life.

You cycle through the 5 stages of sleep—4 of them non-REM and 1 REM—every 90-110 minutes. So, what are these cycles all about?

Stage 1 (1-7 Minutes)

This is your half-awake, half-asleep state. Your eyelids are heavy, and you start to drift off but then the dog barks, and you wake up. This is the equivalent of dipping your toe in the pool—having one potato chip—you’re going to cave. This cycle repeats itself all night so you will be easily awoken a few times a night.

Stage 2 (8-25 Minutes)

This is called light sleep. Your brain activity is slowing and, while you’re still awoken fairly easily, you’re farther gone than when you’re first drooping your head at your desk.

Stage 3 (25-40 Minutes)

Ok, you’re really in the thick of things. You’re harder to wake up, and your brain waves slow even more. Your brain is now producing delta waves which help you drift into an even deeper sleep.

Stage 4 (20-40 Minutes)

Some doctors don’t believe stages 3 and 4 are separate. Stage 4 could be the latter part of the third stage, but it’s known as deep sleep. This is when you are hardest to wake up, you’re producing lots of delta waves, your muscles relax and your breathing and heart rate slow.

Stage 5/REM (10-60 Minutes)

Your brain is perking up now, and electrical activity picks up the pace. You may be in a vivid dream. Your muscles are temporarily paralysed—weird, right—and your eyes are darting back and forth.

So Why Is Sleep So Important?


Now you know what sleep is but why is it so important? Why is a lack of sleep almost debilitating and a good night’s sleep rejuvenating? We’re discussing the science of sleep, and so there’s science to the need for slumber.

Immune System


Remember the last time you had the flu or felt you were coming down with something? Your body needs sleep to repair itself. When you sleep, your body makes a specific protein—cytokines—to attack whatever is making you feel awful. Go to bed when you’re sick—not to work, or the bar. These little buggers increase when you’re stressed too, so you have to sleep.

They run through your body all night attacking viruses and battling inflammation. There are studies showing people who got eight hours of sleep had better results with the influenza vaccination.

Chronic lack of sleep can lead to obesity, diabetes and heart disease. It’s better to nip sleep issues in the bud early, so you don’t set yourself up with more serious health issues.

Your Mind


Your mind functions best when it’s had a good amount of sleep. Researchers conclude your brain processes all the information it received during the day and stores it as memory. If you feel you’re not thinking clearly, try hitting the hay—your brain has had so much information it needs you to shut down so it can go to work.

This is why babies spend so much of their time sleeping. Everything is new to them, and they need a lot of time to process it all. Imagine trying to understand walls, carpeting, dogs and strange people speaking a foreign language to you all day—you’d need a nap or two.

There was a study where a group of teenagers was given information at 9 am and were tested on that information at 9 pm. They did 20% worse than another group who got the information at 9 pm, slept on it and took the test at 9 am. Sleep makes you sharper, healthier and happier.

Your Sleep on a Timer


Each person’s circadian rhythm—or internal clock—is different and part of the science of sleep. Some people only need five hours of sleep while others need nine because their internal clocks are different. This internal clock is controlled by a part of the brain that responds and is sensitive to light.

If you’re sleepy, you need to sleep—even a nap will rejuvenate your mind and body. You can alter your sleep clock by sticking to a new sleep routine, for instance, when you change your work schedule and switch to a different but reliable new schedule. When you sleep in on a Sunday, you may throw your own clock off. Here’s how to keep your timer on an even keel:

  • Stick to a regular sleep schedule—you’ll have off nights, but if you can keep a sleep routine 90% of the time, you’ll help yourself big time
  • Get outside in the morning—going for a walk, having coffee in the sun, throwing a ball for your dog—all will expose you to bright sunlight and let your brain know it’s time to wake up
  • Shut that thing down—it’s nighttime, and you’re relaxing with your smartphone or tablet. Well, what you’re really doing is telling your brain it’s still daylight—shut it down

So How Much Sleep Is Enough?


Well, isn’t this the magic question? Luckily, there’s an entire institute dedicated only to sleep. They’re the ones who set the 8-hour standard decades ago, but their research has updated that number.

