Why am I always so tired? 8 reasons you're sleepwalking
In Evelyn De Morgan’s painting, Night and Sleep (1878), Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep is suspended in the soft embrace of his mother Nyx, the goddess of night. Together, they scatter crimson petals over Earth, seeding dreams through the minds of sleeping mortals below.
If only dreams - and deep sleep - could be delivered so easily. After all, how many times have you felt like you’re sleepwalking, asking yourself “why am I always so tired?”
It’s easy to see where you could be going wrong: where we once worshipped gods of slumber, now we forgo sleep in favour of work, screens, and alcohol. What’s more, we’re not just getting less sleep than we need, we’re not getting quality sleep.
And that's the kicker: if you want to experience more energy, more presentness, more mental clarity, and more emotional stability, you don’t just need to get more hours, you need to get the right kind of sleep. Deep sleep to be exact.
Read on to find out exactly how much sleep you need– but most importantly, how much deep sleep you need, and how to get more of it.
How much sleep do you actually need?
Sleep is the broccoli of wellbeing: we know it’s good for us, and we feel great when we have it, but there are so many other things that are simply so much more…fun. That’s why the average American adult sleeps six hours a night, but an average healthy adult should be getting anywhere between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night.
The problem with sleeping for only six hours a night, says Harvard neurologist and sleep medicine physician Josna Adusumilli, is that it drastically affects your performance.
In fact, if you sleep six hours a night for twelve days, your cognitive and physical abilities become almost indistinguishable from that of someone who has been awake for twenty-four hours straight, ie. you’re practically sleepwalking.
No one wants to feel this way, which is why it’s important to understand the sleep cycles. Your body shifts in and out of different cycles during the night, and while you might be getting enough hours, you need to optimise deep sleep, which is when your body restores and regenerates itself.
What is the sleep cycle and what are the different stages?
Shortly after falling asleep, your body begins to move through four key sleep cycles– from awake, into light sleep, into deep sleep and, eventually, into REM sleep. Most adults experience four to six rotations of this cycle per night:
- Stage One: Light Sleep
Light sleep is the shortest stage of the sleep cycle, lasting roughly 10 minutes. The body begins to relax and become drowsy, and brainwaves begin to slow. It’s during this stage that many people experience muscular spasms as they try to fall asleep.
- Stage Two: N2 Sleep
This is the first stage of the sleep cycle in which your brainwaves have continued to slow to the point of you being completely asleep. It lasts roughly twenty five minutes during the first sleep cycle, and gradually lengthens with each successive cycle until it comprises about 45% of your sleep for the evening. N2 Sleep is all about setting the stage for what’s to come. In anticipation of Deep Sleep, your body temperature begins to drop, your muscles relax, and your heart rate and breath begin to slow.
- Stage Three: Deep Sleep
If N2 sleep is an opening act, then deep sleep is a symphony.
What sets this third stage of sleep apart from its contemporaries is its brainwaves, which transform into an orchestra of delta waves– almost like the slow, gentle hum of a lullaby. That's why some call it 'delta sleep' or 'slow-wave sleep' (SWS) – it's like your brain's own nighttime serenade.
This stage is like the spa treatment for your body and mind - but it’s not just about beauty; it's the immune system's best friend and a huge factor in cognitive functioning. That’s right: deep sleep may be low on brain activity, but getting enough of it is essential for supercharging your thinking, creativity, and memory in your waking life.
Sounds dreamy? You bet. But more on deep sleep and how to get it later.
- Stage Four: REM Sleep
When the lights go out and you drift into dreamland, there's a secret world of sleep that's all about brainpower. It's called REM sleep, and during this stage, your brain goes into overdrive– sometimes exhibiting the same amount of brain activity as it would if you were awake.
Conversely, while your brain revs up, your body slows down, entering a state of muscle paralysis called atonia. During this time, your muscles relax - except your eye muscles. Your eyelids might be closed, but your eyes are darting around underneath the surface. This is the dream phase, sponsored by your skyrocketing brain activity. Dreams can pop up during other sleep stages, but REM is where those vivid, almost real dreams will happen.
How much deep sleep should you get?
Based on the research, the average sleeper spends 15-25% of their total rest time in deep sleep– and, as discussed, you want to be clocking in at a good eight hours of sleep every night.
