The Science of Sleep: What's Wrong with It & How to Fix It

The Science of Sleep: Whats Wrong with It & How to Fix It
The Science of Sleep: Whats Wrong with It & How to Fix It

I have sleep issues. My interest in sleep began as a teenager, pulling the books on dream analysis off my psychiatrist stepfather's shelf... symbolism, Freud, and all that. We used to analyze my dreams together sometimes. He wasn't a huge believer in all that (nor was I, necessarily but I was exploring), but what he did find interesting was how often I dreamt... and remembered them. He said he hardly ever did (which was fine with him.) Even to this day, I barely go a night without dreaming, but I certainly long for those deep slumbers, where I slept well into the day (if my parents weren't feeling 'parental'), light and noise, or not. (FAQ: Teens need ~ 8-10 hrs/n to function best; 9.25, by most studies.)

These days I'm much more interested in sleep and wish I could stop dreaming all together (as I somewhat blame it for my messed up sleep cycles.) My dreams are most often literal, and I now believe simply the mind's way of categorizing and filing the daily detritus (and sometimes important events) of the day. For me, it's as straight-forward as see-something-dream-about-it. But sleep, sleep is so much more integral... and as I age, less efficient, evasive. One of my first questions on GAG was about insomnia. (No need to give more advice on that, thanks. It's a complicated topic to unravel and trust me, I've put the time in.)

Recently I did a bit more research, looking for info specifically on sleep cycles (as I suspect this is now my new main issue), and so read another article, an interview, and thought I would share some of the perhaps lesser-known takeaways with you, fyi.

Why is Sleep Essential?

1. To save energy

2. To help cells recover

3. To help process & understand our environment (aka “the synaptic homeostasis hypothesis”)

The 24-hr Circadian Rhythm

Every living organism is responsive to a circadian rhythm largely dictated by sunlight. Even bacteria in the ocean differentiate sunlight from darkness. The photo receptors in eyes pick-up on sunlight, controlling the release of melatonin and other neurotransmitters that dictate energy levels throughout the day. This is chronobiology.

Peak awakeness occurs during the morning. After lunch there is a glucose spike, especially if after a heavy lunch. That glucose spike combined with a circadian dip creates a period of fatigue between ~ 2-4pm. Then there is another spike in alertness right before dinner, before getting tired (hopefully around bedtime.) That’s the 24-hour circadian rhythm. (And note that it isn’t fixed. It’s changeable.)

The environmental cues we react to and that impact our circadian rhythm are called zeitgebers (bless the Germans.) The biggest zeitgeber is sunlight. Others are: the timing of meals, exercise, having a consistent bedtime; though a larger issue is the amount of time we now spend indoors. Without naturally-occurring sunlight, we become easily entrenched in non-natural rhythm.

The 3 Sleep Cycles

The stages of sleep are: light sleep > deep sleep > light sleep > REM... and repeat.

Light Sleep:

* The time during which new information is integrated into long-term understanding of the world.

* The more sleep, the more light sleep you have.

Deep Sleep:

* Long-burst brainwaves that are called delta waves.

* Human growth hormone, cell-recovery, and the ability to process new information are associated with deep sleep.

* What deep sleep does is all the neural processing.

* The first sleep cycle is very heavy in deep sleep.

* When sleep-deprived, there is increased deep sleep.


* Rapid-eye-movement sleep.

* Brainwaves are functioning similarly to waking life.

* REM sleep is the processing of information.

* The body is paralyzed.

* Thermo-regulation is lost, meaning if it’s hot in the environment, the body gets hot.

* Although most dreams do take place during REM sleep, more recent research has shown dreams can occur during any sleep stage.

Why Do We Wake Up Tired & Groggy?

When you wake up, you are in a state of 'sleep inertia.' It can last as long as 2 hrs. This is the cause for that pesky groggy feeling (and if sleep- deprived, it’s even worse.)

The causal mechanism is a lack of cerebral blood flow. It takes time for the brain to kick back into gear. This is accompanied by a gradual increase in brain blood flow to normal levels. It begins with the primitive parts of the brain (the brainstem and thalmus) and then spreads to anterior cortical regions after ~ 15 min. During this time basic cognitive tasks are impacted.

What makes it worse? Waking up at the wrong time, while in deep sleep creates worse inertia, making you feel more tired.

The right way to wake up is gradually. If sleeping a healthy amount, you’re getting almost no deep sleep by the end of the sleep, as the amount of deep sleep reduces over the course of the night. This means you’re less likely to wake up in deep sleep if you’re well rested, and therefore less likely to feel groggy.

