Both the quality of sleep and the amount of time we spend sleeping have been at the forefront of health considerations for quite some time. Recommendations from the CDC suggest adults should get no less than 7 hours of sleep over a 24-hour period.
Adolescents, on the other hand, should get anywhere from 8-10 hours in the same span of time (though two-thirds report getting less than eight hours of sleep each night). And when long-term sleep duration is less than 7 hours per night, the risk of being diagnosed with a chronic health condition like diabetes, asthma, cancer, depression, and even arthritis begins to rise.
While many of us claim to get enough sleep each night, often times we’re simply recalling the amount of time we’ve spent lying in bed. But as most of us know, there’s a stark difference between resting in bed perusing the internet and laying in bed fast asleep. To understand the many facets of sleep quality and quantity, it pays to know a thing or two about sleep efficiency. Let’s learn how to improve sleep through this concept.
The Basics of Sleep Efficiency
Sleep efficiency is the ratio of time spent asleep at night compared to the amount of time spent in bed. For example, if a woman spends 10 hours in bed but only sleeps for 8 of those hours, her sleep efficiency for that night would be 80%. This is calculated by taking the amount of time asleep and dividing it by the amount of time spent in bed, multiplied by 100%. The formula for sleep efficiency would look something like this:
(Time spent asleep / Time spent in bed) × 100 = Sleep efficiency
If, for example, a college student spent 5 hours in bed but only slept for 2 of those hours, their sleep efficiency would be the equivalent of (2 hours asleep / 5 hours in bed) × 100 = 40%.
An individual that spends the majority of their time asleep while in bed is said to be sleep efficient and to possess a high sleep efficiency. But an individual that spends a large portion of time awake while in bed is not considered sleep efficient and possesses a low sleep efficiency, a trait common amongst those with insomnia or other sleep disorders.
As most of us know from years of personal experience, efficient sleep is characterized by very few nighttime interruptions and greater amounts of energy throughout the day. Inefficient sleep, meanwhile, is characterized by sleep disruption that leaves us feeling tired or restless. To ensure good sleep efficiency, the total amount of time spent in bed should be solely devoted to the total sleep time, rather than any amount of time being devoted to waking activities.
Different Sleep Efficiency Rates
Sleep efficiency rates have a tendency to vary from person to person. As a result, sleep efficiency rates are categorized to determine what a healthy rate is and what can be improved upon.
For instance, a sleep efficiency anywhere above 90% is considered very good. A sleep efficiency of 85%-90% is considered normal. Any sleep efficiency rating below 85% is poor, and the individual should strive for more efficient sleep. Sleep efficiency ratings below 75% are poor and can be indicative of sleeping disorders like insomnia. These rates have been outlined in detail below.
- 90% or higher = very good sleep efficiency
- 85%-90% = normal sleep efficiency
- < 85% = poor sleep efficiency
- < 75% = sleeping disorders may arise
Getting to Know the Stages of the Sleep Cycle
In order to fully understand how healthy sleep occurs (and how we can obtain it), it pays to know the sleep cycle stages that we each experience as we drift off into dreamland. These sleep stages can be broken down into five distinct categories, each one characterized by factors that include heart rate, brain waves, and the movement of the eyes when the eyelids are closed.
Stage 1 of the sleep cycle is characterized by light sleep as you drift in and out. Your eyes move slowly, your muscle activity is slow, and you would be easy to wake if someone tried.
In stage 2 of the sleep cycle, your body commences the necessary preparations for deep sleep. Eye movements and brain waves start to slow down, your body temperature drops, and your heart rate slows.
In the third stage you have finally reached deep sleep. Extremely slow brain waves called delta waves are intermixed with smaller, faster brain waves. The movement of your eyes begins to increase as well.
In stage four, you stay in deep sleep and your brain almost exclusively produces slow delta waves, guiding you toward the fifth and final stage of sleep.
Stage 5 is referred to as the rapid eye movement stage, or REM stage for short. During REM sleep, your eyes are closed but they continue to move rapidly from side-to-side. This is due to both intense dreams and the brain activity that occurs in this stage. It is also during this stage and stage 4 that restorative sleep occurs as the body and mind heals itself after a day of being up and awake.
Now that we know how sleep efficiency rates work and what the stages of the sleep cycle are, it’s time to discuss some of the ways we can seek to improve our sleep efficiency.
Create a Healthy Sleeping Environment
Attempting to fall asleep in an unhealthy sleeping environment is a recipe for disaster. If the lights are shining, music is playing, or your phone is within reach, chances are your sleep efficiency rate will decline as you lay in bed without truly falling asleep. This is when sleep deprivation can take hold if you’re not careful, as nights lying awake in bed will stop you from getting the amount of sleep you need.
To combat these potential negative distractions, turn the lights out and ensure the room is completely dark, thus creating an environment suitable for proper sleep. Cover or remove any lights that blink, flash, or interrupt your nightly routine. From there, leave your phone in a separate room — phone screens have a tendency to produce stimulating brain waves that can keep you awake, along with sounds and tones that act as triggering mental alarms. Be sure your bed and your bedroom are spaces free from sleeping distractions so you can spend your total time sleeping in a space devoted solely to sleep.
Follow a Sleep Schedule
While our day-to-day schedules may change, it’s important to maintain the “internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and repeats roughly every 24 hours,” as noted by Sparta Science We refer to this internal process as our circadian rhythm. Try to follow this rhythm naturally by following the same sleep patterns every single night.
Practice the same healthy habits before bed that prepare your mind for sleep, such as reading a book or drinking water, and go to bed at the same time each night if possible. Try to wake up at the same time each morning as well. Following a sleep schedule can lead to increased sleep efficiency rates and an increased sense of well-being as the body grows acclimated to sleeping and waking at specific times. Though you may not know it, your body benefits greatly from this sense of routine.
Consult a Sleep Specialist
While we’d all like to fall asleep quickly and stay asleep throughout the night, some of us simply aren’t capable of doing so. Conditions that include sleep apnea, insomnia, and even narcolepsy are all common roadblocks to a healthy night’s sleep.
If you think you may have one of these conditions, seek help from a sleep specialist. For instance, those suffering from insomnia would benefit from undergoing cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, or CBTI. Others may need medication, or they may be able to solve their problem with something as simple as a new mattress.
If you find yourself repeatedly struggling to attain a healthy night’s sleep or if your sleep efficiency rates are consistently low, consider reaching out to a healthcare professional who can lend a hand.
Take a Few Extra Steps for Better Sleep
While creating a healthy sleeping environment, sticking to a sleep schedule, and even consulting a specialist are some of the most important ways we can improve sleep efficiency, there are a few extra steps we can take along the way.
For instance, consider creating a sleep diary that you contribute to each morning after waking up. Take time to log how your sleep felt throughout the night, what worked to help you fall asleep, what posed a distraction, and what you can do to ensure you either maintain or create sleep patterns that will contribute to better sleep efficiency rates in the future.
You can also use one of the many apps designed to help you log and track your sleep over days, months, or even years. In these apps you can document when you notice sleepiness during the day, how your sleep felt, and with the help of a sleep tracker, even the total time of actual sleep versus time spent awake in bed. From there you can fine-tune your habits and achieve the best possible rates of sleep efficiency.
We All Need Sleep
Sleep is one of the most underrated yet important things we can focus on to ensure we’re maintaining our personal health. By calculating our sleep efficiency and improving upon that figure if need be, we’re providing our body with the care it craves and deserves.
If your sleep efficiency rating is low, use the tactics listed above to make improvements. And if need be, don’t hesitate to reach out to a specialist for help. While each of us may sleep differently, it remains something we all need, every day.