Rest easy: What to do when you can’t get a good night’s sleep

How important is a good night’s sleep and how do we achieve it? Deirdre McArdle finds out from an expert.


It’s quality not quantity, or so goes the familiar phrase, but with sleep it’s a bit of both.

A good night’s sleep is difficult to measure. There are several elements at play, including sleep latency (how long it takes you to get to sleep), sleep duration, and sleep disturbances. Also, everyone is different and a good night’s sleep looks and feels different to everyone. Generally speaking though, a good night’s sleep should be between 7 and 9 hours and combine the three main sleep types: deep sleep, light sleep and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.

We spend most of our night’s sleep in light sleep. This is the kind of sleep where you can be easily woken. But don’t mistake this for poor sleep – it isn’t. Light sleep makes up about half our night’s sleep. It’s when our short-term memories are turned into long-term memories, our fine motor skills are enhanced and our creativity ignited.

About a quarter of our night’s sleep is generally spent in deep sleep, where our bodies and systems are repaired and restored, and the other quarter in REM sleep, when we dream. REM sleep is sometimes called “paradoxical sleep”, explains Tom Coleman, health scientist and sleep coach. “During REM sleep our brain waves are as active as our alert mind.”

Most people will need around two hours of REM sleep each night, two hours of deep sleep and four hours of light sleep. When we have periods of sleeplessness we generally lose those deep sleep hours, which is why we can feel so tired when we have a disturbed night’s rest.

We’ve all been there. It’s 3am and you’re suddenly wide awake, and you can’t get back to sleep. Every argument you’ve ever had circles your brain, or, if you’re me, an earworm plays on repeat in your head (most often an intro to one of the cartoons my daughter watches). As you watch time pass in the darkness, it feels like you’ll never fall asleep again.

“Your night’s sleep isn’t one continuous event,” says Tom. “As you go through the sleep cycles, you can sometimes wake up and find it difficult to get back to sleep. Then you feel what we call sleep pressure, where you’re stressed because you’re not asleep and you’re watching time go by.

“You need to change the narrative. Stop giving yourself a hard time or getting worked up about it. Instead, normalise the fact that you’ve woken up. Retrace the steps you took to get to sleep in the first place. Pop on your eye mask, focus on your breathwork or meditate. The goal is to relax. Gradually you will learn how to fall back to sleep, and you’ll gain confidence from that. Suddenly, waking up in the middle of the night won’t feel so stressful anymore.”

At different stages in our lives we can go through periods of sleepless nights. New parents will recognise this. But Tom says it’s important to remember that we can get through it. “We’re capable of dealing with periods of sleep deprivation. These periods may come and go but the key is to not get stressed about it. It will more than likely right itself.”

So what helps you to get a good quality night’s sleep? “You want to start winding down for bedtime between 6pm and 7pm. Kind of like a reverse snooze button,” says Tom. “Have your last meal of the day, stop scrolling on our phones, turn down the lights in the house, and do things that relax you.”

The optimum environment for sleep is a cool (not cold) room. Having a hot shower just before bed can help reduce your core temperature which will help you fall asleep. Wearing an eye mask helps to remove any light distractions, and, if you need to, you can invest in some ear plugs.

And then’s there’s your mental environment to take care of. “We’re naturally hardwired to worry, that’s why we’ve survived as a species, but you do need to switch that off when you’re trying to get to sleep. Things like a podcast or music can be great cognitive chewing gum, distracting you from worries, helping you to relax, and not overly stimulating your brain,” says Tom.

A good night’s sleep ensures your body and brain can function properly the next day. Not only that, it helps us to maintain a healthy weight, develop our immune system, lowers our risk of heart disease and other chronic diseases, and improves our mood and cognitive abilities.

“When we talk about self-care, sleep is a critical part of that,” says Tom. “We’re beginning to understand now, mechanistically, just how important sleep is to our health.”

Learn more about the benefits of a good night’s sleep and the other pillars of a healthy lifestyle at Eat, Sleep, Breathe, Repeat, a live workshop with Dr Carla Devlin on 8 February 2024.

Deirdre McArdle
Cork-based Deirdre has written about cutting-edge technology for 25 years. Married for 20 years with a five-year-old daughter, she is currently navigating perimenopause; just the latest hormonal upheaval in two decades of multiple fertility procedures.

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