Why we sleep and how to improve sleep quality

Sleep is an important part of our life, and although we are not conscious of it, lots of important biological processes essential for good health are going on inside our bodies while we are resting, including:

  • Sleep gives our bodies time to recover and repair itself (allows cells to repair and regrow)
  • Sleep helps to improve how our memory functions
  • Sleep helps support a healthy brain and improves our mood

Normal sleep cycles

Although falling asleep is a routine thing we all do – it’s a complex and dynamic process that involves lots of different elements.

Not all sleep is the same – as we sleep, our brains go through a series of ‘sleep cycles’ made up of two different types of sleep:

  • Rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep – this type of sleep is vital for storing and sorting our memories from the day; the brain is very active, and this is when dreams are likely to occur
  • Non-REM (NREM) sleep– has three stages:
    • Stage 1 is a short period of ‘light’ or ‘shallow’ sleep that occurs as we transition into ‘deeper’ sleep
    • Stage 2 is where more stable sleep starts; chemicals are produced in the brain that block our senses, making it difficult for us to be woken up
    • Stage 3 is where ‘deep sleep’ or ‘slow-wave sleep’ occurs

All the stages of sleep are important and good sleep requires both uninterrupted REM and NREM sleep.

As we get older, we often experience changes in our sleep cycles – spending more time in lighter sleep (the earlier stages) and less time in deeper sleep. This means older adults can end up feeling that their sleep is of poor quality, light or less restful than sought.

Adapted from Chokroverty et al. 20131

How to improve sleep

Not getting enough quality sleep? When you don’t get enough sleep or your sleep is not restorative then you can wake up feeling tired, sleepy, and not functioning properly during the day – even just a couple of lost hours can have a major effect on how you perform at work or during your daily activities, including:

  • Reduced alertness
  • A shortened attention span
  • Slower reaction times and poorer judgement
  • Reduced decision-making skills
  • Impaired memory
  • Reduced concentration

Want to sleep better? Sometimes our unhealthy daytime habits and busy lifestyles can be part of our sleep problem – making a few changes may help you enjoy a good night’s sleep, help you feel better and think straighter during the day!

Here are a few things you could try to help yourself sleep better:

  • Take time to look at your body’s natural sleep-wake pattern (your body clock) – keeping a regular sleep-wake schedule can help you sleep better. Also, don’t ignore when you’re tired and don’t go to bed when you’re not!
  • Try to get some morning sunshine – being exposed to sunlight during the morning helps you wake up and re-set your body clock
  • Exercise regularly but don’t leave it too close to bedtime – give yourself time to wind down

    To find out more useful tips on how to get a good night’s sleep you can download our Sleep Hygiene Fact Sheet.

    Sleep and ageing

    Many older adults experience sleep problems and for many it’s linked to their internal body clock or to other health conditions they may have and the medications they need to take.

    As we age, our bodies may make less and less melatonin (the hormone that facilitates sleep onset and good sleep quality) which can eventually make us feel that our sleep is restless, light or of poor quality.

    Adapted from Waldhauser et al 19881
    Ageing can affect people’s sleep in different ways, including:

    • The body’s circadian rhythms can desynchronise, so that our bodily rhythms, such as melatonin release, are not aligned with the day/night cycle
    • We are more likely to wake up during the night
    • We are more likely to feel that our sleep is restless, light or of poor quality, and wake up feeling unrefreshed in the morning
    • We are more likely to take daytime naps
    • It can take longer to get over changes to our normal sleep patterns

    Because we may have more health conditions as we age, we also tend to take more medications that could potentially interfere with our sleep – either making us sleepier in the day or keeping us awake at night.

    It’s important to talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you think any of the medications you are taking are interfering with your sleep.

    Sleep hygiene

    Sleeping problems are often caused by the bad habits we have acquired over the years. It’s a good idea to take a look at the things you do every day and make some changes that may help improve your sleep.

    ‘Sleep hygiene’ refers to the group of good sleep habits that can help you achieve a good night’s sleep, including:

    • Following your body clock – which includes things like getting up at the same time each day, not ignoring when you are tired and not going to bed if you are not tired
    • Making sure your bedroom feels restful and comfortable
    • Avoiding taking anything before going to bed that may keep you awake such as drinking alcohol and caffeine, or smoking cigarettes
    • Relaxing and trying not to start worrying about things as you start to go to sleep – for example, you could try some relaxation exercises before going to bed, take a warm bath or listen to some calming music
    • Placing your alarm clock where you can’t see it, so you don’t ‘clock watch’ while going to sleep
    • Avoiding taking naps during the day
    • Avoiding exercising just before bed – give yourself time to ‘wind down’ first
    • If you can’t get to sleep – don’t lay in bed worrying about it – get up and do something else until you feel tired

    To find out more useful tips on how to get a good night’s sleep you can download our Sleep Hygiene Fact Sheet.

    Sleeping pills

    When you are having trouble either falling or staying asleep but you have been exercising regularly, avoiding caffeine and all the other relevant sleep hygiene factors have not worked, your doctor may prescribe a sleep medication (sleeping pills or tablets) to help you get some much-needed rest.

    Most types of prescription sleep medications are designed to help you get to sleep and so only need to work for a few hours. Sleep medications that help people stay asleep need to work longer and this means they may make you feel ‘groggy’ or ‘hungover’ in the morning.

    Sleeping pills may be able to provide you with sleep, but they can also have a downside such as:

    • Waking up feeling drowsy or groggy
    • They may increase the risk of having a fall or an accident
    • Dependency may develop with some types of sleeping pills
    • There may be withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking them
    • Some can affect your memory or make it harder to focus during the day

    Sleep medications target specific parts of the brain and generally involve slowing down the nervous system. Some of the common types of prescription medications used to treat sleep problems include:

    • Benzodiazepines (such as temazepam and oxazepam) which are among the most commonly used and widely known sleeping pills but are thought to have a higher risk of dependency (be habit forming) than other types of sleeping medications
    • Newer benzodiazepine-like medications (such as zolpidem and zopiclone), that are not the same as benzodiazepines but act on your brain in a similar way, are thought have fewer side-effects and be less habit forming than benzodiazepines

    Circadin tablets, which contain melatonin, don’t make you feel sleepy the next day, you aren’t likely to become dependent on them, and there are no withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking melatonin.2,3

    Circadin contains melatonin that mimics the body’s natural levels – promoting good quality sleep and morning alertness.4


    The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Please speak to a healthcare professional if you have any questions about your sleep problem or its treatment.

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    1. Waldhauser F, et al. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 1988;66:648-652.
    2. Otmani S, et al. Hum Psychopharmacol Clin Exp. 2008;23:693-705. Supported by Neurim Pharmaceuticals, Tel Aviv, Israel.
    3. Luthringer R, et al. Int Clin Psychopharmacol. 2009;24:239-249. Sponsored by Neurim Pharmaceuticals, Tel Aviv, Israel.
    4. Wade AG, et al. Curr Med Res Opin. 2007;23(10):2597-2605. Funded by Neurim Pharmaceuticals, Tel Aviv, Israel.