The average adult needs seven to nine hours of sleep, but what science has come to understand is that not all hours are equal. Spending seven hours in bed doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting the rest you need.

Sleep quality, sometimes called sleep efficiency, is just as, if not more, important than the overall amount of time you spend asleep. Sleep efficiency is how many hours you’re actually sleeping versus the number of hours you spend in bed. You can spend seven hours in bed and only sleep for five hours. Efficient sleep, the restful kind that gives your body adequate time for repair, recharge, and rejuvenation allows your body get the rest you need for better physical, mental, and emotional health.

Why Sleep Efficiency Matters

You need to reach five sleep stages during each of five or six 90-minute nightly sleep cycles. While the time you spend in each sleep stage varies, they’re all necessary. For example, during stage III sleep, the body releases growth hormone, which triggers muscle recovery. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the deepest of sleep stages, is necessary for memory consolidation and learning. Disrupted or shortened sleep cycles cause your body and mind slow down and become vulnerable to illnesses and disorders such as diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

Improving your sleep efficiency may take a few changes and some patience, but your health is worth it.

Improve Your Sleep Quality

Many of your personal habits and behaviors, as well as health and environmental conditions, can get in the way of efficient sleep. However, many of these factors are under your control and can be improved.

Healthy Sleep Environment

Loud noise, bright light, and an old, lumpy mattress can all get in the way of your ability to sleep. Until your body consistently follows a sleep schedule, you might have to take extra care with your sleep environment. Block out as much light as possible. Bright light, even that from electronic devices, can signal the brain that it’s time to be awake and suppress sleep hormones. Try using blackout curtains, heavy drapes, or blinds and shut off your devices two to three hours before bed to prevent sleep disruptions or delay.

If aches and pains keep you tossing and turning, you may need to look into a new mattress. In general, most people sleep best on a medium-firm mattress. Take your time and find one that supports both your weight and preferred sleep position.

Sleep Disorders

Sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, and insomnia are only a few of the disorders that can get in the way of efficient sleep. If you experience excessive or loud snoring, frequent waking, and/or difficulty falling asleep even after making repeated attempts at improving sleep behaviors consult your physician to see if you may have an underlying sleep disorder. There are a variety of treatments available from mouthguards to CPAP machines, but your physician is the one who can help you decide what might work best for you.

Good Sleep-Related Behaviors

Your daytime behavior affects your ability to sleep, too. You improve your chances of getting high-quality sleep when you:

    • Keep a consistent bedtime

    • Eat regularly spaced and timed meals

    • Exercise regularly, but not within four hours of bedtime

    • Avoid stimulants within four hours of bedtime

  • Spend plenty of time outside, especially in the morning

Improving your sleep efficiency takes consistent effort. However, as your sleep quality improves, start to notice the benefits and wonder how you ever lived without adequate sleep.

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