Understanding sleep

Published May 29, 2013

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What is good sleep?

The concept of a good night’s sleep is rather subjective and varies widely from person to person, but generally speaking, it should make you feel refreshed the next morning and ready to face the day ahead. Sleep is one of the cornerstones of good health and helps to refresh the mind and repair the body. Research has found that sleep plays a critical role in immune function, metabolism, learning and other vital functions.1

On the other hand, a lack of sleep due to insomnia, jet lag or other reason can lead to a whole host of health problems. Sleep is not a passive state where your body and brain shut off, but rather a highly active state where the day’s events are processed and energy is restored. The brain is active during sleep and moves through different stages throughout the night.

What are the stages of sleep?

The two recurring stages of sleep include non‐rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM) and both play an essential role in preparing us for the day ahead. We usually complete several sleep cycles each night.2

  • NREM sleep is made up of four stages and makes up ¾ of our sleep time:2
    • Stage 1 is the transition to sleep and consists of dozing or drowsiness.
    • Stage 2 is a ‘light sleep’ state where we lose awareness of our surroundings, our temperature drops and breathing and heart rate slow down.
    • Stage 3 and 4 is our ‘deep sleep’ state where blood pressure, heart rate and breathing become very slow and our muscles relax. This is the stage in which growth and repair processes occur.2 It’s difficult to be woken from this stage of sleep, but if you are, you’ll probably feel disoriented, groggy or confused.
  • REM sleep occurs after every 90‐120 minutes of deep sleep and makes up the remaining one‐quarter of our night’s sleep. In the REM stage our eyes move rapidly (hence the name), breathing becomes irregular and our blood pressure rises. This is the stage where the majority of dreaming happens.

How much sleep does my body need?

There is no magic number for how much sleep you need as it will differ among individuals. The amount of sleep you require to perform at your best might be different to someone who is of the same age or gender. As a general guide, experts have agreed upon the following sleep needs.3

Age Sleep needs
Newborns (0‐2 months) 12‐18 hours
Infants (3‐11 months) 14‐15 hours
Toddlers (1‐3 years) 12‐14 hours
Pre‐schoolers (3‐5 years) 11‐13 hours
School‐aged children (5‐
10 years)
10‐11 hours
Teens (10‐17 years) 8.5 – 9.25 hours
Adults 7‐9 hours

In addition to using this table, it’s a good idea to look at your sleep habits to identify how much sleep your body needs. See how you respond to different amounts of sleep paying careful attention to your mood, energy and health. It might also be a good idea to check whether going to bed before midnight, yet still getting the same amount of sleep, makes any difference. Also ask yourself how often you get a good night’s sleep? If you are unable to think of the last time you had a good sleep, it might be time to change your sleep habits.

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