Getting good quality sleep can help you feel like your best self. Healthy sleep patterns improve learning, memory, creativity, and mood. Healthy sleep also strengthens the immune system and makes it easier to maintain a healthy diet.
In contrast, if you aren’t getting healthy sleep, you might feel slow, foggy, depressed, and low-energy. Sometimes, it is obvious when you are not sleeping well. In other cases, poor sleep and its adverse effects accumulate gradually, so it’s possible to become accustomed to them without recognizing the impact they are having on your health and life.
Take a step back and consider your sleep habits and your nightly experience of sleep. Not only does healthy sleep requires successfully sleeping for a certain number of hours, it also means getting quality, uninterrupted sleep over the course of those hours and doing so with consistency.
Sleep is a complex process that affects our entire body. When we sleep, we cycle through a series of sleep stages, from light sleep (stages 1 and 2) to deep sleep (stage 3) and then rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Successfully cycling through all of these sleep stages multiple times each night allows sleep to perform its critical function of restoring our bodies and minds. You will reap the greatest benefits from sleep when you get enough hours of sleep each night, have sleep that is relatively uninterrupted, and maintain a consistent sleep schedule suiting your natural circadian rhythms. Learn more about each of these components of a healthy sleep pattern below.
Getting a healthy amount of sleep is a key part of a good sleep pattern. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that most adults get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night and that older adults over 65 years of age get between 7 and 8 hours. The rapid growth and development of youth means that children need additional hours of sleep, with specific recommendations varying by age. Babies might need up to 17 hours per night, while the range for teens is 8 to 10 hours.
These guidelines can be helpful to use as a starting place when you think about what healthy sleep means for you, but keep in mind that each person’s sleep needs vary. Depending on factors such as your genetic makeup, daily schedule, and activity level, you may need more sleep than the guidelines suggest, or you may thrive on less.
Quality sleep is continuous. Sleeping straight through the night with minimal disruption is more restorative than having your night’s sleep interrupted frequently or for long periods of time. Disrupted sleep interferes with the natural process of cycling through all four stages of sleep and may keep you from getting a healthy amount of deep sleep and REM sleep. For example, people with sleep apnea experience brief partial awakenings due to lapses in breathing during the night. Sleep duration for these individuals often appears to be normal, but because they experience interruptions in sleep, they suffer from the effects of sleep deprivation.
Evidence suggests that getting continuous sleep serves critical roles in the support of our brain and body functioning and that continuous sleep is at least as important as sleep duration. A research study found that participants who had greater sleep continuity performed better on cognitive tasks the next day, an effect that was independent of the total amount of sleep.
The timing of your sleep in a 24 hour period is also important. Circadian rhythms involve integration between your body’s internal clock and cues from the environment. Light is the most important regulator of circadian rhythms. Light triggers biological processes that cause us to feel awake, while dim lighting or darkness initiates chemical changes that promote sleep. When sleep timing is not aligned with circadian rhythms, as is the case for many shift workers or people experiencing jet lag, it is more difficult to fall asleep, stay asleep, and get enough hours of sleep.
Additionally, maintaining a regular bedtime promotes healthy sleep. Researchers who shifted the typical sleep schedule in mice found that even though the mice retained their usual sleep duration, their sleep quality suffered. In people, maintaining a regular bedtime is associated with a reduced risk for adverse health effects such as obesity and diabetes.
On the other hand, a sleep pattern that isn’t healthy comes with characteristic indicators as well. If you’re chronically sleep-deprived, or if the quality of your sleep each night is poor, you might show certain symptoms, such as the following:
If one or more of these signs sounds like you, start by examining your sleep hygiene practices to see whether you can promote better sleep by changing your environment, adjusting your daily activities, and establishing a bedtime routine.
If you aren’t sure how to implement healthy sleep habits in your life, talk with your doctor. It’s also important to speak with a health professional if you already engage in good sleep hygiene practices and continue to struggle with sleep or if you are concerned that you may have a sleep disorder. Your doctor can help you evaluate factors that could be impacting your sleep and discuss strategies or interventions to help you sleep better.