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The Whys and Hows of Quality Sleep

John Cordle, a highly experienced captain in the American Navy was commanding a routine training exercise in the Baltic Sea, helming USS Oscar Austin, a guided-missile destroyer, with three other destroyers behind this one. Cordle had run without sleep for 36 hours. As the ship settled into its passage, Cordle tottered, trying to stay awake. Low lights and silence—Cordle dozed off.

His navigator woke him up only to tell him that the destroyer had lost its position. Cordle was dazed and fatigued. He ordered the destroyer to be slowed down. But there were three more ships behind him that needed to be informed as well and in time.

“I let myself get so tired that when the crew really needed me to step in and make a decision, I was too tired to understand what was really going on,” Cordle tells the Rand Review, “There’s this perception that you can force yourself to just suck it up and get through it. But it’s like being drunk: Your brain shuts down.”

Why does good sleep matter so much? According to a study by RAND, the cost of workers showing up at work without proper rest is a staggering $411 billion, and 1.2 million annual working hours lost in productivity every year.

When we have slept well, our productivity at work or home skyrockets. This is because sleep is an important source of energy. Lack of sleep can affect almost every working organ and tissue system in our body. Apart from carrying out multiple involuntary functions, our body is also known to repair itself and clear out toxins while we are asleep. Not sleeping enough impairs this critical repair work. It can have an effect your mood, energy, focus, and clarity, as well as affect the neural pathways to cognize, remember, and respond. Lack of sleep has also been linked to increased risk of diseases like high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, and mood disorders.

Understanding Sleep

Sleep occurs in two stages—REM (or rapid eye movement) and non-REM (occurs in four stages). There are specific brain waves and neural activity connected to each of them. We move through both stages several times in the span of a night, spending a long time in REM toward the morning.

Stage one, non-REM, is the shift from a wakeful state to light sleep. During this stage that lasts up to a few minutes, our heart rate, brain waves, and breathing slow down. This is followed by the second stage of non-REM sleep, defined by light sleep, even slower heartbeat and breathing, and muscle relaxation. Here the body temperature is also reduced. The brain waves slow with spurts in electrical activity. The next stage of non-REM sleep is where your sleep deepens, with brain waves, heartbeat, and breathing at their slowest. It is usually difficult to wake up a person during this stage.

After these four stages, one enters REM sleep—about 90 minutes after hitting the hay—where dreams are experienced. Thankfully, nature has put in place a mechanism for your muscles to be paralyzed at this stage, so you do not start moving your body as you dream. Here, your eyes move rapidly from side to side, brain wave activity recurs and resembles that of a waking state, breathing is faster, and heart rate and blood pressure rise.

Facts that Affect the Sleep Cycle

Age. How much time we spend in REM sleep varies as we age. Infants and newborns spend much longer—in fact, they move into REM almost immediately after falling asleep. As we age, we spend less and less time in REM, and our sleep becomes more fragmented.

Amount of sleep. If sleep is insufficient or irregular, it can have an impact on one’s sleep cycle and the time one spends in the REM stage.

Use of alcohol and drugs. The use of alcohol and drugs can also have an effect, by first delaying and then prolonging the time spent in REM. This can induce lethargy and sleepiness during the day. But more dangerously, drinking yourself to sleep every night can cause dependence and demand consumption of incrementally more quantities of alcohol to be sedated enough to sleep.

Light. Light can affect sleep by disrupting our biological clock, an internal guide to sleep-wake timings based on the cues from the environment such as light and temperature. It controls and guides the circadian rhythm, synchronizing it with our environment. Our circadian rhythm controls all the bodily functions that cause one to feel sleepy at a particular time or wake up at a particular time, even without an external alarm. Specific cells in our retinas receive light falling on them and send signals to the brain about the time of the day, preparing our body to either wake up (when there is light) or go to sleep (when it is dark).

The invention of artificial light has had a significant impact on this this natural mechanism. As a result, exposure to light post-evening potentially disrupts the biological clock, as our brain remains alert even when it is late and dark outside when naturally we should be falling asleep. (Think television, computer, or phone screen.)

Jet lag and change in shifts. While we are usually guided by our inner biological clock about when to sleep or wake up, changes in our external environment while traveling across time zones or working late-night shifts can definitely impact our sleep cycle. When we travel to another time zone, our biological clock—which broadly works on a 24-hour cycle—tries to catch up with the changes in the external environment. It may be time to sleep according to what our body clock is used to, but it may be daytime where we are. This may cause fatigue, sleepiness, and tiredness in the body until our biological clock has adjusted to the new time zone.

Similarly, people who work late-night shifts may feel sleepy at night and struggle to fall asleep during the day until their biological clocks have adapted to the new sleep schedule.

Sleep-related illnesses. Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, or even diabetes can affect the quality of your sleep by not allowing your body enough rest in REM stages. Here are some natural ways of treating insomnia.

Remedies for Quality Sleep

Beyond popping sleeping pills, reducing screen time, and not glorifying a culture of toxic productivity that thrives on employees’ overexertion and fatigue, here are a couple of things you can do to reclaim your precious beauty sleep. Let’s look at some other science-backed ways to aid better sleep.

Yoga Nidra

Have you not been sleeping enough? Hard-pressed for time, deadlines looming but feeling drop-dead tired? Yoga nidra may be the answer when you need to draw out the most qualitative rest in the shortest period of time. A powerful technique that invokes the relaxation response, yoga nidra—also called the yogic sleep—is a booster shot of a meditative nap that can help you feel refreshed and energized in just a span of about 20 minutes. All you need to do is lie down, follow the instructions, and allow the relaxation response to kick in.

