There is nothing like waking up well-rested and deeply relaxed. Many of us refer to good sleep with the words “I have slept so deep.” and use the term “deep sleep” simultaneously as a reference for good sleep. But what exactly is deep sleep? Few phenomena remain as elusive as the enigmatic state of deep sleep. As scientists delve into the intricacies of the human sleep cycles, deep sleep, scientifically known as slow-wave sleep (SWS) or N3, consistently plays a pivotal role for us as the most restorative phase of our sleep cycle.
Published in Sleep · 13 min read · Dec 04, 2023
Published in Sleep
13 min read · Dec 04, 2023
In this article, CARE dissects the essence of deep sleep, unraveling the mysteries that enshroud its importance in several intricate biological processes that influence our wellness and health. And lastly, we’ll give you science-backed-up tips on how to get more and better deep sleep.
Did you know that we spend one-third of our lives asleep?
Sleep, a fundamental biological process, is far from a passive state of rest where you simply pass out and remain unconscious. Instead, it is a dynamic cycle of various sleep stages, each characterized by distinct neurophysiological and biological signatures. Scientifically, sleep is a natural, recurring state of reduced consciousness and neurophysical activity, marked by altered brain activity and responsiveness to our environment. It serves essential functions, including physical restoration, memory consolidation, and overall maintenance of our cognitive and physiological health. 
At the heart of this nocturnal occurrence lies deep sleep, a stage marked by slow, synchronized brain waves and a cascade of physiological events that are indispensable for the maintenance of your health. But deep sleep is just one stage, the third, of your sleep cycle.
Were you aware that a complete sleep cycle consists of four distinct stages, each with unique characteristics and functions? These stages are categorized into two main types: Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) sleep and Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. 
You do not go through one cycle each night. In fact, your sleep cycle repeats throughout the night, with an entire cycle lasting about 80 to 110 minutes. Usually, you go through four to six cycles per night and may wake up briefly between cycles.  
Deep sleep is the third stage of non-REM sleep, following the initial transition from wakefulness to lighter sleep. It constitutes a substantial portion of the sleep cycle, typically occupying 15-25% of a healthy adult's nightly rest.
Deep sleep, or N3, is your deepest stage of sleep and is characterized by signals with much lower frequencies and higher amplitudes, known as delta waves. This sleep phase is the most difficult to awaken from. For some people, even loud noises of > 100 decibels will not wake them up during their deep sleep stage.  We all know that one friend, right?
As we age, we tend to spend less time in the slow, delta-wave deep sleep and more time in stage N2 sleep. Although deep sleep has the greatest arousal threshold, during this stage, if you are woken up, you will experience a transient phase of mental fogginess, known as sleep inertia. 
Cognitive tests have shown that people awakened during the deep sleep stage can have moderately impaired mental performance for 30 to 60 minutes. But what happens during this stage of sleep?
Deep sleep is the stage in the sleep cycle when your body repairs and regrows tissues, builds bone and muscle, and strengthens the immune system. Interestingly, sleepwalking, night terrors, and bed-wetting also occur during deep sleep. 
Before we dive deeper into the spheres of your deep sleep, let’s take a brief look at a full sleep cycle.  
As your brain descends into the depths of deep sleep, your neuronal activity undergoes a dramatic transformation. Delta waves, with frequencies ranging from 0.5 to 4 hertz, dominate the electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings. Simultaneously, there is a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure, and metabolic rate.
This orchestrated slowdown in physiological activity creates an environment conducive to rejuvenation and repair, vital for your body. 
As we have already learned, deep sleep is characterized by slow, synchronized brain waves called delta waves. It is a stage of non-REM sleep associated with physical restoration, immune system support, and memory consolidation.
In contrast, REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is marked by vivid dreams, increased brain activity resembling wakefulness, and rapid eye movements. REM sleep is also crucial for emotional regulation, learning, and memory processing, complementing the physical restoration functions of deep sleep.
Together, all sleep stages form a dynamic cycle essential for your overall health and well-being.  
We have summarized the most important differences between deep sleep and REM sleep for you:
REM Sleep: Rapid and random eye movements
Deep Sleep: Minimal to no eye movement
REM Sleep: Heightened, comparable to wakefulness
Deep Sleep: Slow, synchronized delta waves
REM Sleep: Vivid dreaming, emotional processing
Deep Sleep: Limited or no dreaming, primarily physical restoration
REM Sleep: Cognitive functions, memory consolidation
Deep Sleep: Physical restoration, immune system support
The recommended amount of deep sleep varies by age and individual factors, but generally, you should aim for 15-30% of your total sleep time to be spent in the deep sleep stage.
