6 Ways to Improve Sleep Quality

A longer sleep duration does not always mean a good rest! Learn what sleep quality is and find out how to improve it to achieve optimal health.

A young woman yawning while working with her laptop and notebook.

In this modern era, most people have a poor quality of sleep in view of hectic lifestyles – juggling their careers, studies and family. Adding to this is the fact that we are living with the coronavirus, which has been proven to cause stress-induced insomnia.

A study shows that people worldwide are indeed in need of more bedtime. Among the thirteen countries surveyed, more than half sleep less than the recommended seven hours per night. Australians sleep an average of 6.9 hours, Singaporeans 6.8 hours, and Japanese 6.3 hours. 

Sleep deprivation is also found among Malaysians. A 2019 study found that working Malaysian adults do not get sufficient sleep at night. Moreover, sleep quality is lower in middle-aged adults than in young adults.

It is a matter of concern because lack of sleep links to severe medical conditions such as obesity, stroke, hypertension and diabetes. There is also evidence of poor sleep causing substance abuse, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts. 

So what should we do to get a good night’s sleep in this day and age? Read along as we list six ways to improve sleep quality that is safe and healthy for everyone. 

What is Sleep Quality and Why Sleep Duration May Have Nothing to Do with It 

Before delving deeper into the methods of improving sleep quality, it is important to understand what the term actually means. 

Some people might find their energy and high spirits gradually diminishing even after a night of satisfying rest. The reason behind this is, contrary to popular belief, a high-quality sleep does not always mean a long slumber.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep quality is the measurement of how well one is sleeping – whether or not the sleep is restful and restorative. This includes aspects of sleep initiation, sleep maintenance, sleep quality, and refreshment upon awakening. 

There’s a tool that can help measure how well you sleep. Developed by Daniel J. Buysse, the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) is a standardised questionnaire that evaluates sleep quality within one month. With 19 self-rated questions, PSQI has been translated into other languages, including Malay. Every answer is scored, and the overall total determines the sleep quality. The higher the score is, the poorer the sleep quality is, and vice versa.

A frustrated woman lying in bed with her hands over her face; a digital clock in the foreground shows that it’s 3 AM
Staying in bed for a long time doesn’t always equate to a good sleep quality

4 Stages of Sleep 

When someone is asleep, their body goes through a sleep cycle that can be divided into four stages, based on the 2007 guidelines of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Stages one to three are called non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, and stage four is rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The entire cycle is approximately 90 minutes long and usually repeats itself four to six times.

It is possible to be awakened halfway through the night. When this happens, the cycle is broken, thus decreasing sleep quality. 

The four stages of sleep are: 

Stage 1: N1 

In this “light sleep” phase, you begin to transition from wakefulness to sleep. You are still easily awakened and may deny having slept at all. The following happens during N1: 

  1. Eyes slowly roll 
  2. Breathing becomes shallow 
  3. Heart rate becomes regular
  4. Blood pressure falls 
  5. Little to no body movement 

Stage 2: N2 

You are getting more detached from the outside world when you enter this stage. As you fall into a deeper sleep, it is harder to wake you up. Lasting for about 20 minutes, the stage is characterised by a decrease in blood pressure, brain metabolism, cardiac activity, and gastrointestinal secretions. 

Stage 3: N3 

Called the “deep sleep” phase, N3 is when you experience the deepest, most refreshing and restorative sleep. During N3: 

  1. Muscle tension is further reduced  
  2. Diffuse dreams, sleep terrors, or sleepwalking might happen
  3. Eye movements cease 
  4. Growth hormones are released 
  5. You may feel confused or disoriented when you are awakened

Stage 4: REM Sleep 

Called the “paradoxical sleep” or “active sleep”, it begins 90 to 120 minutes after falling asleep. About 20% to 25% of your sleep period is spent in this stage. It is characterised by:

  1. Breathing becomes irregular 
  2. Brain oxygen consumption increases 
  3. Body temperature adjusts to that of the environment 
  4. Rapid eye movements 
  5. Dreams
  6. Blood pressure and pulse rate increases or fluctuates

When awakened from this stage, you might remember your dream. 

6 Ways to Improve Sleep Quality 

Try these 6 methods to achieve excellent sleep quality: 

1. No TV or phone 30 minutes before sleeping 

Electronic products like TVs and smartphones emit blue light that hinders sleep. Similarly, lights from outside or a lamp may disturb sleep. Remember to close the curtains or turn off the lights. 

A young woman staring at her smartphone under her blanket in the dark.
Your phone is costing you your sleep quality

2. No laptop or phone on the bed 

It’s essential to associate the bed with nothing other than sleeping. Try placing the laptop and phone at a desk or in another area of the bedroom.

3. Avoid pills; opt for something safer and healthier instead 

Instead of taking sleeping pills, try herbal drinks with calming ingredients that can help soothe both body and mind. 

4. Exercise regularly 

The serotonin produced by the body while exercising has been proven to build the sleep pressure needed to fall asleep. 

5. Get consecutive hours of sleep 

It is more ideal to sleep for eight hours straight. Sleeping sporadically, for example, four hours twice a day does not generate a better sleep quality. 

6. Build better mental health 

Mental health and sleep are closely related. Just like sleep deprivation can result in depression, having mental problems might prevent you from sleeping. Seek consultation with a professional or have a conversation with a trusted friend to help boost your mental wellbeing and improve sleep quality. 

Since we live in a busy world that requires us to be constantly on the phone or laptop, it might be hard to follow the above methods. An overwhelming workload is stressful and prevents us from exercising. However, this does not mean that we should neglect our quality of sleep. An important take-home message for our readers is to remember that improving sleep quality is a gateway to optimal health. So close your eyes, relax and see yourself in dreamland!

References

  1. Channel News Asia Lifestyle. 2021. Commentary: Does it really get harder to sleep after a certain age? [online] [Accessed 30 December 2021]
  2. Cleveland Clinic. 2021. How the COVID-19 Pandemic Can Impact Your Sleep [online] [Accessed 30 December 2021]
  3. National Sleep Foundation. 2020. What Is Sleep Quality? [online] [Accessed 30 December 2021]
  4. National Health Service. 2018. Why lack of sleep is bad for your health [online] [Accessed 30 December 2021]
  5. Facultad de Medicina | Universidad de la Republica. 2019. Chapter 3 – Sleep Stages and Scoring Technique [online] [Accessed 31 December 2021]
  6. Science Daily. 2019. Settling the debate on serotonin’s role in sleep [online] [Accessed 30 December 2021] 

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