Quality Sleep: How to Get a Night of Rest and Restoration

by Wesley G. Vaughn

Sine Wave

If someone tells you, “It’s not how long you sleep, but how well you sleep,” they’re half right. It’s both. Research studies show us that quantity and quality of sleep are correlated and work together. We cannot have quality sleep unless we have enough sleep. On the other hand, staying in bed for a certain amount of time does not automatically provide us with much needed rest, relaxation and restoration. Sleeping long but not sleeping well may be called “Empty Sleep Calories.”

So, what makes quality sleep? What factors contribute to sleep quality? A lot of sleep research results are available on these questions. Experts may differ on some points or have separate emphases, but there is a great deal of consensus in their conclusions and recommendations. Among factors affecting the quality of sleep are our beds, especially mattresses.

Sleep is not shut-down time for the brain, though it is a suspension of conscious activity. The brain still functions during sleep, but its functions differ from those of waking hours. And sleep is not just “sleep.” There are actually two stages of sleep in a sleep cycle: deep sleep and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Each has its own primary function. A person normally has two or three full cycles in a night of sleep of 6 to 9 hours, more often 2½ cycles.

What do these cycles have to do with the quality of sleep? Here is where quality intersects with quantity. Most people require at least two full cycles. Each stage has to run its course, which is about 1½ hours long, especially deep sleep, making a cycle about 3 hours long. This adds up to about six hours for two cycles, which is why most persons need at least six hours of sleep.

During REM, the brain is setting memory, sorting things out, resetting parameters, etc. This is the stage when we dream. Most dreams we don’t remember, a few we do. If they seem crazy, it’s because the brains is putting pieces in our memories together to see if they fit, much as we might do with a jigsaw puzzle. Studies show that students who have REM sleep stages do better than those who don’t.

Deep sleep is when the rest of the body is refreshed and restored, which includes building muscles, tendons and bones and repairing tissues. This is why rest is so important for healing.

What factors contribute to quality sleep or impair it? First, since it is so important to complete the sleep cycles, it is vital that they are uninterrupted. Quality sleep is uninterrupted sleep.

Three words seem to summarize all the suggestions for quality sleep: precaution, consistency and comfort. Precaution is what we do or don’t do before bedtime to prevent interruptions or other hindrances to sleep. Consistency is setting and abiding by schedules and routines. Comfort is making yourself comfortable while sleeping and avoiding discomfort.

Precaution begins with adjusting the sleeping environment—the bedroom itself, lighting, sound and distractions. The space itself will affect some people and how easily they fall asleep. This is personal, for some can’t sleep when they feel crowded, while others need to feel cozy. We don’t all have the option of remodeling the bedroom, especially if we are renting, but how we furnish and arrange the bedroom can make it feel roomier or cozier.

Light can interfere with sleep, especially natural light, which our bodies are programmed treat as a signal to awaken. Preparation for sleep may include shades, blinds and drapes to block outside light, especially for night shift workers or if in a well-lighted neighborhood, such as in many cities. We also need to dim, hide or turn off bedroom devices which emit light. One exception is a night light, which may provide a feeling of security for some sleepers, as long as it is neither too bright nor shining directly into the eyes.

Sounds can awaken us or otherwise degrade sleep. Try to close out sounds or use white noise to counter them. Soft music may detract from noises. Some people may have to use earplugs.

Distractions are not always making noise or shining lights. Just having and using some items such as a computer or TV in the bedroom may be a distraction, since the bedroom is associated with related activities. A bedroom is more restful if associated with sleep.

Precaution also includes avoiding things or activities which make it more difficult to sleep. Among these are caffeine and other stimulants too close to bedtime. Since they tend to keep us awake, these should not be taken or consumed within three to five hours of going to bed, depending on your sensitivity. Heavy meals should be eaten earlier in the day, but a light snack may make us more relaxed. A sip of water at bedtime may be OK, but a full glass should be an hour to an hour-and-a-half earlier. Cease activities which keep us stirred up early enough to relax. A common hindrance to falling asleep is the mind that can’t quit.

Consistency sets a pattern which leads us into sleep. Set regular times for going to bed and for getting up. Choose pre-bedtime activities which relax us, such as light reading, soft music, a shower or warm bath. Lower the light levels earlier in the evening. Do whatever it you can to tune yourself to sleep. The sooner we fall asleep, the more time we have to complete our sleep cycles. Briefly, consistency means establishing habits which lead to quality sleep.

