With so much information floating around about sleep—not to mention all the data thrown at us from sleep trackers—it’s hard to know what good quality sleep looks like. The problem then is that we may be either too quick to self-diagnose or to dismiss things like sleep deprivation or other sleep problems, which can inhibit our ability to get better sleep.

Below, two of Proper’s expert sleep coaches, Kelly O’Brien and Lauren Hoogs, weigh in on what normal sleep should look like as well as common, real-life examples of misconstrued perceptions of sleep health.

There are different stages of sleep that the human body cycles through over the course of the night. The duration and purpose of each stage differ, as does the “type.” On the one hand, you have non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM sleep or non-REM sleep), which is known as quiet sleep. And on the other hand, rapid eye movement (REM sleep), which is more active.

Stage 1 (N1)

Duration: 5 - 10 minutes

What happens: Your brain activity begins to slow down. Although muscle twitches can occur, for the most part muscles are relaxing as your brain releases theta and alpha waves. Think of this as the “portal” into sleep.

Stage 2 (N2)

Duration: 10 - 25 minutes

What happens: Your core body temperature drops and muscles are fully relaxed. It’s a deeper sleep stage than N1, but you can still be awoken during this time without heavy stimulation.

Stage 3 (N3)

Duration: 20 - 40 minutes

What happens: This is the deep sleep stage, during which time it’s difficult to wake up. The brain releases low-frequency, high-amplitude delta waves that cause heart rates and respiration to slow down. This works wonders for the functioning and restoration of your immune system.

Stage 4 (REM)

Duration: 10 minutes (for the first cycle, although it can progress up to 90 minutes later on)

What happens: Brain waves are more active although muscles remain fully relaxed.

The body doesn’t go straight from N1 to REM sleep and back again. Instead, it cycles in this order four to five times throughout the night:

N1 → N2 → N3 → N2 → REM (multiplied by four or five)

Read more about the 4 stages of sleep and factors that affect them >>

Read more about your circadian rhythm and how to regulate it >>

90% is considered a normal oxygen level during sleep, with anything below 88% abnormal and below 80% severely abnormal. (1)

This is primarily a consideration for those with Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), a sleep disorder marked by temporary pauses in breathing throughout the night. It occurs when throat muscles relax (or your airway is reduced), partially or completely blocking the airway and leading to snoring (that’s often loud enough to be heard from the hallway outside your bedroom with the door closed) or gasping for breath.

As Lauren Hoogs points out, sleep apnea isn’t something that “just happens to you.” There are lifestyle and environmental factors that can trigger its development—and also help improve the situation. For example, a major risk factor for OSA is obesity; however, it’s also particularly common among menopausal women—studies indicate that about 20% develop some form of the condition. (2)

“I share this because I want people to feel empowered and know that those uncomfortable CPAP machines don’t have to be there forever,” says Hoogs. “Just because your sleep is abnormal now doesn’t mean it has to stay that way.”

Kelly O’Brien agrees.

“I’ve worked with clients who have made significant lifestyle improvements (weight loss) and didn’t realize that they should check back in with their sleep professional to adjust pressures (and, in one case, a follow-up sleep study showed no further need for the CPAP).

Most people’s sleeping heart rate falls to the lower end of what is considered a “normal resting heart rate”—that is, 60-100 beats per minute (bpm). However, for those with a generally low heart rate while awake, stages of deep sleep may cause their heart rate to fall below 60 bpm. (3)

Many clients come to Hoogs wanting more deep sleep...and she gets it. “Deep sleep feels really good!” But contrary to what many believe, our bodies don’t actually need that much of it.

In fact, research suggests that healthy adults spend just above 20% of their sleep in deep stages, with anything below 10% considered abnormal. (4)

“Understanding these general percentage breakdowns helps people become more realistic about what they are trying to accomplish with their sleep goals, especially if they like to track their sleep. Many trackers don’t actually give context to what’s normal, so people are left to analyze that data themselves, which leads to misinformed opinions or beliefs about their sleep.”

“It’s important to also be mindful that the data is subject to error and certainly not as reliable as an actual sleep study,” adds O’Brien. “Take the info with a grain of salt.”

Although the initial REM sleep phase lasts only about 10 minutes, the periods of REM sleep that follow as you progress through the night become longer and longer—this is why it’s important to prioritize a full night’s sleep, otherwise you’ll be cutting your share of REM sleep short.

In total, we spend about 20 - 25% of our time in the REM stage, which equates to roughly 90 minutes over the course of 7-8 hours of sleep.

Read more about the difference between deep sleep and REM sleep >>

Light sleep actually constitutes the majority of your sleep cycle. Between stages one and two, it’s normal to spend upwards of 60% of your time here. (5) And yet, it often gets a bad rap.

“People are constantly trying to spend less time here, but it’s actually what our body needs most,” explains Hoogs. “Usually people don’t like light sleep because they are having more disruptions, but there are behaviors you can do to minimize the likelihood of waking up during light sleep. I like to remind people that our body knows what it’s doing, and it takes what it needs when we fully support it in doing it’s job through our lifestyle and environment.”

One of the biggest sleep myths out there is that everyone, regardless of age, needs eight hours of sleep per night. While this may be true for some, it’s far too simplistic to apply a one-size-fits-all statement like this to something as complex and individual as sleep.