This translates to about 1.5 to 2 hours of deep sleep for the average adult, who gets 7–9 hours of sleep per night. Quality is just as important as quantity, so prioritizing both the duration and effectiveness of deep sleep contributes to overall better sleep.  
Deep sleep is the most restorative phase of your sleep cycle and is biologically important for various reasons. It facilitates the secretion of growth hormones, promoting cellular repair, muscle growth, and the maintenance of physiological functions.  
Moreover, during deep sleep, there is an orchestrated release of cytokines and other immune modulators, enhancing immune response and fortifying your body against pathogens. 
At the neuronal level, deep sleep supports memory consolidation by facilitating synaptic plasticity and strengthening neural connections formed during wakefulness. It also allows for the removal of metabolic byproducts from neural activity, contributing to overall cognitive health. Disruptions in deep sleep can lead to alterations in hormonal profiles, impacting stress response and homeostasis, underscoring the intricate biological significance of this sleep stage. 
Deep sleep is associated with a significant release of growth hormone from the pituitary gland. This hormone is essential for growth, cellular repair, and the maintenance of tissues throughout the body. Deep sleep promotes cellular repair by facilitating the production of proteins necessary for tissue restoration. This includes repairing damaged cells and synthesizing new cellular components.  
The hippocampus, a region of your brain crucial for memory formation, is particularly active during your deep sleep stage. Neural connections are strengthened, and the transfer of information from your short-term to long-term memory occurs, contributing to memory consolidation. 
Synaptic plasticity, the ability of your synapses (junctions between neurons) to change and adapt, is enhanced during deep sleep. This supports your learning ability and the integration of new information acquired during wakefulness. 
Deep sleep is associated with the glymphatic system, a waste removal system in your brain. This system becomes more active during sleep, helping to remove metabolic byproducts that accumulate during daily neuronal activity. 
Deep sleep also plays a role in regulating your immune system. The release of cytokines and other immune factors is modulated, contributing to an effective immune response of your body to defend you against infections and other intruders. 
Did you ever wake up after a night of bad sleep and feel on edge, ready to snap at the littlest things? Hormones such as cortisol, which is involved in your stress response, follow a circadian rhythm influenced by deep sleep. Disruptions in deep sleep can lead to alterations in your hormonal balance, impacting your emotional and physiological balance.
It becomes apparent that deep sleep is a valuable influence on your general health since it is involved in various biological processes of your body.
You might ask yourself what the most common reasons are that can disrupt and harm your deep sleep stage. CARE is here to let you know so you can avoid them and maximize your deep sleep.
High stress levels and anxiety can interfere with the ability to transition into a deep sleep. Elevated cortisol, the stress hormone, may disrupt your natural sleep cycle, reducing the time spent in deep sleep.
Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder characterized by repeated interruptions in breathing during sleep, often caused by the collapse of the upper airway. Insomnia is a sleep disorder characterized by persistent difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing restorative sleep, leading to impaired daytime functioning. 
Conditions such as sleep apnea and insomnia can significantly impact the quality of sleep, including your deep sleep stage. Sleep disorders may lead to frequent awakenings and interruptions in the sleep cycle.
Consuming caffeinated beverages or other stimulants close to bedtime can interfere with the onset of deep sleep. These substances can disrupt the natural sleep-wake cycle and lead to increased alertness.
Exposure to the blue light emitted by electronic devices (phones, tablets, computers) before bedtime can suppress the production of melatonin, a hormone essential for sleep, potentially reducing deep sleep. 
Inconsistent sleep patterns, such as irregular bedtimes or insufficient sleep duration, can negatively impact the ability to enter deep sleep. Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule is crucial for a healthy sleep cycle. 
Disruptions in the sleep environment, such as excessive noise, uncomfortable temperatures, or an uncomfortable mattress, can hinder the progression into deep sleep and disrupt its continuity.
While alcohol may initially induce drowsiness, it can fragment sleep cycles and reduce the amount of time spent in deep sleep. It interferes with sleep architecture and can lead to restless sleep. 
