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Sleep 101: Why We Sleep and How to Do it Better!

  • September 15, 2018
  • By Carly Neave

I’ve always been someone who needs 8 hours of sleep a night. It’s not rocket science or something I’ve had to test, I’m simply aware, like I’m sure many others are, that with any less than 8 hours of sleep, my mind is a bit fuzzy, my energy is down, I’ll probably snap quicker than is reasonable and I’m running on substantially less than 100%. The scariest thing is, most of us go through life operating at 70% or less than our full potential, but because we’ve done it for so long, it feels like normality. But WHY? Why does less or more sleep affect us in such substantial ways?

For myself to believe that “8 hours a night” wasn’t just a tale of time, I needed to understand the science behind it. I’ve read countless books on sleep that all tell me “we need it”, but it wasn’t until I picked up “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker that I read pages upon pages of interesting science and experiments that I could, as a non-scientist, depict and understand. That’s what I want to share with you in this post. Feel free to scan over the bits that are relevant to you or if you have 10 minutes, I suggest grabbing a cuppa and allowing this all to sink in because it has such a huge impact on your life and others around you. I would also suggest that it might be a good idea to understand where your quality of sleep currently is, and a sleep tracker is a brilliant and relatively inexpensive way to do that. Be mindful of the trackers you choose, and how much detail they go into. Personally, I use the Fitbit Versa which tracks both REM sleep and Light/Deep Sleep (NREM sleep), all of which are explained below!

P.s for any that have read this book and note the strong similarities, this blog is intended to be a clear and concise synopsis of what I believe are some of the most valuable parts of the book. In no way am I claiming these are my ideas, I am simply trying to share the knowledge from the book for those who haven’t had the good fortune of getting their hands on it.

Are you a Lark or an Owl?

First off, which category do you fall in? There are two biological factors that control when we sleep and when we feel tired; our internal biological clock and a sleep pressure chemical called ”˜Adenosine’. These two factors are strongly influenced by our genetics, which varies from person to person, and therefore can’t be altered just by telling ourselves “don’t be lazy”.

Lark = Morning types (about 40% of the population). You prefer and happy to wake up around dawn, and function optimally at this time.

Owl = Night person (About 30% of the population). You naturally prefer going to bed late and waking up later in the morning.

{The remaining 30% lie somewhere in between, with a slight tendency towards Owls}.

It’s important to understand these are genetic tendencies that we were born with and are therefore something you should be accounting for in your everyday life, not trying to fight against. Unfortunately, society strongly favours Larks and therefore Owls suffer because of it. Work start times are early in the morning and owls will only start to function optimally in the late afternoon or early evening, likely not showing their full potential. This, coupled with the fact that Owls aren’t physically able to (or at the very least, find it significantly harder) to fall asleep until much later in the night, means they often tend to live life in a state of chronic sleep-deprivation which has detrimental effects. If you are an Owl, simply being aware of this and providing an environment for a super effective night’s sleep is more important to you than ever. Don’t believe that being tired in the morning is a sign of ”˜weakness’ or being lazy; this is how you are biologically tuned so try to work your schedule around that, optimizing your potential.

Different Types of Sleep & Are you Getting Enough?

 Have a go at answering the following questions;

  • After waking up in the morning, could you fall back to sleep at 10 or 11am?
  • Can you function optimally without caffeine before noon?
  • If you didn’t set an alarm clock, would you sleep past that time?
  • Do you find yourself on a computer screen, reading, then re-reading the same sentence?

If you answered, “Yes, No, Yes, Yes” (in that order!) to any of those questions, chances are you are getting insufficient or poor quality sleep.

Before we dive in any further, I think it’s important and incredibly useful to understand the two stages of sleep, and their purpose.

  • NREM sleep, with stages 1-4. (Defined by how easy it is to wake you up in that stage. Stage 1 = easiest, stage 4 = hardest).
  • REM sleep (your dreaming state)

Every night we have a 90-minute cycle through these two key stages of sleep, however, the ratios are not equal throughout the night.  The first half of your sleep is dominated heavily by NREM sleep, and the second half is dominated by REM sleep. These sleep stages have a myriad of crucial health benefits to the brain and body (which I’ll explain below), so it’s not ”˜okay’ to sacrifice one in wake of the other. For example, one morning you may have an early workout class or meeting, and so you set the alarm early thinking that you will only lose out on 2 hours of your normal sleep time. However, what you’re actually doing is missing out on a full 60-90% of your crucially important REM sleep, as the majority of this sleep comes later on in the night.

So, if you need to wake up early, get to bed earlier! You really do need both states of sleep to function at your best.

What are the Purposes & Benefits of the Two Stages of Sleep?

NREM SLEEP: Your NREM sleep is effectively your storage system, your ‘distillation’ of memories. It’s when your brain stores away and strengthens important new facts & skills you’ve learned throughout the day, transferring them from your ‘temporary’ memory storage to a more permanent part of the brain ready for you to tap into. This means that your daily temporary memory storage to then be ”˜freed up’, ready to take on new learning and skills the next day.

Take sport as an example; you need your NREM sleep during training to be able to process the new movements you’ve learned and allow the body to come back to them the next day with accurate precision and memory. What is the point of spending hours learning a new skill if the body is then not able to effectively process and store its precise movements for later use?

Or, what about sitting in a lecture after an all-nighter, you may hear the words, but does it sink in? Have you ever read, re-read, and read the same sentence again and again? Whilst you can understand what the words are, it simply doesn’t seem to absorb and come together. This is down to a lack of NREM sleep, and one of the reasons why cramming for exams with little to no sleep is not an effective way to work.

