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Light Sleepers vs. Heavy Sleepers

Malena Piper

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Sleep affects every area of our lives, from physical health to mental and emotional well-being.

Adequate rest is crucial, but unfortunately, for light sleepers, getting a good night’s sleep is often difficult. Something as minor as the flick of a light switch or tap on a door can be enough to wake a light sleeper. Heavy sleepers, on the other hand, can continue to snooze peacefully through loud sounds and disruptions.

What makes someone a heavy sleeper versus a light sleeper? In this article, we’ll list possible causes of light sleeping, explain the different sleep stages, provide tips for helping light sleepers rest more soundly, and define what a good night’s rest should look like.

Possible Causes of Light Sleeping

A lot of different factors go into the duration and quality of one’s sleep, making it subjective and difficult to generalize. These are some of the most common things that can contribute to light sleeping:

  • Undiagnosed sleep disorders such as insomnia, sleep apnea, or Restless Legs Syndrome
  • Lifestyle factors like parenthood, profession, geography, diet, activity, and/or overall health
  • Genetics may play a role in how deep you sleep, as your genetics can leave you more likely to sleep lighter than someone else.
  • A lack of sleep spindles can lead to increased sleep disturbances, as sleep spindles work to block outside stimuli and keep you sleeping. Studies have found that some people generate more sleep spindles than others, so it’s safe to assume those sleepers are likely to sleep deeper than others.

What It Means to Get a Good Night’s Rest

How can you determine whether or not you’re sleeping well? Needs will vary individually, but as a general rule of thumb, you should:

  • Be able to fall asleep easily within 20 minutes of initially lying down
  • Stay asleep all night without awakening for any long periods
  • Rise at your expected wake-up time and feel refreshed upon awakening
  • Feel alert for the majority of the day during waking hours

If these statements apply to you, then chances are high that your sleep is healthy and sufficient. Naturally, there will be circumstances where good sleep doesn’t happen, such as when you’re ill or under unusually high amounts of stress. This is normal and to be expected from time to time.

On the other hand, if any—or several—of the statements don’t ring true for your sleeping habits, you may want to consider making some adjustments to your bedtime routine and/or lifestyle.

The Stages of Sleep

Our bodies cycle between two different types of sleep at night: NREM and REM. They repeat approximately every 90 to 110 minutes after falling asleep.

The amount of time that a person spends in the deep stages of sleep may be a primary distinction between someone who is a light sleeper versus a heavy sleeper.

Non-REM (Non-Rapid Eye Movement) Sleep

This is where 75% of the night’s sleep happens. It consists of three different stages:

  • Stage 1: Light sleep occurs during this phase. It is the moments spent between being awake and falling asleep. In Stage 1, the body’s muscles start to relax. Breathing, heartbeat, eye movement, and brain activity all slow down. Those who are light sleepers spend more time in this stage than heavy sleepers do.
  • Stage 2: This stage is where sleep starts to deepen; Heart rates and breathing normalize while the body temperature drops.
  • Stage 3: Stage 3 provides the deepest and most restorative sleep. Breathing continues to slow down, muscles relax even more, and tissue growth and repair happen.

REM (Rapid Eye Movement) Sleep

REM sleep affects memory, cognition, immunity, mental health. It is during this stage that people experience dreams. Eyes will move from side-to-side rapidly, breathing is fast, and our blood pressure and heart rate increase.

Tips and Habits for Light Sleepers

To get a better night’s rest, light sleepers should avoid bad sleep habits and make lifestyle changes like:

Following a Sleep Schedule

Going to bed at the same time every night is one of the best ways you can improve your sleep. By establishing a regular bedtime, the body’s internal clock will start to naturally align with your routine and begin preparing for rest accordingly.

Avoiding Caffeine Late in the Day

Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, causing an increase in alertness and energy. Its effects can linger for several hours, as well, which is why it’s important to avoid consuming it past 2 p.m. Drinking caffeine too late in the day may lead to difficulty falling asleep at night.

If you find yourself craving a caffeinated beverage in the late afternoon, opt for a decaf version or a favorite non-caffeine drink instead.

