Sleep and Rest for Whole-Person Health

“A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.”
– Irish Proverb

Prioritize Sleep

Has there ever been a time when you didn’t prioritize sleep? It’s very common! Like nutrition, sleep is a cornerstone of whole-person health. Though it’s frequently undervalued, it’s essential to everything from immunity, metabolism, and productivity to athletic performance and social interactions.

For adults, aiming for seven to nine hours of sleep per night is generally recommended. Of course, it’s somewhat bio-individual and based on factors like health status and age.

About one in four adults struggles with getting quality sleep on a regular basis, and people often try a variety of methods to improve their sleep. Whether you have difficulty getting to sleep, staying asleep, creating space for sleep in your busy schedule, or shifting habits that prevent truly restorative sleep, a lack of quality sleep can cause stress and make every aspect of whole-person health more challenging.

It can become a vicious cycle: You don’t sleep well, so you feel tired and stressed the following day. As a result, you require more caffeine to stay alert and focused. You also crave more sugar and simple carbohydrates for energy. Maybe you nap or skip your exercise because you’re too tired. All these habits perpetuate the cycle of poor-quality sleep.

Circadian Rhythms

Circadian rhythms are internal clocks that coincide with the 24-hour cycle as the earth rotates around the sun. The most well-known circadian rhythm is your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. Studies have shown that circadian rhythms can affect bodily functions like digestion, hormone release, and body temperature. Getting adequate amounts of high-quality, restorative sleep helps regulate your circadian rhythms.

Irregular circadian rhythms have been linked to various chronic health conditions, such as:

• Bipolar disorder
• Depression
• Diabetes
• Obesity
• Seasonal affective disorder
• Sleep disorders

Explore the Sleep Cycles

It’s important to understand sleep cycles. A healthy sleep cycle typically lasts 90–120 minutes and consists of four stages followed by a period of rapid eye movement (REM). Three to four full sleep cycles can occur per night.

Click or tab to each of the sleep stages and the REM period in the following image to read about them and learn why they’re important for whole-person health. You may also click or hit the enter key to uncover more information about each sleep stage.

When it happens: About 20%–25% of total sleep time for adults occurs during REM. This period happens about 90 minutes after falling asleep. The first REM period lasts about 10 minutes, then gradually increases to as long as an hour later in the night.

What happens: Brain waves are similar to waking during REM sleep. Heart rate quickens, blood pressure increases, and breathing becomes faster and irregular. Due to rapid eye movements, eyelids often flutter. Most dreaming occurs here, and chemicals are released to paralyze muscles, preventing them from acting out any dreams during sleep.

Health benefits: REM sleep supports learning, a healthy weight, brain development (in infants), and memory consolidation. Emotional processing (during dreams) also occurs during this stage.

When it happens: Stage 1 first occurs within seconds or minutes of dozing off. Each time a person is in Stage 1 sleep, it lasts between five and ten minutes, during which many individuals are easily roused.

What happens: Brain waves begin to slow, and occasional hypnic jerks (muscle spasms) occur as muscles relax.
Health benefits: This stage of sleep is perfect for a reenergizing catnap!

When it happens: About 40%–60% of total sleep time occurs in this stage of sleep.

What happens: Brain waves slow down, with occasional episodes of electrical activity. Both breathing and heart rate slow down. Blood pressure lowers and body temperature drops.

Health benefits: Research suggests that bursts of electrical brain activity help short-term memories be committed to long-term memories.

When it happens: About 5%–15% of total sleep time for adults (much more for children and adolescents) occurs in the third stage of sleep. As you get older, you require less, and elderly adults may not enter this stage at all. 

What happens: Brain waves are even slower and muscles are fully relaxed. Heart rate and breathing are significantly lowered. It’s very difficult to rouse someone in this stage.

Health benefits: The body repairs itself during Stage 3 – tissues regrow and bones and muscles build. Removal of waste products from neural activity occurs, and the immune system is supported.

When it happens: About 10%–15% of total sleep time for adults occurs in the fourth stage of sleep.

What happens: During Stage 4, also known as “slow-wave sleep,” the brain produces delta waves, which are spaced-apart high-amplitude fluctuations. This is the stage when it’s most difficult to rouse someone.

Health benefits: The body continues to repair itself, stimulating tissue growth and muscle recovery, and immune function is boosted.

Tips for Sleep Challenges

Most people are aware when they need more sleep, and they’re often motivated to get it. However, different strategies (How to Get Better Sleep: Ten Ways to Improve Your Sleep Health PDF) work for different people, and you ultimately have to figure out what works for you, no matter what it is. In the section below, you’ll find some common sleep challenges and tips for how to work with them.

Select each sleep challenge to learn more.

Why It Can Be a Challenge

Anxious thoughts or “to-dos” can keep you awake as you try to resolve them or figure out how you’ll remember them the next day.


Write down what’s causing anxiety so you can put it aside for now and clear your mind.

Try a breathing exercise to help you get out of your head and tune in to your body. (Check out the Breathing Exercises PDF) and 4-7-8 Breathing VIDEO with Dr. Andrew Weil lecture in the Content Library for some ideas!)

Search online for to find soothing sounds that can induce relaxation and sleepiness.

  • ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response)
  • Sound Healing
  • Sleep Meditations

Why It Can Be a Challenge

Trying too hard to go to sleep can actually work against you by creating more stress for yourself.


Focus on relaxing with a meditation or visualization. Many phone apps can help you relax your body and mind, which will help you fall asleep naturally.

Try some paradoxical interventions(this link opens in a new window/tab) , which can relieve performance anxiety.

Turn the clock around so you can’t see it. Looking at the clock can increase anxiety about the need to fall asleep, especially if you have a big day ahead.

Why It Can Be a Challenge

Working late on your computer, watching TV, or checking social media right before bed can be tough habits to break – even though blue-light exposure consistently disrupts your sleep.


Choose a semi-consistent time to go to bed each night. Hint: Bedtimes between 8pm and 12am seem to offer the most benefits overall, but that doesn’t mean you have to get in bed at 8pm. Everyone’s ideal sleep is different, and your personal “ideal” times will change with age. Still, getting enough sleep before 12am will help you feel better overall.

If you typically watch TV or play on your phone right before bed, stop 15 minutes earlier and do something that helps you relax your body and mind – whether it’s reading, listening to music, or calling someone you love.

Explore new pillow options. Hypoallergenic pillows can reduce nighttime congestion, while more supportive pillows that keep your body in alignment can reduce neck pain.

Why It Can Be a Challenge

When life is very busy, sleep can take a back seat. After all, if you’re sleeping, you’re not being productive.


Every evening, as motivation to hit the hay earlier than you might otherwise, remind yourself that getting enough quality sleep can actually help you accomplish more – by increasing productivity, decreasing stress, decreasing clumsiness, and boosting energy.

Mark it in your calendar. Schedule sleep as you would a doctor’s appointment – something that you can’t be late to, no matter what.

Say no more often. Work and life pressures can leave you hustling during every spare minute of the day. Know your limits in terms of what you can commit to while still getting to bed at a decent hour.