How much sleep you require depends on quite a few factors:

  • Age
  • Overall health
  • Recent lifestyle changes
  • Stress
  • A recent impact to the body—running a marathon or breaking a bone—same thing to us
  • Do you need caffeine to get you through the day?
  • When you’re driving do you immediately feel sleepy?

The National Sleep Institute has broken down sleep needs by age. This is important to cross-reference if you feel you’re not getting enough or are getting too much and still don’t feel awake.


  •    Newborns (0-3 months)—14-17 hours per day
  •    Infants (4-11 months)—12-15 hours
  •    Toddlers (1-2 years)—11-14 hours
  •    Preschoolers (3-5 years)—10-13 hours
  •    School-age children (6-13 years)—9-11 hours
  •    Teenagers (14-17 years)—8-10 hours
  •    Adults (18 to 64 years)—7-9 hours
  •    Older adults (65+)—7-8 hours

Quality of Sleep


Ah, yes. The unicorn of the science of sleep—good quality. If you don’t feel rested in the morning and you’ve slept long enough, it’s probably your sleep quality. But how do you know for sure? Well, there’s actually a definition for good quality sleep:

  • Spending 85% of your time in bed sleeping—total time asleep minus checking your phone, watching tv, reading and just plain waiting to fall asleep
  • Falling asleep in 30 minutes or fewer
  • Waking up only one time per night
  • Falling back to sleep in 20 minutes or fewer when or if you do wake up

In this case, quality and quantity are equally important.

How to Improve Sleep Quality


If you’ve ticked off that you’re getting enough time in the sack, but you still aren’t feeling rested, it’s probably time to look at the quality of the sleep you’re getting. We’ve got some tried-and-true ways for you to tweak your sleep routines to move those z’s into the quality category.

Daylight during the Day

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Get more light during the day—remember that internal clock we talked about? It needs light during the day to transition at night. If you spend all day in a dark office, get out in the morning, at lunch and one more time in the afternoon. If you can’t get outside, get an artificial bright light bulb.

This could help you with depression too which, in turn, will help you sleep. See? Daylight is a fantastic thing.

Blue Light Not So Special

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Stop with the phones, tablets, and computers already! Seriously, the blue light they expose you to confuses your brain. It reduces the number of sleep hormones your body produces because you’ve tricked your brain into thinking it’s still daytime. Here’s how you can do yourself a favor and limit your blue light exposure:

Buy a Pair of Blue Light Blocking Glasses

These also help with eye fatigue if you spend half your life on a computer.

Download an App That Blocks Blue Light. 

Some more popular applications are f.lux, Redshift, SunsetScreen, Iris, Twilight and Night Shift.

Turn off all devices

This includes TV two hours before bed—we feel the same way—but it helps.



90% of the world consumes some kind of caffeine. It’s great as an eye opener or just a cup of focus in the morning. Here’s the deal—you could really be messing with the quality of your sleep. Caffeine stays elevated in your bloodstream for 6-8 hours.

If you need to be asleep by 11, that means no caffeine after 3 pm. Coffee, any tea but herbal, soda and energy drinks all will be your sleep’s enemy. Stick to non-caffeinated versions of your favorite drink. Ahhh, the science of sleep.

Keep a Schedule


We know how glorious it is to sleep in on the weekends, but do you notice how tired you are on Monday and Tuesday? Well, you’ve jacked up your sleep timer by getting out of your normal sleep routine.

Do your best to go to sleep and wake up at the same times consistently. Yes, that means not sleeping until noon every weekend. We can hear the groans from here. Give it a shot for a few weeks and see if you feel better. It may just solve your sleep issues.

Supplement Your Sleep


Some people don’t want to take vitamins or supplements to aid their sleep, and we’re not judging that. Some folks don’t want to change anything that’s normal. Just so you know, polio is natural—just saying. If you are ready to explore the supplemental help, you can get from certain herbal remedies. Think about giving these a try:


The most popular sleep supplement, it helps people fall asleep faster and feel better the next day. Start with a low dose to make sure you’re tolerant and increase it slowly—check with your doctor first to make sure it’s safe for you.

