What Is Deep Sleep and How To Get It?

A classification process is used to describe the different stages of sleep people go through. Deep sleep is stage 3 sleep or stages 3 and 4 under the classification that includes a stage 4. On an EEG, the voltage difference patterns over time show up as delta waves. Therefore, deep sleep is also described as slow-wave sleep distinguishing it from the fast wave sleep of Stage 2.

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Deep sleep is also called heavy sleep because it is more difficult to awaken sleepers in this stage as opposed to light sleep. Additionally, if one is woken up suddenly while in this stage of deep or heavy sleep, they get sleep inertia (extreme drowsiness and disorientation).

People that experience deep sleep are, also, less likely to awaken to external stimuli than those sleepers in light sleep. Deep sleepers move their bodies less than those in light sleep, as well; but more than those in REM sleep.

Your body needs this kind of sleep. It is a time of accelerated tissue repair and body rejuvenation with human growth hormone being released in the first deep sleep cycle of the night. In children, as well, this is a time of physical growth and rejuvenation of the body.

There are also some common sleep disorders that occur in children during this deep sleep stage including night terrors, sleepwalking, and nocturnal enuresis or bedwetting.

Our bodies crave deep sleep more than other types of sleep. If you stay up all night and go about your normal activities the next day, you have some sleep debt. But if allowed to sleep the following night as much as you need to feel refreshed, you will probably not double the time of your normal sleep. Rather, the normal sleep time is appended with an additional one-third to one-half of normal sleep period. So someone who normally sleeps 7 hours per night, may, after a missed night’s sleep, go for 10 hours before feeling back to normal.

The interesting thing is the distribution of time among the stages during this recovery sleep. Pretty much all the lost deep sleep is recovered. The amount of deep sleep during this second night is twice what it is in a normal night. Lengths of REM and light sleep are lower. It seems that the body chooses to conserve slow-wave sleep as much as possible, and it more willing to sacrifice other stages of sleep.

There’s an interesting experiment that shows our body’s desire for deep sleep, even if subconscious.

Scientists monitored the sleep architectures of people with insomnia over an extended period of time. The insomniacs were not given access to their EEG results. The insomniacs were also given access to sleeping pills (benzodiazepines) and told they could take them if they felt they needed to.

After nights when the people had lesser deep sleep, the subjects were more likely to choose to self-administer the sleeping pills. Stage 3 length was the single most important factor in predicting whether pills were taken. This suggests people have a feeling about their need for deep sleep.

How To Get Better Deep Sleep

So, how to get more deep sleep? Deep sleep can be elusive and therefore, there is no certain way to force your brain to spend more time in this stage. All you can do is prepare yourself and hope for the best!

One good way to prepare is to get a full night’s sleep every single night. Sleep medications can help, however, they all change your normal sleep architecture, and none lead to more slow wave or deep sleep. Instead, they increase the time in light sleep which may then lead to deeper sleep.

Strenuous anaerobic exercise, like weight-lifting, may induce more slow-wave sleep but the evidence on this is not firm. Some people react to to exercise better than others when trying to provoke more deep sleep. It is a fact that tissue repair is at its fastest in this stage of sleep as well as the release of the hormone HGH. This can not be overlooked.  

Aerobic exercise, as well, helps some people attain longer deep sleep. Raising one’s body temperature, like soaking in a hot tub, has also been found to increase this type of sleep. So this may be why aerobic exercise has been found to help because it raises body temperature.

The problem, however, with this theory is the fact that people tend to sleep better in cooler temperatures. Stage 3 sleep, or deep sleep does not start until more than an hour after sleep onset during which time the body cools.

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Deep Sleep and Age

Unfortunately, one of the effects of age is the loss of time in deep sleep. In our 20’s we spend 20 percent of the night in this stage of sleep. However, at 40 or 50 we are only spending 10 percent of that time sleeping deeply. Even worse, by age 70 or 80, it is down to less than 5 percent, and sometimes even 2 percent. By looking at a person’s EEG chart for a night, you could easily determine how old they are.

Why is this decline unfortunate? Less deep sleep is not just a result of aging; it appears to at least partially cause some of the negative characteristics of old age. Weakness, decreased mental acuity, infrequent feeling of refreshment in the morning – these are all connected to less deep sleep.

The Difference Between Sound Sleep and Deep Sleep

“Sound” means whole and possessing integrity. Sound sleep is a subjective term given to a night’s sleep that is satisfying to the sleeper. What is considered sound sleep by a 50 year old might be described quite the opposite by a 20 year old.

If we were to hook up a polysomnography machine to a person getting sound sleep, we would see few nighttime awakenings, no significant breathing problems, and a decent amount of time spent in both slow-wave deep sleep and REM sleep.

“Decent amount” is subjective, but we can ballpark it as 90 to 120 min per night of deep sleep and 90 to 130 min per night of REM sleep for adults. (Too much REM is associated with depression. There doesn’t seem to be any such thing as too much deep sleep.)

Sound also somewhat tangentially refers to the depth of sleep and how susceptible the sleeper is to awakening by noise. This concept is probably close to what people mean by sleep deeply.

There are also differences between quiet wakefulness and sleep. One of these is the ability of our brain to react mindfully to external stimuli. The difference between being in a coma and sleep? Sleep is reversible and a coma is permanent. Also, a coma is being in a state where the person can not be awakened by shaking or any external stimuli, unlike someone who is sleeping.

