What Happens When You Sleep + How to Sleep Better

What Happens When You Sleep + How to Sleep Better

Here we are in the 21st century with hyper-advanced technology at our fingertips and yet scientists still aren’t fully able to understand how sleep works. Sleep has been a universal human experience for our species’ entire existence and is clearly necessary for our survival as we will quite literally die without it. If this topic gets you fired up, we sat down with the brilliant Dr. Robert Kachko, ND, LAc to discuss all things sleep on the podcast, so there’s lots more where this came from! For now, let’s get into the basic biology of sleep, why it’s so essential and what we can do to improve the quality of our sleep.

Here are the basics. There are two main stages of sleep: non rapid eye movement (non-REM) and rapid eye movement (REM).  

Non-REM Sleep has 3 Stages: 

N1: Light Sleep

This initial phase of sleep occurs right after you fall asleep and typically lasts about 1-5 minutes (5% of your total sleep time), with men spending a bit more time here. During this phase you are essentially in a half-asleep mode where you can be easily woken up. It occurs when more than 50% of the alpha waves in your brain are replaced with low-amplitude mixed frequency (LAMF) activity. 

N2: Deeper Sleep

Stage two, also known as N2, lasts around 30-60 minutes (45% of your total sleep time) and is when your heart rate and body temperature drop markedly. This stage is characterized by specific brain wave patterns called sleep spindles and K-complexes. Sleep spindles are short bursts of neuron firing that cause calcium to flood into specialized neurons called pyramidal cells. Researchers believe that this mechanism is critical for memory consolidation (1). K-complexes are long delta waves that last a full second. Their main roles are to keep you asleep and assist in the memory consolidation that sleep spindles are spearheading (2). Fun fact: if you’re a chronic teeth grinder, this is the phase of sleep where you do the grinding. 

N3: Deepest Non-REM Sleep

The final phase of non-REM sleep lasts around 20-40 minutes (25% of your total sleep time) and is known as slow wave sleep (SWS). Brain waves with the lowest frequency and highest amplitude, called delta waves, are observed during this sleep stage. It’s super hard to wake someone up when they’re in N3 sleep and often loud noises won’t even work! If, however, you do get woken up during N3 sleep, you’ll feel foggy and mentally impaired for a good hour after getting up. During this important stage your body regrows and repairs various tissues, builds bone and muscle and improves your immune system (3). N3 is where people may sleepwalk or experience night terrors. Interestingly, as we age, we spend less time in N2 sleep.

REM Sleep

REM is definitely the buzzword of the sleep world, getting thrown around a lot these days thanks to the advent of sleep trackers and devices, like the Oura Ring. This stage of sleep is actually not considered to be restful, as your brain waves are quite similar to those during wakefulness. It typically lasts about 10 minutes and increases each REM cycle with the final cycle lasting around 1 hour (amounting to 25% of your total sleep time). During REM sleep, your eyelids flutter, your breathing gets irregular (and can even stop!) and your brain literally paralyzes your muscles so that you don’t physically act out your dreams. Without the help of a sleep tracker, you may be wondering: how do I know if I’m getting enough REM sleep? The simple truth is, if you’re not dreaming, you’re probably not getting enough REM sleep.

In summary, you go through the three stages of non-REM sleep before you enter REM sleep and this entire cycle gets repeated 4-6 times per night, depending how long you’re asleep for.

Why We Need Sleep

You would think that over time we would have evolved away from the need to sleep, right? But, clearly, it’s necessary. In fact, we need sleep more than we need food! Humans are able to go 40 days without eating in dire situations yet the longest anyone has gone without sleeping (consecutively) is 11 days. First and foremost, sleep is required to repair fascia, connective tissue and muscles, and to reduce inflammation. We need this power-down mode, so to speak, for us to conserve energy for survival. The other main reason we need sleep is much more cognitive. Sleep helps us to make sense of the world, consolidate and process memories and sift through the information that we are inundated with throughout the day. Evolutionarily speaking, researchers postulate that our need for sleep is related to the importance of inactivity at night for survival. In the sense that when it’s dark outside, we were historically more likely to get picked off by some kind of large animal if we weren’t sleeping in a cave, as opposed to walking through the bush.

Histamine and Sleep?

