Do you wake up to every little noise or movement at night, or do you have a hard time falling asleep if your sleep environment isn’t perfect? Such is the dilemma of the light sleeper, and it’s a problem that many people face. Being a light sleeper isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can make getting a good night’s sleep difficult.
Deep sleepers are the opposite— they’re difficult to awaken once they fall asleep, and compared to a light sleeper, may be able to sleep through just about anything. If you have a hard time sleeping through the night, that may feel like an enviable trait to have.
But is it possible for a light sleeper to become a deep sleeper? What can a light sleeper do to sleep more soundly at night? Before we dive into those questions, let’s take a look at why light sleepers experience their sleep issues. If you are one, then you may be surprised by what you learn!
What is a Light Sleeper?
Light sleepers are people who are easily woken up at night— this can be because of outside noise, ambient light, your bed partner moving around, et cetera. On the other hand, a heavy sleeper may sleep through anything that bothers a light sleeper, completely unaware of any disturbances.
Light sleepers are especially vulnerable to fragmented, poor-quality sleep. Poor sleep quality not only can make you feel sluggish and tired the next day, but it can also make you more likely to experience a sleep disorder, or long-term health problems like hypertension, diabetes, or heart disease.
Light Sleepers and Sleep Fragmentation
Your sleep becomes fragmented if you experience multiple sleep interruptions during the night. Fragmented sleep disrupts your sleep cycle and each of the sleep stages necessary to get a good night’s rest.
Sleep fragmentation is a major cause of daytime sleepiness, but it’s hard to accurately determine what all contributes to fragmented sleep. There are a few common factors that can create fragmented sleep though, some of which include:
- Temporary nighttime disturbances, such as a crying baby or a snoring bed partner
- Your brain wave activity during sleep
- Undiagnosed sleep disorders, such as insomnia or sleep apnea
- Your pre-bedtime habits or lifestyle choices
One thing is for sure— fragmented sleep is bad news for getting a good night’s sleep. Recent experiments have shown that immense cognitive deficits develop over time in response to fragmented sleep and sleep deprivation. To make things more tricky, vulnerability to sleep loss can vary from person to person.
As you likely know by now, you want 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. You also want to experience enough quality sleep between light sleep stages and deep sleep stages. Transitioning between these sleep stages is important to getting the quality sleep you need each night. Let’s take a look at those.
Light Sleep Stages vs. Deep Sleep Stages
Each night while you rest, you switch between two types of sleep stages: rapid eye movement or REM sleep, and non-rapid eye movement or NREM sleep.
REM sleep is your light sleep stage that happens about 90 minutes after you fall asleep. During this stage, your breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure all increase, and your eyes move rapidly while you sleep— hence the name. You also dream mostly during REM sleep.
NREM sleep is the deep sleep stage. NREM sleep actually happens in three stages.
- Stage 1: As you fall asleep, your breathing, heart rate, eye movement, and brain wave activity all slow down, and your muscles relax.
- Stage 2: Your eye movement stops, and everything else continues to slow.
- Stage 3: You are now relaxed and sleeping deeply.
Light sleepers may spend less time in NREM sleep than heavy sleepers, which would make them easier to awaken. Your brain activity at night is a major determining factor for how well you sleep at night. One particular type of brainwave may be especially helpful for ensuring you get a good night’s sleep.
What are Sleep Spindles?
Sleep spindles are brief, powerful brainwaves that happen during stage 2 NREM sleep. Sleep spindles are important for consolidating your memories each night, and may also determine how you react to sudden stimuli while you sleep.
A study published by Current Biology found that people who generate more sleep spindles during the night can sleep through potential noise interruptions better than people who can’t.
As I mentioned above, light sleepers may spend less time in NREM sleep than heavy sleepers do— this means that they would naturally produce fewer sleep spindles, which can make them more vulnerable to nighttime disturbances.
A solution to this issue would simply be for light sleepers to produce more sleep spindles. Of course, it’s not that simple. However, the study’s findings have paved the way for additional studies that focus on increasing spindle production in light sleepers so they can sleep deeper and with fewer interruptions.
Dolphin: The Chronotype of Light Sleepers
I talk about chronotypes and how important they are a lot, but in case you’re not familiar with them, I’ll give you a few basics. Your chronotype works with your circadian rhythm to determine your best windows for sleeping, waking, and productivity during the day.
Not sure what your chronotype is? Check out my chronoquiz.