Creating a Relaxing Bedroom Atmosphere

Ideally, your bedroom should be a soothing, dark, and quiet space. If you notice any ambient noise or light, try using earplugs and/or a night mask to prevent it from affecting your sleep.

Keep Your Sleep Area Cool

At night time, the body’s core temperature drops in preparation for rest. By keeping your sleeping space cool, you are helping to reinforce that it’s time for sleep.

A comfortable bedroom temperature is typically between 60 67 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on personal preference; but temperatures below 55 and above 75 can impede sleep.

Turn Screens Off

Reading emails or browsing social media just before bed can be very stimulating to the brain, making it difficult to fall asleep. On top of that, the blue light emitted by electronic devices suppresses the body’s melatonin, a hormone responsible for the sleep-wake cycle.

Implement a digital curfew and get in the habit of putting all technology away 1 to 2 hours before bed. It may also help to keep your devices out of the bedroom overnight. This way, you’re not tempted to check it or scroll through social media while lying in bed.

Avoid Afternoon Naps

As tempting as they might be some days, napping too close to bedtime can interfere with the body’s internal clock and greatly impact your ability to fall asleep at night. If you must take one, aim for a 15-20 minute power nap at least 5 hours before you go to sleep.

Exercise Regularly

Studies have found that there is a strong correlation between a physically active lifestyle and restful sleep. Exercising for 30 minutes per day could increase your chances of experiencing deep sleep.

You’ll want to aim to work out at least 3 hours before bedtime. The earlier in the day, the better, as this allows the body sufficient time to wind down afterward.

Avoid Large Meals Close to Bedtime

Eating large meals late before bed is discouraged because it can lead to heartburn, and the discomfort and burning of acid reflux can be disruptive to sleep.  To prevent this, allow the body 2 to 3 hours to digest before heading to sleep.

If you suffer from GERD, we suggest using a wedge pillow or adjustable bed frame to keep your head propped at an angle and prevent any stomach acid from creeping back up your esophagus while you sleep.

FAQs

How much sleep do you need?

The amount of sleep needed will vary by age group. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, the recommended amounts of time an individual should be sleeping per night is as follows:

  • Adults: 7 to 8 hours
  • Teenagers: 8 to 10 hours
  • School-Aged Children: 9 to 12 hours
  • Preschoolers: 10 to 13 hours
  • Toddlers: 11 to 14 hours
  • Babies: 12 to 16 hours

Why are some people heavy sleepers and other people light sleepers?

Researchers believe that one’s lifestyle, genetics, and/or brainwave activity could explain why some sleep heavily and others do not. Undiagnosed sleep disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnea and/or insomnia, may also be a contributing factor to light sleep.

However, little is known about why people react differently to stimuli while they sleep. At this time, there isn’t sufficient evidence to explain the differences.

Is snoring a sign of deep sleep?

Contrary to popular belief, no, snoring does not mean that the person is in a deep sleep. Instead, it is what happens when an individual is unable to move air freely through their nose and/or throat while they sleep. With each breath, the tissues in the upper airways vibrate, causing the hoarse sound.

What are the best remedies for light sleepers?

There are a variety of ways to help light sleepers fall and stay asleep more easily. Darkness, silence, and cool temperatures often help. Developing a soothing bedtime routine and sticking to it may also be beneficial. Together, these steps will help promote more rejuvenating, heavy sleep.

When should I speak to a doctor?

When a lack of sleep starts to negatively impact your life by interfering with your daily functioning and/or causing you to feel irritable, it may be time to reach out to a physician or sleep specialist for professional guidance. They may recommend a sleep study in a laboratory to rule out the possibility of a sleep disorder.

Conclusion

Your sleep quality matters and is crucial for your overall well being. For those who consider themselves light sleepers and struggle to get consistent rest, it may be possible to change this through lifestyle modifications.

Relaxing before bedtime, working out, and making your bedroom environment more peaceful may help encourage deeper, more rejuvenating sleep. If changing your habits doesn’t prove to be effective in improving your sleep quality, you may want to consider speaking with a sleep specialist or doctor to determine the underlying reason and treat it accordingly.

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