Good quality sleep is essential to daily performance, muscle recovery, and overall well-being. So, if your body is trying to tell you it’s not getting the rest it needs, the deficit is sure to catch up with you eventually. But the signs of poor sleep quality are easy to miss.
It’s not just a matter of counting the number of hours of sleep you get. “Experts typically recommend between seven to nine hours of sleep per night, but it is dependent on age and lifestyle and it’s also important to keep a consistent sleep schedule to avoid sleep troubles like sleep debt,” says Frida Rangtell, PhD, sleep educator and science advisor at Sleep Cycle.
Of course, you want to make sure your sleep duration offers the most benefits, so you’re truly making the most of the hours and waking up more refreshed come morning.
What counts as good sleep quality?
Good quality sleep is not only about the number of sleep hours we clock in but also about timing, our sleep regularity, and the quality, as we slumber. “Sufficient sleep quantity is irrelevant if the sleep is low quality, and if you do not get enough sleep, you may miss out on crucial time in each different sleep stage,” she says.
During the night, our bodies cycle through four sleep stages, which all have important functions. REM sleep is important for memory, learning, and creativity. “There is an increase in brain activity during REM sleep, as this is when dreams are most likely to occur and REM sleep can be anywhere from 0 to 60 minutes of your sleep cycle,” she says. A healthy REM cycle will mean a longer duration.
Good sleep quality will leave you feeling energized and refreshed when you wake up. “You will be sleeping through the night with few-to-no disturbances and you will be falling asleep easily and potentially wake up naturally due to your trained circadian rhythm,” she says. People experiencing good sleep quality typically don’t think about sleep as much since it is not causing any issues.
The most common signs of poor sleep quality
1. You fall asleep too fast
Yes, falling asleep too fast can be problematic–despite the assumption that it’d be beneficial to just drift away within seconds. “Falling asleep quickly could be a sign of too little sleep,” says Dr. Rangtell. While you don’t want to have to lay in bed awake for too long, you also don’t want to be so sleep deprived that you fall asleep too quickly and often don’t get high quality sleep, either. “You may perceive that when you finally sleep, you fall asleep fast and sleep quite deep, even if you don’t sleep for enough hours–this is likely because you have built-up sleep debt and thus high sleep pressure.”
A high sleep pressure increases deep sleep, and when we finally get recovery sleep, we may have increased deep sleep and REM sleep as a rebound effect. “The best way to avoid this is to try getting sufficient sleep each night, so you don’t build up sleep debt,” she says.
2. You can’t fall asleep fast enough
Not being able to fall asleep at night is also an issue–there’s that happy medium. “A lower sleep pressure can decrease deep sleep and make it more difficult to fall asleep at a regular bedtime, as well as taking a nap close to bedtime, which lowers our pressure to sleep and makes it more difficult to fall asleep,” says Dr. Rangtell. Consider your bedtime and schedule naps earlier in the day to avoid excess stimulation at night.
3. You Wake Up Often During the Night
“If our sleep is fragmented and we wake up or almost wake up very often, sleep quality can be lower, even if we get enough hours asleep,” says Dr. Rangtell. If sleep is disturbed, you might get too little of some sleep stages or the sleep cycles may become disrupted, resulting in excess fatigue during the day, despite sufficient hours of sleep.
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4. You’re Chronically Fatigued in the Day
Another sign of poor sleep quality is feeling constantly tired throughout the day, where no matter the sufficient number of hours, you’re still fatigued and ready to get back into bed.
What’s more, it could also impact your mood. In addition to lethargy, if you are moody or irritable, or if you are struggling to focus, you likely have poor sleep quality too. “Your mind and body will feel the effects of poor sleep quality which is why it’s important to schedule enough time for sleep so that you do not run the risk of missing out on the time you need for each sleep stage in the sleep cycle,” says Dr. Rangtell.
How to improve sleep quality
To improve sleep quality, try doing some physical activity during the day, avoiding naps (or scheduling them earlier during the day), practicing relaxation, finding good strategies to deal with stress and emotions, and reducing alcohol and caffeine intake as well as time intake wisely, so not too close to bedtime, for example.
Going outside during the day is helpful, as light is important for your circadian rhythm and helps trigger the sleep-wake cycle. Take lunch outdoors or go for a walk to stretch your legs and break up the workday. “Taking a warm bath or shower in the evening can also make it easier to fall asleep and aid in deep sleep,” says Dr. Rangtell. So, enjoy a nice soak to unwind and get ready for a high quality, restful sleep.
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