There are four chronotypes: bear, wolf, lion, and dolphin. If you’re a very light sleeper, then odds are you may be a dolphin.
Dolphins tend to experience fragmented sleep patterns and can be easily disturbed by light or noise while they’re trying to sleep. They’re often tired during the day, and “wired” during the night when they should be getting ready for sleep. They’re also the hardest to figure out ideal sleep patterns for.
This is because a person with the dolphin chronotype’s brain activity actually increases at night, waking them up when everyone else is getting ready for a good night’s sleep.
Regardless of chronotype, proper sleep habits can help even the lightest of sleepers rest well each night. More on those soon. But now that we’ve talked about what can make someone a light sleeper, let’s finally answer the question you’ve been wondering about.
Is It Possible for a Light Sleeper to Become a Heavy Sleeper?
In short, no. Light sleepers and heavy sleepers are just born that way, so unfortunately there really isn’t any way to change that. Your sleep habits and sleep needs may change as you age, and melatonin production can decrease with age in some populations. This could impact how lightly or heavily you tend to sleep.
Even if you can’t rewire your brain to make yourself into a heavier sleeper, there are still ways for even the lightest sleeper to get the deep, rejuvenating sleep they need to feel and perform at their best each day.
4 Ways to Get Deeper Rest (Even If You’re a Light Sleeper)
Whether you’re a light sleeper or a heavy sleeper, you should still be able to sleep through the night as the world goes on around you. Here are some ways that can help even the lightest sleeper get a good night’s sleep tonight.
1. Reduce Background Noise and Light
This is especially helpful if your partner snores or works during the night. Blackout curtains are great for reducing ambient light from outside, and an eye mask is a simple, effective, and accessible way to block out any light or movement that may disturb your rest.
If you’re worried about noise, ear plugs are awesome for blocking out anything you don’t want to hear. And like an eye mask, ear plugs are cheap and easy to find just about anywhere.
If you need some ambient noise to sleep, I recommend a sound machine or a white noise machine. These devices can drown out any obtrusive sounds that can impact your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep while playing soothing sounds that help you drift off peacefully.
2. Follow a Consistent Sleep Schedule
The right sleep schedule is key to a good night’s sleep. By going to bed at the same time each night and setting your alarm for the same time every morning, you’re helping your body adapt to your sleep schedule. This helps your body anticipate when it should be awake and when it should be asleep, which will make it much easier to stick to your new schedule,
Consistency is key though— make sure you stick to these times every day, even on weekends. It may not be the easiest habit to get into, especially if you work odd hours, but it’s one of the best steps you can take to making sure you sleep well.
3. Improve Your Sleep Hygiene
A consistent sleep schedule and proper sleep hygiene go hand-in-hand to help you sleep well. Sleep hygiene is the term used to describe your nighttime habits before bed— good sleep hygiene helps you get a good night’s sleep, while poor sleep hygiene can easily ruin your night.
Here are a few of my suggestions to help you improve your sleep hygiene and sleep more soundly tonight:
- Avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol at least a few hours before bed.
- Avoid electronic devices at least an hour before bed
- Do something to help you relax before bed, like a warm bath, journaling, or meditating
- Give yourself enough time before bed to finish your day-to-day business
4. Don’t Nap Too Late in the Day
A restful nap can help you get through the day if you’re feeling sluggish, but be sure not to nap too close to bedtime, or for too long. Napping too close to your bedtime can delay your sleep schedule and make it tougher for you to fall asleep on time.
The best time to nap each day is between 1:00 and 3:00 PM, which is when many people have their post-lunch afternoon lull. This is because your circadian rhythm naturally prepares itself for sleep at this time, which makes it much easier to catch a few ZZZ’s.
When to See a Sleep Expert
If you’re still struggling to sleep and you’re not sure if an underlying sleep disorder is to blame, then contact your doctor or a sleep expert. Here are a few symptoms to look out for:
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
- Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
- Loud snoring, difficulty breathing, or gasping/choking during the night (these are a sign of sleep apnea)
It’s important to get the deeper non-REM sleep you need at night to feel rested in the morning. An accredited sleep expert can help you figure out your symptoms and get started on a treatment plan that will help you feel rested and refreshed. If you’re not sure where to find a sleep center in your area, check out this resource from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
While it’s not possible for you to rewire your brain to turn a light sleeper into a heavy sleeper, there’s always a way to help yourself sleep better at night. I hope you give some of these suggestions a try.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, FAASM
The Sleep Doctor