If you can’t clock 8 hours, then work out what 15% of your total sleep is - that’s how much deep sleep you should be getting at an absolute minimum.
How to get more deep sleep
1. Exposure to light at the right time
Think of your circadian rhythm as a kind of ‘body clock’ that determines when you want to be sleepy, and when you want to be awake. It’s governed by light exposure, and it’s why you tend to feel sleepy in the same 6-10 hour period each day.
Because light governs the circadian rhythm, you should think of sunlight as a traffic light for your sleep.
Exposure to sunlight in the morning suppresses the release of sleep-promoting melatonin, and and the release of cortisol (the alertness hormone). Conversely, the absence of sunlight triggers the release of melatonin and a reduction in cortisol.
How to regulate light for deep sleep
Harvard neurologist Dr Andrew Huberman recommends the following protocol for sun exposure so that your body is releasing the right hormones at the right time:
- Get direct sunlight exposure within 30 to 60 minutes of waking up, and again before sunset, to signal your cortisol to rise and lower accordingly.
- Keep your home as dark as possible at night in order to encourage the release of melatonin. And, yes: this means limiting light exposure from electronic devices, and avoiding any kind of artificial bright light between 10pm and 4am. Alternatively, you could try blue light blocking glasses that may help to suppress blue-screen induced cortisol spikes.
- Catch some sun in the afternoon, too. Huberman says that sunlight during this time has a lower wavelength, less bluelight, and more red and orange hues - which means it’s less likely to disturb melatonin production.
2. Experiment with your caffeine intake
The second powerful force that governs your sleep is adenosine, which is known as the ‘sleep hunger’ chemical. Adenosine builds up in your body while you’re awake, so if you’ve been awake for 10 hours, your adenosine levels will be higher than someone who has been awake for six, and you’ll be more tired.
Caffeine acts as an adenosine antagonist- meaning that it tricks your body into feeling ‘full’ on sleep, which is why you don’t feel as much hunger for sleep.
You’re probably expecting to be told to avoid caffeine altogether through the afternoon– however, this isn’t necessarily accurate advice.
In reality, everyone has a different caffeine tolerance as their adenosine receptors are different. That’s why, contrary to popular belief, there’s no hard or fast rule on caffeine. Rather, it’s about experimenting with your caffeine intake and determining for yourself from what time of day you need to limit your caffeine in order to get a good night’s rest.
How to drink caffeine but still have deep sleep
For the sake of simplicity, most people’s caffeine ‘cut-off’ time should be around noon (or: ten hours before you plan to be in bed).
Bonus Tip: Huberman cites that your first cup of coffee has a ‘biological cascade’ effect. This means that even if it’s early in the morning, it will still affect your cortisol levels and ability to access deep sleep.
That’s why you should:
- limit your first caffeine until 90-120 minutes after waking - this will assist in wakefulness and a longer arch of energy through the day.
don’t drink caffeine 10 hours before bed or limit it from 2-3pm
3. Limit alcohol
After a big day, a casual glass of wine in the name of ‘winding down,’ can seem like the easy path to a quick sleep.
This is because alcohol suppresses your central nervous system and increases the production of adenosine– making you sleepy.
But your night-cap has very real consequences. Metabolized alcohol releases excitatory glutamate in the body, and can shortchange your precious REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. This leads to waking up more frequently and shorter sleep cycles. You you get stuck in a perpetual limbo of stage one and stage two sleep– and deep sleep remains elusive.
How to limit alcohol for deep sleep
If you want deep sleep? No alcohol. Not even a single glass.
It takes hours for your kidney and liver to flush out alcohol’s nasty effects, and even one innocent glass will inhibit your ability to access deep sleep.
If cutting out alcohol completely seems impossible, try limiting your last drink to 3-4 hours before sleep– although this still isn’t ideal.
4. Keep a consistent sleep schedule
The best way to ensure you’re maximising your deep sleep? Keeping a consistent sleep schedule.
Unfortunately, the existence of weekends makes this step a difficult one to master - resulting in the majority of the population existing in a state of permanent jet lag exacerbated by attempts to ‘catch up on sleep’ on the weekend.
How to maximise consistency for deep sleep
As you progress through the stages of sleep, the amount of deep sleep you experience per cycle gradually decreases. This is why keeping your sleep patterns consistent is essential.
