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10-minute read

Key facts

  • Sleep is an essential function for all humans and animals, just like air, water and food.
  • Sleep is important for your physical and emotional health and wellbeing.
  • Your sleep consists of cycles lasting 90 minutes, divided into 2 stages — rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep.
  • If you do not get enough sleep, you are at an increased risk of developing some chronic (long term) health conditions, having a stroke and having impaired reaction times, which makes driving very dangerous.
  • Adopting good sleep habits can help you get more sleep and improve the quality of your sleep.

What is sleep?

Sleep is an essential function for all humans and animals, just like breathing and eating. When you sleep, your state of consciousness and responsiveness are temporarily reduced. Your body is mostly still, but your brain is active. When you sleep, your body goes through different processes that promote physical and emotional health and mental restoration.

Chronic sleep disturbances or disorders can have negative effects on your wellbeing and health.

Your body’s circadian rhythm (or, internal biological ‘clock’) control when you feel sleepy and when you’re typically awake. If this system is disrupted — such as due to shiftwork or jet lag — you can experience sleep problems.

Sleep problems are common. Up to 1 in 4 young Australians are unsatisfied with their sleep. Fortunately, there are things you can do to improve your sleep.

What are the stages of sleep?

Your sleep is divided into cycles that last for about 90 minutes.

Each cycle is made up of 2 main phases:

  • rapid eye movement (REM) sleep
  • non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep

During REM sleep:

  • your eyes move rapidly
  • your mind is very active — most vivid dreaming occurs during this stage
  • this stage is important for learning and creating new memories

During NREM sleep:

  • you are in a deep sleep and more difficult to awaken
  • your body temperature drops, muscles relax and your heart rate slows

Adults usually spend about 20% of their night REM sleep and the remaining 80% in NREM sleep. Babies spend at least half of their sleep time in REM sleep.

Why is sleep important?

Sleep is essential for your physical health and emotional wellbeing. It has many vital functions and allows your body to:

How much sleep do I need?

The amount of sleep you need varies with your age, lifestyle, genetics and any individual factors.

Most adults need about 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night to feel refreshed and to function at their best the next day.

Children and teenagers need more sleep than adults. As teenagers get older, they need less sleep. Most people’s sleep needs stabilise at around 20 years old.

Older people spend more time in bed, but sleep more lightly for shorter spans of time. They usually need the same amount of sleep they needed in their younger adult life.

What can happen if I do not get enough sleep?

Lack of sleep can have a significant impact on your short-term functioning and your long-term health.

In the short-term you may notice the following:

  • Your ability to concentrate and mood maybe be affected, you may be more irritable, snappy or teary — this can impact your personal and professional relationships.
  • You may find that you’re less productive, your ability to make decision may be slower, and your safety at work may be affected.
  • You may have slower reaction times, which can affect your ability to drive safely.

In the long-term, sleep deprivation can increase your risk of:

Sleep problems can affect your health and safety. If you’re feeling sleep deprived, see your doctor for advice.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How can I improve my sleep?

You can improve your sleep by practicing sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene is a set of habits and environmental factors that you can change. While you cannot make yourself fall sleep, there are changes you can make to increase your chance of getting a good night’s rest.

Stick to regular sleep patterns

Help your body establish a healthy sleep routine by going to bed and waking up at around the same time each day.

Spend the right amount of time in bed

Limit your time in bed to no more than 8 hours.

If it takes you a long time to fall asleep, try going to bed later.

Do not stay in bed if you are wide awake — get up and engage in a calming activity, such as reading, and avoid screens.

Use your bed for sleep, not screens

Computers, phones and TV can disrupt your sleep. Your mind needs to associate being in bed with sleeping rather than watching TV or using your phone or computer.

Relax before bed

Establish a ‘buffer zone’ before bedtime when you’re not trying to solve any problems or plan the next day.

Find a relaxation technique that works for you. Avoid using your computer or phone during your ‘bedtime buffer zone’.

Be comfortable in your bedroom

  • Your room should be the right temperature, quiet and dark.
  • Make sure you have comfortable bedding.
  • Try to keep known stressors out of your bedroom — for example, any work tools or laptops.

Avoid alcohol, caffeine and cigarettes

Avoid alcohol for at least 4 hours before bed. Alcohol might initially make you sleepy. It can also disrupt your sleep cycles leading to a poorer quality sleep.

Avoid tea, coffee and caffeinated soft drinks for at least 3 to 7 hours before going to bed.

Avoid cigarettes for at least 2 hours before going to bed. Nicotine is a stimulant and can stop you from sleeping well.

Don’t nap

Sleeping during the day can make it more difficult to fall asleep at night.

If you really need to nap, limit your nap to 20 minutes.

Make sure you’re awake for at least 4 hours before going back to bed.

Don’t watch the clock

If you can’t sleep, checking the time can heighten your anxiety about not sleeping. If possible, take your clock out of your bedroom.

Avoid sleeping pills

Sleeping pills don’t usually address the causes of poor sleep. Sleeping pills should only be prescribed by a trusted doctor who fully understands the reasons why you might be struggling to get good quality sleep.

If you have been prescribed sleeping pills, use them for as short as period as possible, and try to address any underlying causes of your sleep difficulties.

Ask for help if you need it

If you regularly wake up not feeling refreshed, usually feel restless in bed, have trouble getting to sleep or find that being tired is affecting your mood, see your doctor.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

Illustration showing 5 ways to improve your sleep; Try making your bedroom quiet and dark, sticking to a routine, avoiding screen time in bed, avoid napping, and avoiding caffine and alcohol before bed.
Steps you can take to help improve your sleep.

How do I sleep well if I’m a shiftworker?

As a shiftworker, your work hours do not follow a traditional daytime work schedule. You may be working against your natural circadian cycle which disrupts your sleep patterns. This can have a negative impact on your physical and mental health.

Shiftworkers often report difficulty sleeping during the day. They are more tired during and after their shifts. This can result in a poorer work performance. Therefore, it is important to establish healthy sleeping habits as much as possible.

If you are a shiftworker, here are some tips to help you sleep better:

  • Prioritise sleep — make time to get enough sleep and try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day if your work allows it.
  • Make sure people know not to disturb you while you are trying to sleep.
  • Make your bedroom quiet by using ear plugs or a white noise machine or device application (app) to muffle sound.
  • Remove all distractions, phone calls and lights.
  • Avoid caffeine, sleeping pills, alcohol or nicotine before bed.
  • Sleep before you work rather than earlier in your day.
  • Expose yourself to light in the evening and during the night to help you stay alert.

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Last reviewed: November 2023

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