Valerian Root

Also a popular one. Taking 500 mg before bed to help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep. Some people report feeling sluggish, but the number of people it helps outnumbers them


Already plays an important role in your body. It helps to improve relaxation and eases restlessness, including restless legs


This amino acid can improve relaxation to help you sleep. Try 100-200 mg before turning in

You could go the essential oil route—people have found success with diffusers and a pulse point roll on. Studies show smelling certain scents can be as effective as a sleeping pill for some people. Try these oils to help you and your mind relax and drift off:

  • Lavender
  • Valerian
  • Clary sage
  • Sweet marjoram
  • Roman chamomile
  • Bergamot
  • Jasmine

Try rubbing a drop of two into your hands and sniff your hands in calm breaths. Add a few drops to your bath water, add them to Epsom salts or use a diffuser.

Step into Your Bedroom

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You may not want to hear this, but your bedroom could stand an overhaul. Too often we think about the main areas of our house—living room, kitchen, guest bathroom—and ensure they’re always guest ready yet you spend 30% of your life in your bedroom. It’s time to make sure it’s primed for sleep.

Colors That Promote Sleep

(DESIGNER_START)Consider showing the colors here(DESIGNER_STOP)The color of your walls can either help or diminish your quality of sleep. So, what are the best colors?

Icy blue

To your brain this mimics the night sky and is a great way, once your lights are out, to imagine sleeping under the stars.

Soft Green

Pick one with gray undertones and no pastels—this creates a relaxing atmosphere to prepare you for sleep.

Dark Blue

Not bright blue, pick one with some gray in it to mimic a dark night sky. Throw pops of icy blue or white to make your room open up because dark rooms can make your room seem smaller.


We know, we know… but if you pick a pale version, that’s not pastel—it can soothe your mind and calm your senses. Maybe just browse the lavender swatches and see if you can come to terms with it.

Colors That Inhibit Sleep

(DESIGNER_START)Consider showing the colors here(DESIGNER_STOP)There are colors that absolutely do the opposite of promoting sleep. Think about re-hauling your walls if they’re currently any of these colors:


People who had this color bedroom reported the least amount of sleep of all the colors. Yes, it’s an opulent color, but it also inspires creativity—not great for sleep.


You’ve heard the term “seeing red”? It’s not a good thing. Red is the universal color for danger and anger. We’re guessing it’s kinda hard to sleep while angry at all the danger.


While this is a popular color for bedrooms, it’s also a gloomy color and makes many people feel sad. Those with brown bedrooms had the second worst night’s sleep.


There’s a reason the song says “you make me happy when skies are gray”—it’s because gray makes us gloomy. You don’t want to feel gloomy when you’re trying to sleep.

Temperature, Sound, and Light


(designer_start) [insert gif of John Krasinski with his finger to his mouth shaking his head from A Quiet Place] (designer_stop)

Other studies show many people don’t realize how ambient light can affect their sleep. Get blackout curtains to keep pre-dawn or street lamp light from sneaking into your room. If you have an alarm clock or cable box throwing off the light, consider putting a piece of dark tape over the screen.

Ambient noise can drown out street sounds, the downstairs TV or snoring from your partner or dog. There are great apps like Rain Rain that mimic the sound of rain and wind if that’s a soothing sound to you. You can turn on a fan or pop in some earplugs to silence the room.

Have you ever rolled around on a bed in the miserable summer heat in a room with no air conditioning? Ugh—even the thought of it makes us unable to sleep. That’s why experts say it’s a good idea to lower the temperature in your room. You should keep your bedroom no warmer than 70 degrees at night, colder if you like it chilly.


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Yeah, we know. Exercise is kind of a cure-all in science, not just the science of sleep. Exercise keeps your epinephrine and adrenaline hormones pumping, and those are great—for staying awake. Get your exercise in at least two hours before bed, preferably four.

We still suggest getting your exercise in during the morning hours so you can soak up some sun and tell your body is time to wake up. Regular exercise is one of the most prescribed ways to get better sleep—cutting falling asleep time in almost half.

Stop Drinking Alcohol and Stuff


We know how relaxing it can be to have a glass or two of wine at the end of the day, but it doesn’t do great things for your actual sleep. It can increase symptoms of sleep apnea, snoring and restless sleep. It also alters your body’s ability to produce melatonin which you need to sleep.

