Sleep Quantity Versus Quality: What Really Matters

Our friends and TV tell us that eight hours of sleep every night is the way to go – the “beauty rest” that we all seem to lust and pine after. Science tells us that the amount of sleep that you get is less important than the quality of that sleep. Let’s take a look at real results to see what really matters.

How fast do you fall asleep?

The quality of your sleep is quantifiable. One of the most important metrics is how fast you fall asleep. An individual with healthy sleep habits will usually fall asleep within half an hour of putting head to pillow. This is true regardless of age, physical health or mental stress levels.

If you have friends who own these mattresses, ask them how fast they fall asleep on them. Their answers may help you shortlist the mattress that you actually end up purchasing for a more comfortable night’s sleep.

Are you counting sheep?

Waking up during the night is not necessarily indicative of bad sleep. However, people with healthy sleep patterns should fall back into dreamland within 20 minutes. If you find yourself counting sheep after you wake up from a nightmare or after going to the bathroom, you may want to look at some of your sleeping habits including your mattress and rest schedule.

How is your mood in the morning?

Contrary to what you may believe, you should not wake up every morning feeling like a monster until you get your coffee. One of the most important indicators of good sleep habits is that you wake up feeling mentally refreshed. This is actually one of the primary benefits that sleep gives us – the ability to reset ourselves mentally.

If you have made it a habit to drink 3 cups of coffee in the morning, then your body may be responding physiologically to that. Consider cutting back on the caffeine and relying on good sleep habits to give you a great attitude in the morning.

Am I achieving REM? 

You may have heard of REM sleep, or rapid eye movement sleep. This is the deepest level of sleep that you will achieve every night – the place where the body heals itself physically and mentally.

You will definitely achieve REM more frequently if you turn off all of your computers and electric devices at least an hour before sleep. The blue backlight in those devices can actually limit melatonin production in the body, reducing your ability to achieve rapid eye movement.

The Importance of Sleep Quality

The quality of your sleep is essential to your health – make no mistake. In animal tests, sleep deprivation can kill in as little as two weeks. Humans are not quite as fragile, but we aren’t so far behind. Just a little bit of sleep deprivation (around two days) can hinder the immune system in drastic ways.

People who run a so called “sleep debt” face other potential problems as well. The loss of sleep in one UCSF study created an altered HPA function, which was followed by an elevation in cortisol the following night. In layman’s terms, a lack of sleep caused people to be much more stressed out and irritable with just one day of sleep debt.

People who are deprived of quality sleep also have a much harder time getting rid of that stress (cortisol). Eventually, heightened stress levels can lead to many physiological and physical disorders. Scientists have some truly astounding names for some of these conditions – peripheral disturbances (seeing things), glucorticoid excess (getting fat more quickly) and insulin resistance (high blood sugar). All of these things, especially in older adults, are found when people do not get enough sleep!

In similar experiments, scientists have actually found that too much sleep can create the same effects. If the body gets too little sleep – a sleep debt – it does not have the building blocks to heal itself after facing the day’s problems. If the body gets too much sleep – a sleep surplus – it becomes used to laziness and begins to hibernate, much in the same way that a bear does during the winter. The result is greater storage of fat in the body, a depressed state of mind and body and even a loss of motor memory and immune function in the more severe cases.

Quantity of sleep also matters very little if that sleep is interrupted. Researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine found that delayed bedtimes and forced awakenings corresponded to higher irritability and lower feelings of sympathy. People who got the same amount of sleep without being interrupted were much friendlier and more cheerful.

Final Tips for a Better Sleep Quality

With this in mind, here are some tips from Harvard on improving the quality of your sleep.

  1. Turn your bedroom into a place that induces sleep. The quieter, darker and cooler you can get your bedroom, the better. If you live in a noisy place, consider earplugs. If you cannot get rid of the light completely, invest in an inexpensive eye mask. Keep the temperature between 60 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit for best results.
  2. Go to sleep onlywhen you are really tired. If you do not fall asleep within 20 minutes of touching your head to pillow, get up and engage in a relaxing activity. Don’t stare at the clock – this is just about the worst thing that you can do, especially if it is an electric clock.
  3. Use natural light. Light is a powerful psychological trigger that tells the brain that it is time to wake up. Go to bed and rise with the sun.

According to the sleep experts at, you can plan for a better night’s sleep by upgrading to a better mattress, keeping a consistent schedule and taking on scientifically informed habits. Life is meant to be lived, not slept through. Get to know the ways that better sleep can help you take more from your waking hours!