Like most people, you’ll probably spend a third of your life in bed, and if all goes well, you’ll sleep most of it. But unless you’re participating in a sleep study, you’ll have no idea what’s going on while you’re being examined, and you may not know how to assess your sleep quality. You may not even have an accurate idea of how long you actually sleep, especially if you don’t sleep well.
“People who describe themselves as ‘good sleepers’ are better at estimating how much sleep they have had than people who classify themselves as ‘poor sleepers,'” said Dr. William “Vaughn” McCall (opens in new tab)who chairs the Department of Psychiatry and Health Behavior at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University.
So how do you know if you’re sleeping well? The best measure of sleep quality — a combination of duration and efficiency — is how you feel the next day, McCall told Live Science.
“If you feel great, then your sleep is functioning well,” he said.
But if you’re often or always tired during the day, it could mean deficits in your sleep duration or efficiency. The signs will be familiar: You may have trouble getting out of bed in the morning or feel sluggish, unfocused or irritable in the afternoon. These can also be symptoms of other health problems, which is another reason to find out what’s behind any chronic daytime fatigue and seek medical help if you can’t reduce or eliminate the symptoms.
The good news is that there are several science-backed ways to improve the quality of your sleep, many of which can also help with depression, anxiety, chronic pain, or other conditions that can disrupt your sleep.
Connected: Daylight Saving Time 2022: When does the time change?
Experts say most adults need it between seven and eight o’clock (opens in new tab) sleep every night. Some people can get by with less, based in part on genetics, but recent studies (opens in new tab) suggests that less than seven hours, and esp less than six (opens in new tab)not only will it leave you tired, but it will also increase your risk of a host of physical and mental health problems.
But a good night’s sleep is much more than the time spent in bed.
Sleep comes in several repeating cycles four stages which range from mild to profound. During deep sleep, hormones and other chemicals are released to repair and rejuvenate the body’s organs and tissues, and a garbage collection system called the glymphatic system cleans the brain of misfolded proteins and other junk and toxins that accumulate during the day . During REM sleep, the rapid eye movement phase when most dreams occur, short-term memories are converted into long-term ones, and bad thoughts and negative emotions are dealt with and even removed.
If sleep is interrupted on both sides or disrupted at night—even if you don’t realize it—you’re robbing the brain and body of these rejuvenation processes, as I explain in my new book, Make Sleep Your Superpower (opens in new tab)(self-published, 2022).
The length of time spent in each stage can only be accurately measured in a sleep lab, with devices that monitor brain waves, body temperature and other indicators of deep and REM sleep, said Dr. John Saito (opens in new tab)a sleep medicine, pulmonology and pediatrics clinician at Children’s Health of Orange County in California.
“It is impossible for a sleeper to accurately estimate the amount of sleep,” Saito told Live Science.
Try not to get carried away
The threshold for good sleep efficiency — how much of your time in bed is actually spent sleeping — is about 85 percent, McCall and colleagues noted in a study published earlier this year in the journal Scientific reports (opens in new tab). This means getting seven hours of actual sleep, as one example, a typical good sleeper might need just over eight hours in bed. Although performance is generally thought to decline with age, the study found that it was actually quite stable from 30 to 60 years of age.
Assuming you’re getting enough hours of sleep, you still can’t know how effective it is. A sleep tracker can help. Well, sort of.
Commercial sleep trackers, available with some watches and activity trackers and even a ring, can offer a sense of sleep duration, efficiency, and resulting quality. But research found (opens in new tab) none of the leading brands are completely accurate. In particular, these devices struggle to distinguish between light sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep.
Another study suggests (opens in new tab)with some irony that obsessing over sleep tracker data can cause stress that’s bad for sleep.
“Unfortunately, excessive self-monitoring and self-monitoring of your sleep with a sleep tracker can make things worse, just as excessive weight self-monitoring can be seen in people with eating disorders,” McCall said. “It’s important to have an overview of your sleep, but there’s no need to check it every day for long periods of time.”
As part of my research, I’ve been using a sleep tracker for a few months and it’s helped me recognize patterns. When I sleep poorly — as measured by how I feel during the day — the tracker usually generates a low overall sleep score. When I feel good, the tracker usually shows that I slept well. But sometimes the measurements are off and I’m never sure why. When I feel good but the tracker surprises me with a low score, I get an anxiety attack that I know is not good for me.
A sleep tracker may or may not be a smart decision for you. I try not to obsess over my readings, but overall they serve as a helpful reminder to stay focused on good sleep habits each day so that my nights go well. These better nights lead to more energy, lower stress and more balanced emotions throughout the day – benefits of sleep confirmed by many studies.
How to improve the quality of your sleep
There are many proven tactics that help people fall asleep faster and sleep more efficiently, leading to better overall sleep quality. A good sleep strategy comes down to a routine, consistently engaging in healthy habits, and avoiding what I call sleep kryptonite—the sneaky outside forces and silly things we do that interfere with sleep.
Here are some helpful tactics to choose from, compiled from suggestions by McCall, Saito, and other experts:
- Choose a consistent bedtime and stick to it.
- Go outside early in the morning and spend at least two hours a day; bright daylight helps set your body clock and optimize your sleep-wake cycle.
- Avoid caffeine after the early afternoon and eliminate it if it doesn’t help.
- Avoid tobacco, nicotine and cannabis.
- Get at least 20 to 30 minutes of daily physical activity, such as brisk walking, yoga, lifting weights, or any other movement that gets your blood pumping.
- I study science-based strategies (opens in new tab) to recognize, manage and reduce stress during the day.
- If you do take a nap, do it before late afternoon and keep it to 30 minutes or less.
- Avoid stressful activities late at night, such as reading or watching disturbing news or social media posts, discussing politics, or checking work e-mail.
- Turn off or dim all household lights in the last hour or two before bed.
- Create a dark, cool and quiet sleeping environment.
- Wake up at the same time every day.
If these tactics don’t work, seek medical attention, Saito said, adding, “Early identification and mitigation of sleep problems will improve short-term health and prevent long-term consequences.”