Whether you’re getting only five hours of shut-eye or snoozing through your morning alarm, we all need a healthy amount of high-quality sleep to remain productive, attentive, and ready to conquer the day.
Yet, many fail to realize that a clear distinction exists between quality sleep and sleep that does little for your overall health. While getting eight hours of sleep per night may sound healthy upon first glance, it’s the quality of your sleep, not just the quantity, that truly matters. For this reason, sleep analysis has become an important benchmark that we can use to monitor our sleep and understand our overall health.
“The importance of tracking your sleep and sleep analysis rests on what an individual is trying to figure out,” says Dr. Christopher Winter, owner of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine and CNSM Consulting. “It’s important for us all to track our sleep, but it’s more important to think of why we’re tracking our sleep in the first place.”
So what exactly is sleep analysis? In short, sleep analysis is the process of monitoring your sleep patterns over time, with help from sleep trackers and fitness wearables, in an effort to ensure you’re receiving quality sleep. And if you’re not experiencing sufficient sleep, then the sleep data you collect can help you make informed decisions that will give you a chance to get better sleep.
Read on to learn more about the basics of sleep, what factors influence the quality of your sleep, and what you can do to track and analyze your sleepover time.
The Various Stages of Sleep
There are four primary stages of sleep to be aware of. We refer to these stages of sleep collectively as the sleep cycle.
The first stage of sleep is the lightest stage. It’s known for producing non-rapid eye movement sleep, or Non-REM sleep. During this light sleep stage, your eyes move slowly beneath your eyelids and you can be easily disturbed by your environment — noises or movement can wake you rather easily. Your muscles will slowly relax, your body temperature will drop, and your brain will transition into a period of rest as internal systems prepare for a more peaceful, deeper sleep in stage two.
The second stage of sleep occurs when your body begins to produce rapid eye movements (REM). This stage of sleep is also known for producing sleep spindles, which are short bursts of brain activity meant to protect your brain from waking during deep sleep. Unlike stage one of the sleep cycle, you can’t be woken as easily during this REM stage of sleep.
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The third stage of sleep is known as deep NREM sleep. During this stage, your brain will produce slow-waves as your body and mind work to heal themselves after a full day of activity. Abruptly waking up during this stage of sleep is uncommon, and sleeping events such as sleepwalking and sleep talking occur during this stage.
The fourth and final stage of sleep is known as REM sleep. This is where vivid dreams take place because your brain waves are more active than they are in stages two and three. Your eyes will again move back and forth, but only until your body starts the cycle over again. You run an increased risk of feeling groggy or suffering from sleep inertia the following day if you’re woken during REM sleep.
One sleep cycle will last anywhere from 100-120 minutes, and you’ll transition through four or five cycles per night.
Ensuring you reach each of the different stages of the sleep cycle is important, but there’s more to this story than meets the eye. “How we feel about our sleep can impact our daily performance more than how we actually slept,” notes Winter. “Belief about sleep really influences the way we report it to other people and the way we perform that day.” For this reason, it’s crucial that we not only transition through the four stages of sleep but that we believe in our ability to get beneficial sleep too.
What Factors Influence Your Sleep?
We collectively refer to the many sleep habits that determine whether or not you receive a good night’s sleep as sleep hygiene. Below you’ll find a comprehensive list of the internal and external factors that will influence your sleep.
Stress is a common feeling that has the ability to influence our sleep. When our bodies are responding to stressful or dangerous situations, often we’re left lying awake in bed wondering how we can get some rest. “Stress typically tends to lighten sleep,” says Winter. “We become much more aware of arousals or it makes it more difficult for people to get to sleep or even fall back asleep if they wake back up.”
The same sleepless outcomes are often reported by those who have anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions that have a tendency to influence our sleep duration and sleep quality.
