What are the reasons behind the way you sleep, and is it possible to change your habits?
Some of us find ourselves waking constantly throughout the night at the slightest disturbance, while others seem to be able to sleep through anything. Many people are self-declared light sleepers or heavy sleepers, yet there’s still no definitive answer on why this is the case.
Lifestyle choices, sleep disorders and age may all have a part to play in determining what kind of sleeper you are. But no matter how you sleep, both quality and quantity of sleep are absolutely vital.
Alternating between light and heavy sleep
Our sleep doesn’t stay the same throughout the night. In fact, we move between several different phases of sleep. These sleep cycles include REM (rapid eye movement) and Non-REM. We spend about 75% of the night in Non-REM sleep, which consists of three stages of increasingly deep sleep.
Stage one is the phase between sleeping and waking, when sleep is at its lightest. Deeper sleep begins in stage two when breathing becomes regular and your body temperate drops. Stage three involves deep sleep, which is the most restorative in terms of muscle relaxation, tissue growth and repair.
Next comes REM sleep, when most of our dreaming occurs. Brain wave activity, heart rate and blood pressure all increase during this stage.
Young people tend to spend more of the night in deeper sleep stages, while older adults spend more time in lighter stages, and are more likely to complain of being light sleepers. But research also suggest that the difference between light sleepers and deep sleepers may be largely subjective, dependent on factors like the length of sleep, the point at which you wake up and the quality of the sleep you’re getting.
The danger of not getting enough sleep
Thanks to social media, constant emails, busy work schedules and online streaming, sleep deprivation is more common than ever.
This can have serious implications on our mental and physical health, as not getting enough sleep has been linked to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression and even Alzheimer’s. A 2017 study published in Neurology journal found that people who get less REM sleep can face a greater risk of dementia.
REM is the most important sleep stage, according to Rajkumar Dasgupta, MD, assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine: “It helps with memory, cognition, immune system function, weight loss and depression. Deeper stages of sleep burn more calories because you’re active, like when you’re awake.”
What causes light and disruptive sleep?
Sleep experts suggest that considering yourself a light sleeper may be the sign of a wider sleep issue, rather than something that you just have to live with. It’s important to look at the factors which might be contributing to an inability to achieve deep sleep.
For example, sleep disorders like sleep apnoea can cause you to wake throughout the night due to breathing irregularities, making you rely more heavily on light sleep stages.
Controlling the factors that impact your quality of sleep may be able to encourage deeper sleep overall. These include factors such as no alcohol or caffeine in the lead up to bedtime, avoiding bright screens and social media, creating a dark, cool sleep environment and engaging in regular physical exercise during the day.