Being a 'Morning Person' or 'Night Person' is Dictated by Your Genes

It is not a myth (or an excuse.) You do have genes that dictate being a morning or evening person. If you’re a morning person, it's referred to as a lark. If you’re a night person, a night owl. Your genes give you a greater proclivity to being one or the other. As well, some people have genes that make them advantageously very flexible (lucky you. You are fortunate, and rare.)

The History of Sleep & How Society is Changing Our Relationship with Sleep

There is some evidence that we used to go to bed when the sun went down, then later wake up for a bit, putter around, make sure there's no lions about, etc., then go back to sleep. So waking up in the middle of the night has been a part of civilization throughout history. Gallup, Inc. (analytics) has reported that over the past 50 years, we’re sleeping 1 hr less/night than we did in the 1950s. That's a lot. Much of it has to do with TV and mobile phones; add to that the lack of work/life balance. Fewer people continue to have a 9-5 schedule. This is especially true for independent freelance, contract, and creative jobs. Work used to be very manual, but as jobs are becoming more and more cognitive, caring for cognition is going to become increasingly important for proper functioning.

Tips for Improving Sleep

The most important factor conducive to productivity is rest. Often times people think they can fight and push through the fatigue, but sleep provides this most efficiently. It also stores newly-learned skills into long-term memory, with each sleep cycle. Here's another benefit: When transitioning in and out of sleep, the brain produces theta waves, which help you think more divergently. This is why after waking up, you are sometimes able to solve that intractable problem that you could not earlier in the day.

We need stimulus control - a cold, quiet environment, with no light, and no stress. Oh, and save the bedroom for sleep and sex.

Sound: Focus on sound. Quiet environments improve sleep quality, so blocking out noises is key. Even an A/C unit turning on will wake up the brain. If you can't stop noise, try gently drowning it out. Water, frogs or birds, anyone?

Temperature: Sleep experts say that a cool room, ~ 65°F/18°C is optimal. Everyone has different natural body temperatures, and men usually run hotter than women (likely due to higher muscle mass.) This can be a serious challenge, trying to create an environment with a partner with a different body temperature. You must do everything you can to find an acceptable balance for both, whether that means A/C on, heat off or low, window open, fewer blankets on the bed, or custom 2-sided bedding (and if in doubt, cooler wins - the science is with them.)

Light: No light. Not even blue light (or, especially not blue light.) Many studies confirm this. Options: Place cell phone in another room (out of sight, sort of out of mind), lower the screen brightness, use an auto-timed warming filter to remove blue and add red; Install blackout window treatments; Use a sleep mask.

Wearable Tech & Trackers

Ex: Fitbit. Fitbit is pretty accurate in measuring when you’re asleep and when you’re awake, but when it comes to measuring sleep stages, basically any device that measures heart rate (like the Apple Watch) is totally inaccurate. Why? Because they don’t sample at the frequency necessary to get an accurate reading on sleep stages. Fitbits can also create problems with all their tracking - causing you to stress out about the fact you think you’re not getting enough deep sleep, basing this on the false information of it not having accurately measured the sleep stages.

So, How Much Sleep Do We Need?

8.5 is the new 8. The standard in the literature is that healthy sleepers spend more than 90% of the time in bed asleep, so if you’re in bed for 8 hrs, a healthy sleeper might actually sleep for only about 7.2 hrs. It’s possible to have your sleep a little broken up, but getting 8 hrs is crucial. And in order to get 8 hrs, you need to be in bed for 8.5 hrs.


Portions transposed and edited from an interview by Georgia Frances King with sleep scientist Daniel Gartenberg.

My prior sleep question (Lots of advice for insomniacs here)

What techniques do you use to help fall asleep? Any insomniacs out there?

The Science of Sleep: What's Wrong with It & How to Fix It
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Most Helpful Guys

  • DCooper
    This is good stuff; I've always found sleep to be a fascinating topic. As far as the insomnia itself, I used to have quite a bit of trouble with it too, from about age 10 to 30. I tried several approaches to manage it, but the most effective one I found was actually THC. One or two hits off a bowl a half hour before bedtime, and all of a sudden I could get to sleep as simple as flipping a switch. Of course, once I hit the career world, that wasn't an option anymore, so I went back to wrestling with insomnia for another decade or so, before it just tapered off on its own.

    It's interesting that you consistently remember your dreams after waking up, I wonder if that is related to your insomnia...