REM SLEEP: AKA your dreaming state, is your integration: it connects all the emotional dots on a huge vivid theatre screen, allowing your brain to piece together bits of information to problem solve and bolster creative ideas. This is all about our emotions, memories, and motivations. The two key roles to take away about the importance of REM sleep is 1) our emotional and mental health, and 2) Problem solving and creativity. Did you know Einstein was famously an advocate for 10-14 hours of sleep/naps every day?!

I’m sure many of us are accustomed to the phrase, “Sleep on it”, but why? Does simply creating a time gap from a hurtful incident mean we are better positioned to deal with it at a rational level? Or does something happen during REM sleep that actually turns down the dial of these emotional feelings to take out that painful sting? The latter has excitingly been proven, and I would love to share a brief part of the science below that landed on this conclusion. This new discovery is starting to help patients suffering from Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety. It gives scientific backing to why we should, in hurtful or stressful situations, allow our bodies to “sleep on it” (or rather dream on it) and approach it with a new, less emotive view in the morning.

The heart of the experiment was based on a chemical change that happens in the brain when we go into REM sleep. Concentrations of a stress-related chemical called ”˜Noradrenaline’ are completely shut-off within your brain when you enter this dreaming state. In fact, REM sleep is the only time during a 24-hour period when your brain is completely devoid of this anxiety-triggering molecule!

Matthew theorized that it was in this calm state of zero-noradrenaline that the brain could work through and process these emotionally challenging memories or experiences in a ”˜soothing-balm’ manner, and in doing so separate and distill the events from their previous degree of emotions. A pioneer in dream research, Dr. Rosalind Cartwright, then went onto prove that it wasn’t just dreaming alone that enabled this “Sleep on it” morning-after calming effect but dreaming in a specific way I.e. dreaming about the emotional themes and sentiments of the painful experiences themselves. This experience-related dreaming is indeed able to offer emotional closure, allowing us to move on from traumatic situations and dissociate the powerful emotive feelings we once attached to them.

Caffeine and Sleep

If you want a super quick fix to get a better night’s sleep, stop drinking caffeine after 3pm! Caffeine has what scientists call a “half-life” of 5-7 hours, which means it takes this amount of time for your body to remove 50% of the drug’s concentration. So, if you have an evening coffee after dinner, chances are that 50% of the caffeine is still going to be in your system at 1am in the morning! Caffeine is effective in keeping you awake not due to some energy-boosting superpower, but because it blocks the receptors in the body that are usually ”˜locked onto’ by the key sleep-signal chemical called Adenosine.

So very simply;

More caffeine = More receptors blocked = Adenosine cannot signal the body to sleep and induce the hormones that make you feel tired = BAD or little sleep!

Alcohol and Sleep

One of the most common beliefs is that alcohol assists us in having a better night sleep by helping us to relax when, unfortunately, it has the opposite effect on sleep quality.

Alcohol is in the class of drugs called sedatives, which is a touch confusing because most of us tend to liven up and become more social after a few drinks! However, this sense of increased liveliness is because the drug works to sedate part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, which is the part that helps us to control impulses and restraints on our behaviour. Therefore, when we sedate this area, we naturally become more care-free.

Alcohol has two detrimental effects on our sleep:

  • Alcohol fragments sleep, littering the night with brief awakenings and therefore ensuring broken and non-restorative sleep. The catch is, when you’ve had a few drinks, you don’t tend to remember these!
  • Alcohol is one of the most powerful suppressants of REM sleep, AKA, your dreaming state. The need for REM sleep has been described above and hopefully, we are able to recognise how important it is for us. Matthew suggests that even moderate amounts of alcohol in the afternoon or evening can hugely impact this.

Ipads, iPhones and That Horrible Blue Light!

It’s common knowledge now that watching T.V at night, or scrolling on the phone is not ”˜good for sleep’, but why? Simply put, light (especially the blue LED lights that we are so accustomed to), suppress the release of melatonin in our system which is a key ingredient needed for restful and quality sleep.

If you take the comparison of reading a paperback book vs reading a book on an IPad, melatonin is suppressed by an incredible 50% when doing the latter. We need all these key ingredients flourishing and working optimally in our system to ensure we are getting enough NREM and REM sleep so be mindful of these factors during the evenings.


I know it was a long one, but hope you enjoyed this post! There’s a lifetime on knowledge to learn about sleep, but for me, the scariest thing is thinking we might be living life so far from our true potentials, because of something as simple as lacking an hour or two additional sleep each night.

“Why We Sleep” completely revolutionised my way of thinking so I highly recommend buying the book and understanding the topic at a much deeper level. I’ll include the link below. If you have any questions or comments on this post then please do engage by commenting below or messaging me on Instagram @leanlivinggirl.

Have a great night’s sleep everyone!

LLG x 

By Carly Neave, September 15, 2018 Hello and welcome! I'm Carly, originally from London but currently enjoying a little adventure in Dubai. A travel and wellness blogger exploring the world one step at a time. Think fabulous food at undiscovered gems, unique destinations, skin care obsessions and so much more. This is my life, I hope you enjoy the ride!
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Carly Neave

Hello and welcome! I'm Carly, originally from London but currently enjoying a little adventure in Dubai. A travel and wellness blogger exploring the world one step at a time. Think fabulous food at undiscovered gems, unique destinations, skin care obsessions and so much more. This is my life, I hope you enjoy the ride!

About Me
Hi, I'm Carly!
A travel and wellness blogger exploring the world one step at a time. Think fabulous food at undiscovered gems, unique destinations, skin care obsessions and so much more. This is my life, I hope you enjoy the ride!
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