One more thing—liquids will increase your chance of having to wake up in the middle of the night. Remember, to have quality sleep, by definition, means not waking up more than once. If you wait to get your day’s quota of water in until an hour before bed, you will not be well rested.

What Does Sleep Deprivation Do?


Sleep deprivation differs from having a bad night’s sleep. For people who shave time off their sleep each night over a long period, the effects are staggering:

  • Cravings for sweet, salty and starchy foods
  • Obesity
  • Falling asleep at the wheel
  • 6,000 fatal car crashes by drowsy drivers each year
  • 3 times the normal risk of type 2 diabetes
  • Increased risk for colorectal cancer
  • 48% increased risk for heart disease
  • 33% increased risk in dementia
  • Increased risk for anxiety, depression, irritability, and forgetfulness

Don’t be fooled into thinking one or two good night’s sleep can wipe out weeks or months of sleep deprivation—it only works for four to six hours after waking, and you’re right back in a bad place.

All great reasons to really rev up your sleep schedule and sleep routines—your health and longevity depend on it.

What If It’s a Disorder?


How do you tell if you’re just going through a brief rough patch with sleep or if it’s an actual disorder for which you may need help? The key is the word “brief.” Take a look at the most common sleep disorders.


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Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder affecting one-third of Americans. While it may be common, it’s no laughing matter. We can all handle having a hard time falling asleep for a night or two but anything past that and just the thought of going to bed at night stresses us out for fear we won’t fall asleep.

Symptoms of Insomnia:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Difficulty staying asleep
  • These symptoms are chronic, not acute

Causes of Insomnia:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Certain medications
  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Depression


  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
  • Meditation
  • Prescription Sleep Medication

It’s important to talk to your doctor about your inability to sleep if no home remedy is working. You know now how destructive long-term insomnia can be. There are miracle solutions for insomnia—it may take a few tries to figure out what works best for you, but there is hope.

Sleep Apnea

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This is the second most common sleep disorder for Americans. If you’ve ever been called out for snoring by a friend or partner, it’s easy to blame it on sleep apnea hoping to ease some of your embarrassment. But do you really have it?

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea:

  • Excessively loud snoring
  • Daytime sleepiness—not just tired
  • Morning headaches

Causes of Sleep Apnea:

  • A complete or partial blockage of the throat


  • CPAP machine- (continuous positive airway pressure) which keeps the airway open through a steady stream of air

If you suspect you have sleep apnea, talk to your doctor to be sure. He’ll probably want you in a sleep study but don’t worry—they’re just easy to take home contraptions you wear for a week and ship back. You’ll be glad you did.

Restless Leg Syndrome


Oh, the torture of restless leg syndrome (RLS). You can even settle in for the night; sure everything will be ok and then—BAM! You’re wildly kicking and distraught.

Symptoms of Restless Leg Syndrome:

  • An irresistible urge to move the legs and other limbs
  • Occurs mostly in the evening or during periods of rest
  • RLS sufferers can kick over 100 times a night—every night

Causes of Restless Leg Syndrome:

  • Nobody knows, but it’s thought to be hereditary
  • Pregnant women can also develop RLS
  • Certain medications can cause RLS


  • Exercise—there it is again
  • Reduction of caffeine and alcohol
  • Medication for severe cases

Go to your doctor for this one too. All sleep disorders are miserable—this one is your own body throwing you around like a rag doll. Someone can help you.

Other Sleep Disorders You Should Talk to a Doctor About

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If you’re experiencing symptoms of the following, talk to your doctor. Medicine has come a long way, and big advancements have been made in the science of sleep.


Being in a state of half-awake and half asleep most of the time. May involve fainting or sleeping spells


Walking while sleeping, waking up in a different room—happens most often in children

Sleep Terrors

Screaming, violent bursts of activity during sleep—once fully awake, the sufferer has a hard time calming down

It’s Time to Turn In


You have all the tools and information you need to get a good night’s rest. What you do from the moment you wake up can influence your sleep that night. It’s worth the time investment. A good sleep routine will add years to your life, keep extra pounds off and stave off illness and disease.

So, put on your comfy PJs, settle into your beautiful bedroom and drift off. With all the hard work you’ve done to make sure you can rest, you deserve a good night’s sleep. Sweet dreams…