    As I understand it, the dreaming brain is running through the things it has taken in during the day, cross referencing things with previous experiences from memory, and integrating things from short term to long term memory.

    During this phase, sleep paralysis kicks in to protect you from harming yourself while asleep. And glitches in the sleep paralysis mechanism manifest in mumbling, sleepwalking, in extreme cases even going for a drive while completely asleep.

    A similar automatic mechanism wipes the memory of dreams at the end of each rem cycle. This is likely the reason most of us can only remember a dream if we wake up in the middle of it. Even though many people think they hardly ever dream, studies have shown that every time someone is awakened during the right part of a rem cycle, they always report being in the middle of a dream. People wake up thinking they never had any dreams because that's been auto-deleted, in order to avoid seeming like new experiences and causing confusion.
    Is this still revelant?
    • AmandaYVR

      I am a proponent of THC (and CBD), but it generally hasn't agreed with me, most often. My husband's a pro (although not at dosing me!) When I needed it most, it always gave me heart palpitations, which is not uncommon (even with CBD. D'oh.)
      I loved my Ambien, so much, when I lived in the States (put me in a great mood, so happy, and I never slept walked or did any of that business. My husband loved it too, and me on it even more), but alas, the Canadian sublingual stuff is not the same and taste like crap. Diphenhydramine is like milque toast. I am way past that. I do have some CBD capsules by the bed, and I think lately they are doing the job, generally, but they're still very spendy. How they should ever cost over $2/pill is highway robbery.
      I've had all sorts of sleep issues over the years, but it was manageable until the past 5, with life circumstances. Not all problems are easily solved. Particularly when you're back to renting. Anyway, long story, tra-la-la. Never mind.
      That's interesting about the wiping mechanism. Hadn't heard that.
      Yes, I am definitely waking up in the wrong cycles. So often, right smack dab in the middle of a a dream, and I remember it. There's a battle going on inside my mind, somehow. Very frustrating.

  • Good Mytake. I always like to remember my dreams when I can. At one point I used to keep a dream journal so I wouldn't forget them (sadly I've fallen out of habit of doing this). I have recorded a few of my dreams and shared them here on gag before.

    For the most part I really enjoy dreaming, it's like going to the theaters every night. If there's one aspect of sleeping that I hate it's sleep paralysis, which I used to experience quite often. I figured a pattern that I believe stopped it from happening. Every time the paralysis kicked in was when I was sleeping on my back. I stopped doing that years ago and haven't had the problem since. I know I said I like to remember my dreams but as far as sleep paralysis goes, the story just isn't worth going through hell for.
    Is this still revelant?
    • AmandaYVR

      Wow, now that's a new piece of information - back sleep paralysis. I'll have to look out for that, see if it's the same with me. thanks.

    • DCooper

      When you mention sleep paralysis there, are you talking about regaining consciousness while sleep paralysis is still in effect? Was that like that nightmare of a malevolent entity sitting on your chest, like a lot of people have reported?

    • Yeah, I'm pretty sure its like being half conscious, half asleep. Your brain is active while your eyes are open, producing hallucinations onto your actual surroundings. But your body is still asleep so you can't do anything about it. So that thing sitting on your chest is just one of many things that'll haunt you.

    • Show All

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What Girls & Guys Said

  • jsincal
    I’ve had horrible sleep patterns. I’m very alert to anything as I have ADHD. It’s an archaic survival skill to being aware of my surroundings. I learn to accept it.

    Only thing that works is meditation.

    Other than that I embrace the learning I do when I read about physics, history, etc. and I usually get around 4 hours asleep. I’m fine with this as long as I’m not drinking, smoking weed, etc.

    I didn’t realize for a while I had control issues when I did self medicate.

    The cool part of my sleep is, is my ability to lucidly problem solve. If I’m spending hours on something intriguing I can dream through it and solve things and even learn.

    I got the best answers for finding certain word connections I hadn’t known before, between languages. Or even when I’m stuck programming, I’ll find my error in my dream.

    If I’m intensely learning a subject I’ll review things on a whole new level, and learn things deeper, the next day I’ll be better equipped to advance on.

    Just right now, I dreamt I was using a airplane bathroom, and immediately the airplane spiraled. The first thought I had was they were turning the direction. And it went on for a while. I double checked to make sure it was spiraling with a string in the air. It finally stopped and was straightened out. I opened the door and I look out the window and I can see Out the window and we are nearly toward the ground. But we’re trying to fight our way up. And I already knew it was going got crash. I went inside the bathroom because it was the only place I had time to for any sort of safety. And crash... it felt so real. There was no pain, it was dark, and there was no thought. I felt like I died. But I also felt like it’s alright. I then wake up to this morning, thankful for my life.

