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Understanding Sleep


Updated November 24, 2008

Sleep is a major part of our lives. However, researchers and doctors understand little about sleep and what it does for us. What we do know is that sleep has many health benefits and getting a good night’s sleep is the key to feeling energized every day. Understanding sleep can help you improve your health and may even extend your life.

Sleep Habits

Sleep habits are the key to getting a good night’s sleep. We can either train ourselves to fall asleep quickly every night, or we can train ourselves to lie awake in bed through bad habits. Exercise, caffeine, stress and other factors can influence the quantity and quality of our sleep. Changing your sleep habits can lead to greatly improve sleep quality and quantity.

Sleep Disorders and Sleep Problems

If changing your sleep habits doesn’t help, you may have a sleep disorder. The most common sleep disorders include:

The following situations can interfere with your daily Zzzzs as well:

Sleep Diagnosis and Treatment

You may have a sleep disorder if it takes you more than 30 minutes to fall asleep each night, you are tired during the day and you do not feel rested. If you think you might have a sleep problem, try these three steps:
  • Improve Your Sleep Habits: Make big changes in your sleep habits for 2 to 3 weeks to see if you can figure out what is causing you to sleep poorly.
  • Keep a Sleep Diary: Track your sleep and other behaviors for several days to make connections between your daily activities and your sleep quality.
  • Find a Sleep Center and Doctor: If your sleep doesn’t improve, take your sleep diary to a sleep center or sleep doctor near you for more testing.

Sleep Needs

Each individual’s sleep need varies. For the majority of adults, the daily sleep need is between 7 and 9 hours. Some people need even more than 9 hours and others need less than 7, but this is rare. If you are awake and alert during the day and feel satisfied with your sleep, then you are getting enough sleep.

Sleep and Aging

There is a myth that people need less sleep as they age. This is simply not true: Older adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night. However, good sleep is harder to get as we age because of health conditions, medications and other reasons. Protecting your sleep as you age will give you more energy and better health.

Sleep Myths

Other sleep myths include misunderstandings about the benefit of sleeping in to “catch up” on sleep, sleep in children, the benefits of napping and more. Clearing up these sleep myths will help you to make better decisions about your daily sleep habits.

Sleep Benefits

While we know that sleep makes us feel refreshed, there are many health and other benefits to a good night’s sleep. These include improving heart health, improving your memory and maybe even preventing cancer. Other benefits include improving your skin and helping you concentrate.


Napping can be a great way to increase your sleep and improve your energy. Napping has been shown to increase productivity and even protect against heart disease. Napping strategies will help you take effective, short naps and then go back to your day recharged.

Sleep Biology

Sleep is a complicated process consisting of five stages. These stages include falling asleep (stage 1), brain slow-down (stage 2), deep sleep (stages 3 and 4) and rapid eye movement (REM). In each stage, the brain and body act differently. During the night, we cycle through all these stages approximately every 100 minutes.

Circadian Rhythms

Throughout the day the body makes changes in various hormone levels. Some of these changes, known as circadian rhythms, control our wake/sleep cycle. By getting enough exposure to bright light and following other behavioral suggestions, we can work with our circadian rhythms help ourselves fall asleep fast every night.

Dreaming and Sleep

Of course, dreaming is one of the strangest and least understood parts of sleep. Dreams seem to be important in creating memories out of the day’s events and solidifying learning. Dreams can be extremely vivid, interesting and potentially meaningful to the dreamer.
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