Here’s how sleep needs change by age, from newborns to older adults:

  • 0 - 3 months: 14 - 17 hours
  • 4 - 11 months: 12 - 15 hours
  • 3 - 5 years: 10 - 13 hours
  • 6 - 13 years: 9 - 11 hours
  • 14 - 18 years: 8 - 10 hours
  • 25 - 45 years: 7 - 9 hours
  • 46 - 65 years: 7 - 9 hours
  • 70 - 90 years: 7 - 9 hours

Something Hoogs reminds her clients is the importance of asking yourself: how rested do I feel?

“If you’re able to get through your day feeling energized and alert, then you’re probably getting enough sleep,” she explains. “Also, keep in mind that it’s normal to hit an energy lull mid-afternoon due to some physiological changes we experience. There are outliers to the eight-hour sleep need, so give yourself permission to explore that.”

Read more about how sleep needs change by age >>

Many of Hoogs’ and O’Brien’s clients track their sleep—and for good reason.

“It’s been said that the truth is in the tracking,” explains O’Brien. “Important details around certain behaviors can go unnoticed or seem insignificant. When we pay closer attention, we can gain powerful insights.”

Hoogs is in agreement.

“Data gives us the opportunity to find patterns we may not be conscious of yet. There are so many factors that impact our sleep patterns and sleep quality, and while some may be obvious, some are more insidious. The more detailed we are with our tracking, the more we can understand and peel back the layers that are impacting our sleep so we can get the sleep we need.”

However, the benefits are only gained with intentional, healthy tracking practices. Here’s what that entails and why it’s so important:

  • Remaining neutral and non-judgmental about the data
    “If we become self-critical or assign too much meaning to the data, it can cause activation or agitation that has a negative impact on our sleep quality,” says O’Brien.

  • Not letting data overpower what your body is telling you
    “I meet with plenty of people who look at their data and come up with conclusions that are totally out of line with what their body is actually telling them,” says Hoogs. “Your body will tell you what it needs if you listen, and data can make us deaf to that.”

  • Creating personal “rules of engagement” with tracking
    “Some find tracking in cycles helpful (X days on and X days off),” explains O’Brien. “Others might only check the data if they feel the night of sleep was less than ideal. Still others find that any tracking can be too activating, and they start overthinking all things related to sleep. It’s important to get a sense for what strategy might be the best fit for you.” 

There are certainly signs and symptoms that should serve as an indication that it’s time to consult a sleep specialist; however, there are also common misconceptions and misunderstandings about sleep that may cause someone to think their sleep is worse than it actually is.

  • Misunderstandings about awake time
    “People look at their tracker and think…man, I have all this awake time, and even though they don’t remember it, they think it’s bad,” explains Hoogs. “It is actually normal to wake up throughout the night; we just don’t remember it. So without that understanding we can easily misinterpret our sleep data.” “Many don’t realize that a few blips of wakefulness throughout the night can be typical,” adds O’Brien. “They wake up appropriately, then get frustrated and activated, chasing sleep away.”

  • Misunderstandings about “normal” vs “YOUR normal”
    “Having a strong sense of your individual sleep needs is an important place to start,” explains O’Brien. “It can be helpful to think back to a time when you felt your sleep was closer to your personal ideal (more effortless and refreshing). What was your sleep schedule like at that time (early bird, night owl, hummingbird)? Did you feel rested after seven hours? Need closer to nine? Or somewhere in between?”

  • Misunderstandings about total sleep time
    As explained above, not everyone requires eight hours of sleep per night. “This doesn’t take into account the bioindividuality of people,” says Hoogs. “Everyone’s sleep needs are different, and your sleep needs change throughout your life. By taking these general statements and making them your goal without exploring what’s actually true for you, you may start believing that your sleep is bad when really it could be perfect for what you actually need.”

  • Worried about early-morning awakenings
    One client that Hoogs recently worked with was struggling with early-morning awakenings. “It was a huge focal point of our conversation, and I was under the impression that this was an every-night experience by the way they were talking about it,” she explains. After more digging, however, Hoogs came to understand that these early-morning awakenings only occurred during the work week, which is certainly disruptive and something to focus on tackling. “But by focusing purely on the fact that there were ‘no good nights of sleep,’ this became a self-fulfilling prophecy.” 

  • Resigned to poor sleep
    Hoogs also recalls a client that believed that no matter what they did, their sleep just wouldn’t get any better. “They were convinced that they were going to have a bad night, and this created a bad relationship with sleep,” she explains. “As a result, they would push back their bedtime and deplete themselves from the sleep they actually desired to get. This became a domino effect that created multiple layers to their sleep issues; their relationship with sleep was only inflaming the sleep issues they were experiencing.” 

  • Feeling the need to go to bed earlier
    O’Brien recently worked with a client who, in an effort to get more sleep, was getting into bed earlier and earlier every night. The problem? “He’s a night owl by nature and wanted to align his sleep schedule with his early bird sleep partner,” says O’Brien. “He would struggle for hours to fall asleep and started to bring work into the bed, answering emails, working on projects, etc. He then began to experience poor quality sleep with more prolonged and disruptive awakenings throughout the night. The strategy I worked on with him was to shift to a bedtime that more closely mapped to his natural predispositions and improve sleep habits to reserve the bed as a work-free zone.”

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