    For a while prior to this Dream, I was wondering how it would feel to be a victim on these sorts of flights. I felt so horrible for crash victims. I just can’t help but put myself into their shoes. How can one fully understand what victims go through?

    How were their last few minutes of being alive would be? Would they be spared the physical pain? Would it just be dark?

    From what I gather it would be something like my dream.

    I know this was at least partially conscious. But was ongoing in the background of things, and now I’m reconciled to the outcome and to the appreciation of life.
    • AmandaYVR

      Very interesting 📑 You have an active, lively mind.

    • jsincal

      😎 thank you. I was actually surprised to see your write up right after I woke up. I felt it was fitting to share this.

    • Mrsao

      Your not alone people

  • Lliam
    Interesting MyTake, Amanda.

    I'm a night owl. Sunset is like mid-day for me. Daytime is a time to be busy. But night time relaxes me and I can do things I enjoy.

    Once I'm up, I can stay awake for as long as I need to. I often go to bed quite late, lately around 2:00 but sometimes after 3:00 if there is something I want to complete. I have the luxury of waking up naturally, usually after 8 hours or so, because I'm not on a time schedule. Once I go to bed, I sleep very well.

    When I awaken, as you explained, my brain starts becoming more aware. Then I'll suddenly become conscious of that fact and realize it must be morning. I might look to see if the cat is in the bed. If she is, I'll move down to pet her. It's relaxing way to prepare to get out of bed. But I occasionally decide not to get up right away, roll over and close my eyes. That's when some of the most satisfying, relaxing sleep occurs. It's also at those times that I dream and remember those dreams. That extra sleep usually lasts almost exactly an hour. Then, suddenly, I'm awake again and ready to get up.
    So for me, I tend to put off going to bed but, once asleep, have a hard time getting up.

    I don't nap. I know people, including my wife, who can take a short nap and feel totally refreshed. When I nap, I fall into deep sleep and have a hard time waking up again. It's like having to go through the trauma of waking up twice in one day.

    I'm groggy when I wake up. It usually takes me a good hour or so to get up to speed. It helps if I have my coffee first thing. What weird is, I get a second wind in the later evening.

    My lifestyle has move a long way from those of cave men and farmers who got up with the sun and went to bed when it got dark.

    It just occurred to me to mention that it's easy to habituate the mind/body to wake up at a certain time. Say you have a new job and have to get up at a certain time. It doesn't take long at all for you to start waking up at that time automatically. And when I am used to waking up at a certain time, it doesn't matter what time I go to bed, I still wake up at the same time.
    • AmandaYVR

      Like you, I have always been a night person too. I just love darkness. Definitely more than sunlight. Sun is nice, cheery, but all that California, directly-overhead light just didn't suit me. I had forgotten what more northerly light is like - it is so low, angled, and diffused... yet runs late into the evening, with as late as 9:40pm sunsets. (But how can I start my cocktail if the damn sun won't go down? That is my rule.)

      I used to have a best friend who was the opposite. In our 20s when we would go out clubbing, and she would sleep over at my tiny apartment downtown, poor thing would wake up at her usual 6am, then lie there in the bed, having to think or read before night owl Amanda could bear to bring herself out of bed.
      But now, my damn body won't let me sleep in, hardly ever, and I realize how awful this is to simply lose out on sleep, if you go to bed late.
      I'm sure I've got many years ahead of all this nonsense, as both my mum and dad have hugely disrupted sleep too. Ah, genes.

      Anyway, thanks for the story, Lliam. Interesting as always. Mr. Storyteller. Are you going to tell us a fantastical tale of the phone book next? You could probably add some panache to even the most mundane. I'll put $20 down on that.

  • lumos
    Super informative, thank you! I also recently read that snoring affects your sleep a lot. People who snore tend to wake up more frequently and therefore disrupt their sleep cycle. They tend to feel more groggy in the morning as well. Children who snore also usually perform worse in school. So it's definitely worth looking into and possibly fixing if you snore.
    • AmandaYVR

      Thank you. No, I don't, unless I'm super congested. I have had lifelong allergies, and eventually in my 30s did get sinus surgery to clear up the infection, but I still often wake up sniffly in the mornings, depending on if something's blown in the room, either from the outside with the window open to keep the room cooler, or now from the a/c unit blowing. Still, I choose temperature over allergies. The allergies I can sort of fix with an occasional antihistamine (cetirizine seems to be the best one.)

