Sleeping Your Best is All About Timing

January 25, 2012 at 2:00 am 9 comments

By Chad Upton | Editor

Sleep can make you more happy, alert, motivated, and productive. If you’re healthy, it’s fairly straightforward to get these benefits from sleep if you know a little bit about your sleep cycles.

First, imagine if washing machines didn’t have timers and you had to guess when they finished their last cycle. If you stopped it too soon, your clothes would still be soapy; if you stopped it too late then it would start all over again. That would be a disaster; nobody would put up with that. Yet, that’s exactly what most people do with their sleep cycles.

You sleep in cycles. Each cycle usually lasts 90 – 110 minutes. It’s called a cycle because your brain and body go through a number of different stages and then it starts all over again. The stages can be divided in different ways, but two of the most common divisions are REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM.

The non-REM “deep sleep” phase is longer during the cycles earlier in the night and tend to get shorter during the later cycles. The REM phase is the opposite. Vivid dreams generally occur during REM sleep, so you tend to dream more as you get closer to your wakeup time.

Most of us get up at about the same time every day. Sometimes, you feel well rested; other times you feel like you barely slept at all. This wide variance can be caused by waking up in the middle of your sleep cycle rather than close to the end.

During a sleep cycle, your body is temporarily paralyzed. Some doctors and researchers believe this may be to prevent you from physically acting out the actions you perform in your dreams, potentially causing yourself harm or waking yourself up. If you wake up during a paralysis phase, you will feel groggy. Since a sleep cycle is typically ninety minutes, your total sleep time should be a multiple of ninety minutes.

Getting enough sleep is also important to your health. The length of your cycles and the exact number of cycles needed will vary by person. But, you’ll know you’ve had adequate sleep when you have no signs of sleepiness or dysfunction during daytime hours. In lab tests, sleep deprivation has shown to reduce white blood cell count, hurting the immune system. Sleep deprivation has also been linked to increased risk of: heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, memory lapses or loss, and irritability. It also slows your reaction time and accuracy.

There’s a free online calculator to help you calculate when you should go to sleep or wake up: If you have a smartphone and want to be more precise, there are advanced alarm clock apps available such as Sleep Cycle that will wake you during the ideal point in your sleep cycle. I’ve tried Sleep Cycle and it works great. It is an iOS app, but there are plenty of Android and other options too — Elbyron has listed some in the comments. In general, these tools make you a lot more aware of your sleep cycles, which has definitely helped improve the quality of sleep that I get, even when I don’t use the app.

Sleep smarter and you’ll feel even better.

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Photo: Jeff Hill (cc)

Sources: wikipedia (sleep, sleep inertia),,

Entry filed under: Health and Beauty. Tags: , , , , .

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Elbyron  |  January 26, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    This may come as a surprise for some, but Android users outnumber iPhone users, and have for some time. The “Sleep Cycle” app mentioned here is only for iPhone, but fortunately, like most iPhone apps, somebody has made a similar (often better) version of it for Android.
    The most popular Android sleep monitoring app is called “Sleep as Android” and comes in free and paid versions. Other popular free apps include Sleep Bot, Smart Alarm Clock, and ElectricSleep. I haven’t used any of these myself, but plan to try out a couple and see if I feel any better in the mornings.
    While I’m sure the accelerometers in smartphones are capable of picking up tiny movements of the mattress, I have some doubts about the accuracy of translating this into REM and non-REM phases – especially with 2 people sharing a bed. And there are some people with sleep disorders or who are on certain medication that may still have movement during their REM sleep.
    There is a better solution, though a bit costly. A company called Zeo ( sells a headband for $99 that monitors brain activity and sends it to your smartphone via Bluetooth. They have apps for both iPhone and Android. They also sell it to Canadians for $99 CAD at, and to Europeans for £89 at I probably won’t buy one unless the price comes down, but it sure sounds like a great invention!

  • 2. nkspas  |  January 26, 2012 at 9:55 pm

    Hey Chad,

    I honestly think this might be my favorite Broken Secret of all time! Seriously, think of how VALUABLE this advice really is — and how quickly you explained it. WHY DID I NOT KNOW THIS BEFORE?

    Here’s one, though — once you screw up your sleep for a long period of time, can you “get it back.” I don’t really understand what people mean when they say “Oh, well, you can never get it back.”


  • 3. Maintain a Healthy Immune System Year-Round « Media Meme  |  February 1, 2012 at 10:59 am

    […] Sleeping Your Best is All About Timing ( […]

  • 4. misslynx  |  February 28, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    Trying to calculate when you should go to sleep based on this seems a bit dicey to me, since you don’t really have control over when you go to sleep – only over when you go to bed, and these two things are not necessarily the same. Trying to go to bed at a particular time that’s a multiple of 90 minutes from when you need to get up might work if you’re the kind of person who falls asleep pretty much as soon as your head hits the pillow, but for those of who can take really varying amounts of time to get to sleep, it’s not so easy.

    But I just downloaded that Sleep Cycle app and I’m going to give that a try. As long as the accelerometer doesn’t get thrown off too badly by the fact that my cats tend to sleep on the bed with me…

  • 5. Bekah  |  March 23, 2012 at 7:08 am

    It doesn’t seem to matter how much I sleep at night, I still feel like I need a nap during the day. I never do get one, but it would be nice.
    Since the baby is sleeping better these days, i can give this a try. Sleep in multiples of 90…
    I have noticed that I’m not that sleepy when the baby wakes me up, but if the alarm clock goes off, I can hardly get out of bed. Even on the morning when the baby gets up 5 mins before the alarm goes off, I’m awake and feel great.

  • […] Sleeping Your Best is All About Timing( […]

  • 7. patricia owens  |  May 21, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    When i go to bed at night i feel like i never get to sleep. when i do get sleepy it is time to get up for work , this is really tiring me out. i want to get a good night sleep for one night.

  • 8. Auping Royal  |  October 31, 2012 at 9:50 am

    I’m going to try your sleep in multiples of 90 minutes theory!

    • 9. disconnectd  |  January 11, 2013 at 8:30 pm

      Just so you guys know, the sleep cycle occurring in approximately 90 minute cycles isn’t baseless conjecture,
      It’s backed up by science. Chad’s washing machine analogy was excellent! The one I read was basically that when you’re in Non-REM sleep, your brain releases a chemical cocktail (sleep potion) and if you are abruptly woken up by an arbitrary alarm, or whatever, your still under the effects of said chemicals, which is what paralyzes you and also causes you to feel like a zombie regardless of the amount of sleep you got. Extremely valuable info. It’s also worth noting that if you sleep for the universally western recognized 8 hour block, you will almost always wake up during a cycle and if you happen to wake up and feel fine, it’s because of the variance in when your brain actually falls asleep. Nice blog, Chad! Keep em comin.


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