In yoga nidra, you’ll begin by following gentle instructions that guide you into  slowly moving your awareness through your entire body—from the tip of your toes, fingers, calves, thighs, genitals, abdomen, stomach, navel, chest/breasts, shoulders, arms, neck, throat, back of the head, face, nose, eyebrows, forehead, and top of the head—in that order. You synchronize your breath along with the movement of your awareness for deeper relaxation.

What does yoga nidra do for your brain?

The relaxation achieved from yoga nidra helps you balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, which helps eliminate stress, increases the time that your body is in rest-mode, nourishes the involuntary function, balances right and left brain, loosens the muscles, and brings a sense of lightness in the body and mind.

Yoga nidra changes the activity in the brain waves from beta waves—signals to the brain that is on a hyperdrive—to alpha waves, those active in a state of relaxation. Mood improving hormones like serotonin are released when the alpha waves are active.

As you move deeper into a relaxation response, the brain waves change from alpha to theta waves, when the number of thoughts in your mind dwindles. This state is comparable to a dream state, and the function of processing memories and emotions is enabled. So when you do yoga nidra, you may find images or random memories that may come up, but you will be in a state of restful awareness and not sleeping. This state when theta waves dominate is said to be good for creativity, provides the deepest rest, and is considered a spiritually valuable twilight state to be in when you are neither sleeping nor awake.

You’ll then move into a state when delta brain waves dominate, a more restorative stage when your thoughts nearly disappear. To put into context why delta brain waves matter, they also dominate when your body begins its involuntary repair, cleansing, and regeneration work while you are asleep. But here’s the most interesting fact—yoga nidra takes you to a state even deeper than this, which is not consciously accessible to us, that gives our rest a qualitative advantage over regular sleep, in a much shorter period of time.

When can we practice yoga nidra?

It can be practiced at any time of the day (wait 20-30 minutes after a meal). It may be done after a workout or yoga session to give your muscles, body, and mind a deeper rest. It is this rest that supports muscle building and strengthening, not the workout itself. Doing it right before going to sleep, can also help you get to sleep faster and enjoy better sleep.

Try this amazing yoga nidra meditation with Art of Living founder, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. 

Practice Yoga

Regular practice of yogasanas can go a long way in helping you sleep better, according to science. A 2012 study showed that yoga helped 55% of the practitioners sleep better and it reduced stress among 85% of the respondents who practiced yoga. Yoga, especially the involvement of proper breathing techniques can also heal symptoms in sleep disorders, as breath is linked to an improved relaxation response. Breathing practices or pranayamas like bumblebee breathing or victory breath can help ease the stress, relax the mind and prepare the body for sleep.


Spending some time in the sun can help reset our circadian rhythm. A healthy circadian rhythm is very important for you to feel fresh and energized the following day after a good long sleep.

Avoid Siestas

As unpopular as that advice is, you will do well by restricting your afternoon siestas to less than 30 minutes (even on weekends). Sleep gives you both rest and energy. Oversleeping in the afternoon can leave you feeling way too awake and energized for the night and you risk kicking off a vicious cycle of irregular sleeping hours.

Listen to Your Body Clock

Our circadian rhythms are set by nature—you are likely to feel sleepy at a particular time in the night and may yawn or struggle to keep your eyes open. Try listening to these subtle cues to have the best sleep. Often, we ignore these signs and continue to binge on our favorite shows, read, or even work—risking our natural sleep-wake homeostasis. Once the golden hour has passed, you may not be able to easily get to sleep for quite some time.

Avoid Caffeine or Heavy Meals at Night

Caffeine or nicotine can stimulate our sympathetic nervous system and delay sleep. Having heavy meals at night can also lead to digestive strain and cause interrupted sleep.

  • Add 10 gm cumin seeds and licorice to milk and bring it to a boil. Have the concoction before going to bed. Warm milk can aid sleep. Check with your Ayurveda practitioner to see if it suits your constitution.
  • Try adding 10 gm of Triphala powder to honey and have it before going to sleep. Honey has tryptophan that helps you with restorative sleep and a calm mind.
  • When you have had a mentally exhausting day, you can have foods or drinks that increase Kapha dosha or earth energy, to enable you to sleep better. You can have a glass of cooling sugarcane juice, for example.

Prep Your Bedroom for Sleep

Our body clock is naturally conditioned to correlate lack of light with a shift from wakefulness to a state of sleepiness. When that happens, the circadian rhythm kicks in to activate the right biological functions—releasing sleep-inducing hormones, regulating body temperature, and heaviness in the head and eyes to help us sleep. Your bedroom should be dark, quiet, neat, and clutter-free, and the temperature should be comfortable for uninterrupted sleep—on the cool side but not too cold.

Best Time for bed
The ideal time to go to bed—according to the science of Ayurveda—is 10:00 pm. This is when the pitta dosha, or the fire energy, kicks in and the body cells get into repair mode. If you stay up past this time, the energy that should be channeled for supporting the body’s regeneration gets diverted to other activities of facilitating sight or cognition, thus interfering with the body’s natural repair mechanism.

Incorporating these tips slowly over time can greatly improve your sleep quality. However, if you’re still having trouble falling or staying asleep, visit a sleep doctor or Ayurveda practitioner who can help bring back the joy of 8-hours of  uninterrupted sleep.