The depth of sleep is generally taken to mean how likely the sleeper is to be awakened from an external stimulus. Children are difficult to awaken not because they are lazy but because they are sleeping deeply.

Even within a single stage of sleep (as measured by EEG) the depth varies as measured by sensitivity to acoustic stimuli. It has also been shown that people who have more “sleep spindles” on the EEG readings during a normal night of sleep have more tolerance for noise.

A hypnogram, which is the output of a polysomnogram is a proven way to show the difference between stages as well. It is typically printed so Stages 3 and 4 ( deep sleep) are shown lower on the page than Stages 1 and 2. This is usually just convention but it further promotes the idea of Stages 3 and 4 being deeper sleep than the earlier stages.

By this measure, some people do sleep deeper than others. Compare two people in stage 3 slow-wave sleep and one may be easier to awaken than the other.

Does this mean the deeper sleeper is getting more of the slow-wave sleep benefits than the lighter sleeper? No. The characteristics and benefits of different stages of sleep are relative to each other, not compared among people. Although some people are lighter or deeper sleepers than others (as measured by susceptibility to awakening), that doesn’t mean they are getting more or less out of sleep.

How Much Sleep Do I Need?

When asking yourself how much sleep you really need, you should make a difference between the amount of sleep that allows you to go by on and the amount you need to function normally.

Although sleep requirements may vary from person to person, most adults need between 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night or several daytime naps if they have trouble sleeping this long at night.

To figure out how much sleep you really need, you should take several things into consideration. You should pay attention to your own individual needs.

You will know if you are getting enough sleep by evaluating how you feel as you go about your day. If you are sleeping enough, you will feel energetic all day, from the moment you get up to your bedtime. See how productive and happy you are on the amount of sleep you are getting, whether you have certain health issues such as being overweight, or if you are at risk for some disease.

Think about whether you have problems falling asleep or staying asleep all night or you are too dependent on caffeine to get you through the day, whether you are sleepy while driving, etc.

All this can help you find the perfect number of sleep hours that will work for you.

The Importance of Quality Sleep

The quality of your sleep also matters as it can also impact how much sleep you need. If the quality of your sleep is poor, you may still feel tired even after getting what should be considered enough.

Therefore, it’s not only important to focus on the number of hours you spend asleep, but also on the quality of those hours. If you give yourself plenty of time for sleep, but you still feel tired in the morning and have trouble waking or staying alert all day, you may not be spending enough time in the certain stages of sleep.

Your sleep cycle consists of different stages and each of these stages has some benefits. Each stage of sleep cycle offers different benefits, however, deep sleep (during which your body repairs itself and accumulates the energy for the next day) and the REM sleep (during which your mind and mood boost) are particularly important.

While you can get more deep sleep by avoiding being woken up frequently during the night by noise or light, avoiding alcohol and nicotine, more REM sleep you can get by trying to sleep longer in the morning (some 30 minutes to an hour).

Sometimes hearing sudden explosions and seeing flashes of light can wake us up from deep sleep. This occurs due to a certain condition known as EHS. Read more about Exploding Head Syndrome and how to deal with it in our article.

How To Get the Sleep That You Need?

Regardless of whether you are looking to solve a specific sleep problem or just want to get more quality sleep, here are some tips that can help. You can experiment with them and see which will work best for you.

  • Stick to a regular sleep schedule – Irregular sleep routine has been linked to poor quality of sleep and getting less sleep than it is necessary. Try going to bed at the same time every night and getting up at the same time every morning. Stick to such routine even during weekends as this will regulate your inner clock and help you get more quality sleep that you need.
  • Rule out medical causes for your sleep problems – Sometimes sleep problems may be the result of an underlying health issue or a side-effect of certain medications. By treating your health issues and being careful about your medications, you can get rid of these problems or at least lessen their effects.
  • Create a calming bedtime routine – Creating a relaxing routine before bed can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep all night long. Listen to calming music, wind down and relax by taking a warm bath, read by a dim light, etc.
  • Create a comfortable sleeping environment – To create a comfortable sleeping environment that will stimulate you to fall asleep faster and stay asleep, you should keep your bedroom dark, quiet and cool and try to keep a comfortable temperature in your room. You should also remove all sources of noise from your bedroom, reserve your bed just for sleeping and sex and avoid doing other activities there.
  • Get regular exercise and practice meditation – Regular exercise can relieve the symptoms of many sleep disorders and problems. Exercise for at least 30 minutes every day, but not too close to bedtime. Also, meditation and relaxation exercises may help you improve your brain functions and the quality of your sleep.
  • Reduce the use of electronic devices – The excessive use of electronic devices and exposure to blue light right before bedtime has been linked to poor sleep quality. Even exposure to bright room lights right before bedtime may negatively affect your sleep.
  • Be careful about what your eat and drink – Eating too much or eating meals that are heavy before bed, too much caffeine, alcohol, and sugary foods can all disrupt your sleep.
  • Avoid stress and worrying – Learn how to deal with the stress resulting from everyday activities and handle it in a productive way as otherwise it can keep you awake at night. Write down everything that makes you feel worried and think about it and finding the right solution the next day.



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