Inadequate sleep hygiene practices, such as engaging in stimulating activities close to bedtime or having an irregular bedtime routine, can hinder the body's ability to transition smoothly into deep sleep.
As individuals age, there is a natural decline in the amount of deep sleep obtained. Older adults may experience changes in sleep architecture, including a reduction in slow-wave sleep.
Certain sleeping positions, especially those that may cause discomfort or contribute to sleep apnea, can affect the quality of deep sleep. Finding a comfortable and supportive sleeping position is essential.
Addressing these factors through lifestyle modifications, improved sleep hygiene, and, if necessary, consultation with a healthcare professional can contribute to optimizing your deep sleep and overall quality of life.
There are several science-backed strategies that can be the key to increasing deep sleep naturally.
Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends. This consistency helps regulate your body's internal clock, promoting a smoother transition into deep sleep. 
Create a dark, cool, and quiet sleep environment. Consider blackout curtains, comfortable bedding, and eliminating noise to enhance the conditions conducive to deep sleep.
Engage in calming activities before bed, such as reading a book, taking a warm bath, or practicing relaxation techniques. This signals to your body that it's time to wind down and enter deep sleep. 
Reduce exposure to electronic devices with screens before bedtime. The blue light emitted can suppress melatonin production, hindering the onset of deep sleep. 
Avoid heavy meals close to bedtime, and limit caffeine and alcohol intake in the hours leading up to sleep. These substances can disrupt sleep patterns, including deep sleep. 
Incorporate regular physical activity into your routine, aiming for at least 30 minutes most days. Exercise has been shown to improve sleep quality, including the duration of deep sleep. 
Practice relaxation methods such as deep breathing, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation. These techniques can help reduce stress and promote a state conducive to deep sleep.
Use white noise machines or calming sounds to create a consistent background noise that masks disruptive sounds, promoting a more stable sleep environment for deep sleep. 
Implement stress management techniques, such as journaling, yoga, or mindfulness, to address factors that might interfere with deep sleep. 
Ensure your mattress and pillows provide adequate support and comfort. An uncomfortable sleep surface can contribute to disruptions in deep sleep.
If you nap during the day, keep it short (20–30 minutes) and avoid napping too close to bedtime, as it can affect your ability to enter deep sleep during the night. 
Reduce the amount you drink close to bedtime to minimize disruptions from waking up for bathroom trips, allowing for more uninterrupted deep sleep.
Insufficient deep sleep can lead to a range of health issues. Your cognitive function may decline, and your memory can be impacted, as well as your concentration and decision-making. Furthermore, insufficient deep sleep can affect your emotional well-being and stress levels, with an increased risk of mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. 
Chronic sleep deprivation, including insufficient deep sleep, has also been linked to an elevated risk of cardiovascular problems, including hypertension, and an increased susceptibility to infections due to compromised immune function. Additionally, hormonal imbalances, weight gain, and an increased likelihood of metabolic disorders may result from prolonged, inadequate sleep. 
In the pursuit of a healthier, more restful life, improving your deep sleep and sleep quality in general is paramount. By incorporating some science-backed strategies into your sleep routine, you can do your part to sleep better, enhancing the quality of your life.
By being a CARE member, you can discuss your quality of sleep with one of our healthcare professionals. During your regular health check-ups, we can even see how your sleep might impact different biomarkers in your blood. By analyzing your blood sample comprehensively, we can draw conclusions on your overall health status. Poor sleep, for example, is associated with increased inflammatory processes in the body, which we can recognize by elevated levels of C-reactive protein in your blood. 
CARE would be delighted to accompany you on your journey of becoming the healthiest version of yourself, and we are happy to consult you on achieving a more rejuvenating night's sleep!
Elena is an enthusiastic Health Coach and blog writer at CARE, with a passion for holistic medicine and health. Previously, Elena worked for almost five years as a coach leading retreats, workshops, and seminars. These included mind-body therapy: breath work, meditation, and massage; as well as energy force therapy: reiki, and qi gong; and third expressive therapy: movement, writing and support groups. Elena shares exciting articles on the blog, on the topic of where the alternative and traditional medicine intersect with Western Medicine. Elena is also the driving force behind the CARE community. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, traveling to remote locations and dancing. You might also see her on the lake of Zurich as a coast guard. Join her on her journey to learn more about health and discover the world of preventive medicine! Visit all articles written by Elena!