    • lumos

      That's good to hear. I sometimes wake up a bit congested too, and I might even get a bit of a sore throat if it's dusty outside. But I also prioritize temperature over my nose/throat, because the temperature definitely helps me the most.

  • ryancg
    Eh I was in a coma for over a month, I've slept enough for one lifetime 😂. Nah, in all seriousness, I've had trouble sleeping ever since I got out of the hospital.
    • AmandaYVR

      Were you really in a coma?

    • ryancg

      Yeah, I was in a bad car wreck, and my lungs failed during one of the half a dozen surgeries.

    • AmandaYVR

      Wow. I'm sorry to hear that. Sounds absolutely awful.

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  • Bri_Happy
    I started sleeping better after me and my boyfriend broke up
  • LovingLover
    Very informative.
    It may be important to consider how much time we take to fall asleep.
    At first I was I was confused about whether 8.5 or 7.5 is correctamount of time. Then I re read and realised it means that we need full hours + a half in order to wake at the right cycle without feeling groggy...
    Correct me if in wrong.
    • AmandaYVR

      Yep, you got it.
      I understand the confusion. I also read it that way, when I was reading the interview with the sleep scientist. Maybe I should have re-worded it more. Ah well, 48 hr edit time has passed.

    • Hmm, well hopefully they read through comments or they can always ask you a question.

  • monkeynutts
    Great take, I don't know many people who don't have sleep problems. Ironically I like a little light, because I have to get out of bed at 5am. And ambient background noise helps me get to sleep, so I fall asleep to the television, or read a book. I don't get 8 hours constant sleep, but my body has its ups and downs throughout the day.
  • TomBham
    You said you took a lot of time to get all this info, how?

    It took me to get to this point around one evening... Without knowing any sources...

    It is good take, for this app, but it should not take years to gather this info...
    • AmandaYVR

      You're criticizing me but it's based on your misinterpretation of what I said.
      I said I've "put the time in" researching insomnia. I never said this mytake was an entire compendium of everything I've learned about insomnia.
      Most people prefer shorter articles, even if they are less comprehensive.

    • TomBham

      No it is based on experience reading stuff and seeing, what level of understanding person has when writing about something.

      You not even able do get criticism...

      I forgot that you dealing with not the brightest audience her, there is some bright bulbs here, but not a lot...

      Ok what do you mean by 'put the time in'? One evening 2 hours? That is a lot for big part of population, but

      In my book it means years of study on subject, that might be where misunderstanding comes from.

    • AmandaYVR

      I don't feel any obligation to explain that to you.
      You don't seem like someone I would want to invest time in having a conversation or exchange with.

  • ArrowheadSW
    I think being a night person tends to run in my family. My mom, myself, and my siblings, all tend to be night people. Our society is geared more to morning people though.
  • scorpy04
    Stretching is only a type of unlocking the body and shouldn't interfere it seems that you are over thinking which will cause you to fight sleep Have you tried music designed especially for insomnia
  • Jjpayne
    Crazy that I'm a night owl by my genes :) and 8.5 hours! Got it! :)

    Great my take!
  • Brendan824
    Sleep is easily one of the most understand aspects of life especially in this society we live in great information
  • msc545
    Thanks - very nice Mytake with good information about sleep!
  • farshealth
    wrong habits for sleep and Sleep apnea is important to elimination
  • FrePhill
    In one of my biology or psychology courses we focused on brain function during REM sleep. Our brain needs at least 8 hours of REM sleep per day to heal the brain. I listen to Dan Gibson Solitudes to get me to sleep and sometimes included melatonin. During our current world where we see rise of totalitarianism and apathy, we need as much sleep as possible for our brains to handle increased stress especially from fears of contention from Right-wing politics that struggles so hard to make people hate people and love vile grifters that master their skills of con & deception. We are witnessing devils in authority that hate truth, questions, and science. Keep your compass pointing for truth that has empirical facts to validate ethics.
  • mrgspoter
    8hrs I'd be luck for that in a week, but I think I'm just a 👽
    • How could you not get 8 hours of sleep in a week? That means you average less than 1 hour 8 mins 34 seconds of sleep each day. I doubt you coukd fubction properly in that little amount of sleep.

    • mrgspoter

      Yeah at its worse but I'm not as bad as you would think like I said 👽

  • Gedaria
    Thanks , I like that...
    wow... Q - Q... last night i have a dream
  • Joker_
    I don't sleep