We are creatures of habit, and if your body knows exactly when it should begin to wind down, it will always initiate the calm and lowered heart rate that ensures you’re entering that precious first cycle of sleep, which is the the ripest cycle for deep sleep. Ideally, a structured sleep routine looks like:
- Getting at least eight hours of good quality sleep
Going to sleep and waking up within the same 35 minute window each night.
5. Optimize your food and exercise habits
This one’s simple: the timing of your meals is another lifestyle factor that informs your circadian rhythm– the body clock that you want to keep consistent.
On top of this, studies have found that those of us who work out during the day not only fall asleep faster than those who don’t, but are twice as likely to access a meaningful amount of the deep sleep stage.
How to exercise and eat for deep sleep
Andrew Huberman recommends the following protocol for exercise:
- Avoid exercise at least 90 minutes before bed. If you suffer with insomnia, limit moderate exercise to four hours before bed.
- Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-to–vigorous exercise per week (roughly 30 minutes per day)-- this can be a brisk walk or jog.
- Aim to incorporate strength training into your routine 3-4 times a week– pilates or weight training are both great options.
… and the following for food:
- Aim to eat your meals within the same hour-long windows each day.
- Aim to stop eating 2-4 hours before bed
6. Keep your bedroom cool
Cold sleeping environments lower your body temperature and prevent the suppression of melatonin– meaning more deep sleep.
The ideal temperature for deep sleep
Huberman recommends keeping your room consistently dark and cool at a temperature of 18.3 degrees celsius across all seasons (he recommends using a blanket if you get cold).
7. Keep your mind even cooler
Anxiety and stress are illnesses of our times - and both have a massive impact on deep sleep.
The key to slashing stress and getting more deep sleep? Stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system (also known as your body’s rest-and-digest system).
This can be accomplished by sending your nervous system a “signal of safety”, such as the physiological sigh, when you feel anxiety creep in
How to keep anxiety at bay for deep sleep
The physiological sigh is a natural breathing pattern practised by other animals as well as human beings, typically when they’re stressed, afraid, or asleep. It’s great for moments where you don’t have the time for a traditional breathing or meditation practice.
To practise it, take two quick inhales through your nose, and follow them with one long, controlled, exhale through the mouth. Then repeat as desired.
The reason breathwork is so effective? As explained by Huberman, our lungs are filled with millions of alveoli sacs. When we stress, the sacs are prone to collapse and fill our bodies with carbon dioxide. This is what causes those unfortunate anxious jitters and other physical symptoms of stress.
The physiological sigh is so effective at battling these jitters because it helps to inflate collapsed sacs and more easily dispel excess carbon dioxide in the body.
Engaging in rounds of meditation or breathwork such as the physiological sigh several times throughout the day has been proven to level out your cortisol levels and enhance deep sleep.
8. Consider natural sleep aids - like terpenes
The news is in: the majority of sleep medications probably do more harm than good. Side-effects can range from dependency, next-day cognitive impairment, and links with dementia. Additionally, in as little as three to four weeks of using them, the majority of OTC sleep aids can become no more effective than a sugar pill.
In terms of quality, sleeping aids such as benzodiazepines have been proven to reduce restorative deep sleep – which is why, despite sleeping for eight or nine hours after taking a benzo, you almost feel hungover.
The alternative could be something like terpenes - otherwise known as the compounds that determine the intense aromas of plants and flowers.
Terpenes have been shown to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties – but new findings also suggest that they have a natural sedative effect that gently induce and promote deep sleep. Also, terpenes like myrcene and beta-caryophyllene are fantastic at naturally soothing and regulating the parasympathetic nervous system– resulting in the calm that’s so necessary for a proper tuck-in at night.
How to use terpenes for deep sleep
You can try 1ml of the Khush Mountain Relax Terpene Sleep Tonic about an hour before bed each night– or roughly one draw of the pipette– in order to access its deep-sleep inducing benefits.
The best part? The calming effects of terpenes have a cumulative effect– so get in the habit of soothing your parasympathetic nervous system from a daily evening ritual of breathwork and Relax.
Sleepy yet? In lieu of Nyx and Hypnos showering you with dreamtime petals, you truly have practical tips for your best sleep ever. And if ancient mythology gives us any lessons, it’s that sleep is something to worship Unsurprising, given that Hypnos was the closest friend to the Muses - the Greek personification of creativity, inspiration and everything remotely associated with enjoyment.