Comfort is more important than some might think. More than a luxury, a certain degree of comfort is necessary for needed quality sleep. If for any reason we become uncomfortable while sleeping, it may interfere with the stages of sleep. Several factors are involved with comfort. Among these are position, temperature, disturbances, pain & soreness, skin irritations, and the feel of the bed and bedding.

The easiest and least expensive means of adjusting ones comfort is the sleeping position, but that belies its importance. Our position influences how we feel by affecting our breathing, our spinal posture, our circulation, etc.

How we breathe determines the oxygen level in our bodies, and the body needs oxygen to function, to build and to repair itself. If we struggle to breathe, the struggle interferes with relaxation and can break or degrade a sleep stage. Generally, for most people breathing is easier when sleeping on one side or the other than on the back. One drawback is that pressure points are more acute sleeping on ones side. Another is that many persons tend to curl up when sleeping on their sides, and this can result in a stiff back in the morning, so stretching out is recommended for side sleepers.

Many people sleep on their backs. Ideally, this requires some elevation of the head. the spine has a natural “S” curve, and lying on ones back on a flat surface can be hard on the back, However, if the knees are elevated slightly, this will keep the spine in its normal posture. Sleeping on the back is not recommended if snoring or sleep apnea are problems. However, nose strips are now available to keep the nasal passages open.

A few people have to sleep on their stomachs to breathe easily. This is especially so if one is struggling with nasal allergies or a cold, because the face-down position diverts fluids away from the throat. But stomach sleeping is hard on the back without proper support and an open space for the nose and mouth. Pillows can be arranged to provide for this.

A moderate temperature is neeedful for comfortable sleep, not too hot nor too cold. Our metabolism level drops when we fall asleep, so the room temperature should be a little lower at night than during the day, but not too cool. Some, such as those with asthma, may need cooler air to breathe, so they need warm nightclothes and bedding to keep the body warm while the room temperature is cool. If the house temperature is kept low for economic reasons, insulating covers are a necessity.

Being too warm also disturbs sleep. Air circulation helps sleepers cool off. But so does mattress design. Some mattress materials may keep us too warm, even hot. Memory foam, for instance, naturally absorbs heat, and accumulated body heat makes it hot. Memory foam is valued for its conforming support, which relieves pressure points, so manufacturers have found ways to keep it cool. First, the foam is structured or ventilated to let air flow through it. Also, gel and/or other heat conducting substances are added to the foam to carry heat away from the sleeping surface.

Another method of temperature control now being used is Phase Change Materials (PCMs). Developed for NASA to use in space suits, PCMs absorb heat when it’s too hot and release heat when it’s too cold. Now they are used in some types of outerwear, sleeping bags and mattress covers.

Discomfort is also caused by feeling “clammy.” Some clothing and mattress cover materials wick moisture away to evaporate. This both keeps the sleeper dry and has a cooling effect. Controlling moisture also controls other moisture related problems, such as the growth of bacteria, mold and mildew.

Allergic reactions cause irritations and discomfort, which disturb sleep. Allergens may be items in the bedroom, clothing and bedding materials, soaps we wash and shower with, fragrances, even laundry detergents and fabric softeners. If we have allergies, we will sleep better by ridding our sleeping environment, including beds and bedding, of allergens.

We may not be able to control everything, there are ways we can improve the quality of our sleep through taking precaution, establishing consistent sleep promoting patterns, and doing what we can to provide comfort for sleep.

The next article focuses on how mattresses, bedding and adjustable beds influence our quality of sleep.


Resource links

Help Guide Organization: http://www.helpguide.org/life/sleeping.htm

Sleep Cycle: http://www.sleepcycle.com/faq/how-is-sleep-quality-calculated/

Healthy Sleep:

Sleep Medicine Institute, University of Pittsburgh:

WebMD: http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/features/sleep-position-and-sleep-quality

Mayo Clinic:

Nat’l Sleep Foundation, Study: Physical Activity Impacts Overall Quality of Sleep:

NIH, The Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index: a new instrument for psychiatric practice and research:

Sleep Number (Select Comfort):

NIH, Sleep Disorders:


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This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 12th, 2014 at 5:59 PM and is filed under bedrooms, beds, furniture, mattresses, sleep . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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