There are 11+ key neurotransmitters involved in sleep including GABA, orexin (hypocretin), glutamate, acetylcholine, norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, melatonin, cortisol and adenosine. Everyone seems to jump right to serotonin and GABA, but histamine is a largely overlooked neurotransmitter that helps to stabilize your sleep-wake states. Specifically, histamine acts via the H1 or H3 receptors – activating these receptors decreases histamine release and promotes sleep. This is why H1 receptor antagonist drugs are used to treat insomnia (by activating the receptors) while H1 receptor agonists are used to treat narcolepsy (by blocking the receptors) (4). If you’ve ever taken Benadryl or another antihistamine and felt drowsy or sleepy, you’ve personally experienced the role of histamines in wakefulness! 

How to Fall Asleep Easier

There’s definitely a physiologic basis for feeling like you’re safe enough to sleep, so that’s where the sleep hygiene discussion comes in. For instance, many people say they need the room to be pitch black, completely quiet, and cool. Let’s double click on this last piece. In order for your body to transition into restful sleep, your core body temperature must drop around 1-2 degrees Celsius. Some ways that you can help your body get there are sleeping in a colder room than the rest of your home, taking a hot shower or drinking a hot tea before bed. The takeaway here is that it’s not about the temperature of the room that matters, it’s all about the drop in temperature. 

How to Reset Your Circadian Rhythm

The circadian rhythm is why it’s so important to have consistency in your daily routine, ideally  waking up and going to sleep at the same time every day if possible. You want your sleep cycle midpoint to be around 3 am, which coincides with your natural melatonin spike, meaning you should aim to be in bed around 10pm. To shift your sleep cycle, it’s important that you take it super slow, only changing the time by 15 minutes per week.

What to Do When You Can’t Fall Asleep

  1. Get up out of your bed 
  2. Do something else for 15 minutes (not TV or anything stress-inducing like emails) under very low light
  3. After 15-30 minutes of that, go back and try to fall asleep again for about 15 minutes
  4. Repeat as necessary until you’re able to fall asleep

3 Herbal Supplements to Support Sleep


Honestly, CBD is just plain expensive, especially when used over a long period of time. But it’s certainly helpful to have on hand for those times you need to bring out the heavy hitters. There are other things that work just as well for many folks, which we will get into next. 


L-theanine helps us transition from the beta phase of sleep to the alpha phase, which is what helps us go from wakefulness into N2 non-REM sleep. It combines particularly well with GABA supplementation because L-theanine helps to transition your brain waves while GABA helps to initiate that mechanism. It also combines very well with valerian for very similar reasons.

Valerian Root

Based on the research, the chemical constituents of valerian seem to inhibit the enzyme that catabolizes (or breaks down) GABA and act as GABA agonists. This means that GABA stays in the cellular cleft a little bit longer, promoting sleep. There is also some evidence suggesting that valerian may be a partial agonist of the 5-HTP receptor that controls melatonin levels (5). Studies comparing the effects of 600mg/day of valerian root extract to 10mg of the benzodiazepine oxazepam found that both groups equally enhanced sleep quality (6). Additionally, valerian is often preferred since it doesn’t cause the hangover effect that you get in the morning with most sleep aids.

Our Version of the Sleepy Girl Mocktail

  • ½ cup pure tart cherry juice
  • 1 tablespoon of magnesium powder
  • 1 teaspoon of glycine powder *
  • Sparkling water (a splash of probiotic soda, like Poppi, is also delicious here)

*you can purchase supplements here

In your favorite glass, combine the cherry juice, magnesium and glycine and stir well (beware it may fizz a bit). Top it off with your favorite sparkling water or prebiotic soda and add ice if you want it extra cold. Enjoy before bed! Bonus: for added minerals and adrenal support add a pinch of sea salt.

The thinking here is that the tart cherry juice gives you a boost of melatonin, the magnesium relaxes your muscles and nervous system, and the glycine lowers your body temperature and increases serotonin. Give it a try and let us know how you sleep!

Want more support in eating healthier and losing weight?

By working with one of our Registered Dietitian Nutritionists at Michelle Shapiro Nutrition LLC, you will receive personalized recommendations and one-on-one nutritional counseling to help you reach attainable goals in a way that fits your lifestyle. 

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