Aches & Pains
It comes as no surprise that aches and pains in any form will influence our sleep. Be it muscle or joint pain or even a simple headache, these conditions bring on the discomfort that makes it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. “The quality of the sleep also influences how we heal,” notes Winter. “If you’re not sleeping well because of the pain, it makes it harder for you to get past the pain.”
Though a cup of coffee may seem enticing in the late afternoon as you try to make it through the day, the boost of caffeine can wreak havoc on your sleep.
“This can easily be a double-edged sword,” says Winter. “I may need stimulants like coffee to get through my day and not fall asleep behind the wheel, but if I take them too late or the timing is off, it really does influence how I sleep or how I feel.” Other stimulants such as alcohol can also interfere with a good night’s sleep. As a result, it’s best to avoid all stimulants before bed, even if they make you drowsy.
Shift work has the ability to alter your body’s circadian rhythm, which naturally determines when you feel sleepy, when you feel awake, and how often you wake during the night. Because shift work manipulates when you go to bed, your body’s internal clock will grow confused as it tries to find sleep patterns within your changing schedule.
“It’s not just sleep we’re talking about,” says Winter. “ Everything in our body is timed. It all works on a schedule, and when the schedule is in flux, it creates significant problems for the body beyond just feeling exhausted and poorly rested all the time.”
A sleeping environment that contains loud music, bright lights, and distracting electronics is no place to get healthy sleep. “That 24 hours of technology really does affect the brain in negative ways and sleep in negative ways as well,” according to Winter. Your sleep environment should be quiet and free of any distractions that prevent you from falling asleep and staying asleep.
“Sleep disorders are so much more common than people know,” says Winter. “They’re some of the most commonly undiagnosed disorders out there.” Disorders such as insomnia or sleep apnea influence the sleeping habits of millions around the world.
Whether these disorders are short-term problems or chronic issues, poor sleep as a result of a sleep disorder will stop you from getting the rest your body and mind crave. Sleep medicine can help you sleep better, but you should discuss your options with a healthcare provider before determining what you can do to overcome a sleep disorder.
Sleep Tracking With Modern Technology
Now that we have a solid understanding of how we sleep and what factors will influence our sleep, it’s time to examine sleep analysis in greater detail. To analyze our sleep, we rely upon sleep trackers, smartwatches, and other wearables that contain technology capable of monitoring sleep patterns.
Wearable sleep trackers will often do more than simply track sleep. In fact, many of these devices are fitness trackers that record your physical activity throughout the day and night.
For instance, a biometric tracker will monitor and analyze your sleep, as well as track other health metrics such as your heart rate and oxygen saturation. After the data has been recorded, it will sync with your phone via a health app that provides digestible information about your sleep habits.
“These devices can really help people understand when you’ve moved past what you can do on your own,” says Winter. “The field of sleep is wide open, and these devices might help you understand when you’ve progressed well past something you can fix by yourself.” If a sleep tracker is reporting information that you need help understanding or resolving, bringing that data to a sleep doctor or physician can be a crucial step toward achieving better sleep and better health.
Most devices that are capable of sleep tracking are worn around the wrist. These pieces of tech contain an accelerometer that detects body movements to determine whether you’ve had a restful or restless night of sleep. Some devices include sleep coaching technology that provides suggestions to help you get better sleep if there’s room for improvement.
Advanced sleep trackers will go one step further by evaluating your sleep quality based on the different sleep stages described above. These devices can produce graphs or visuals that pinpoint the amount of time spent in each sleep phase, thus highlighting when you slept well and when you didn’t.
Get Better Sleep With Sleep Analysis
These fancy devices aren’t just for show. The data they provide can help you get better sleep by providing critical insights into your nightly sleeping patterns. But remember that the information collected by these devices is only as useful as you make it out to be.
Tracking your sleep is important, but so is implementing healthy sleep habits that include eliminating distractions and seeking professional help if need be. Invest in a sleep tracker to analyze your sleep, learn what your sleep patterns are over time, and decide if you need professional help to get the healthy sleep your body and mind deserve.