Deep Sleep: How to Get More of It

Woman in deep sleep while wearing a sleep mask

We’ve all heard of deep sleep (also known as slow-wave sleep) and how our bodies need it to function properly, but what exactly is it? There is an abundant amount of research on deep sleep, but we have all of the essential information you need to know on what it is, its function, and how you can get more of it.

What is Deep Sleep?

Deep sleep is the sleep stage that is associated with the slowest brain waves during sleep. Because the EEG activity is synchronized, this period of sleep is known as slow-wave sleep: it produces slow waves with a relatively high amplitude and a frequency of less than 1 Hz. The initial section of the wave is indicated by a down state; an inhibition period whereby the neurons in the neocortex are silent. It’s during this period that the neocortical neurons are able to rest. The next section of the wave is indicated by an upstate; an excitation period whereby the neurons fire briefly at a rapid rate. This state is a depolarizing phase, whereas the former state is a hyperpolarizing phase. In contrast with Rapid Eye Movement sleep (REM sleep cycle), the main characteristics of slow-wave sleep are absent or slow eye movement, moderate muscle tone, and lack of genital activity.

Research Behind Sleep Stages and Deep Sleep

According to the Rechtschaffen & Kales (R & K) Standard of 1968, deep sleep can be described as stage three of non-rapid eye movement sleep and is often referred to as “slow-wave sleep”. There’s no clear difference between stages three and four; however, stage three has 20 to 50 percent delta activity while stage four has over 50 percent. Since the year 2008, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine no longer refers to stage four, and stages three and four have combined to create stage three. Therefore, a period of 30 seconds’ sleep, consisting of 20% or more slow-wave sleep, is now considered to be stage three. Slow-wave sleep (deep sleep) is one of the Stages of Sleep.

EEG graph measuring brain activity during deep sleep

Features of Deep Sleep

  • Electroencephalograph (EEG) demonstrates delta waves (high amplitude, low frequency)
  • Consolidation of memories
  • High arousal threshold
  • Presumed restoration of body and brain

Why Is Deep Sleep Important?

Deep sleep is important for consolidation of new memories, and is often referred to as “sleep-dependent memory processing.” Thus, individuals with primary insomnia will have impaired memory consolidation and won’t perform as efficiently as normal patients when completing memory tasks following a period of sleep. In addition, declarative memory is improved with slow-wave sleep, and this includes both semantic and episodic memory.

A central model has been created on the assumption that long-term memory storage is promoted by interaction between the hippocampal and neocortical networks. Several studies have shown that, once subjects have been trained to learn a declarative memory task, there was a significantly higher density of human sleep spindles when compared to the non-learning control task. This occurs due to unconscious wave oscillations that make up the intracellular recordings from cortical and thalamic neurons.

X-ray of brain

Function of Deep Sleep

Human sleep deprivation studies seem to suggest that the principal function of deep sleep may be to give the brain time to restore itself from its daily activeness. An increase of glucose metabolism in the brain occurs as a result of tasks that require mental activity. Yet another function affected by slow-wave sleep is growth hormone secretion, which is always greatest at this stage. Plus, it also creates both an increase in parasympathetic neural activity and a decrease in sympathetic neural activity.

In deep sleep, the highest arousal thresholds are observed, such as the difficulty of awakening by the sound of a particular volume. When a person awakens from slow-wave sleep, they generally feel quite groggy. Cognitive tests after awakening do indicate that mental performance can be impaired for periods of up to 30 minutes when compared to awakenings from other stages. This phenomenon is known as “sleep inertia.

There is always a sharp rebound of slow-wave sleep after sleep deprivation, meaning that the next bout of sleep will not only include more slow-wave sleep than normal, but deeper slow-wave sleep. The previous duration of this stage, in addition to the duration of prior wakefulness, will determine the duration of slow-wave sleep. When determining the amount of slow-wave sleep in any given sleep period, the major factor to note is the duration of preceding wakefulness, which is typically related to the build-up of sleep-inducing substances in the brain.

Sleep Disorders During Deep Sleep

There are several sleep disorders and parasomnias that occur predominantly during slow-wave sleep. Sleepwalking (Somnambulism), night terrors (sleep terrors), bed-wetting (Enuresis), sexsomnia, and sleep eating are all associated with slow-wave sleep. Individuals with narcolepsy often have fragmented deep sleep.

Factors that Increase Slow-Wave Deep Sleep

Factors that have shown to increase slow-wave sleep in the sleep period that follows them include intense prolonged exercise and body heating, such as immersion in a sauna or hot tub.

Studies have shown that slow-wave sleep is facilitated when brain temperature exceeds a certain threshold. It’s believed that circadian rhythm and homeostatic processes regulate this threshold. An unusually low, short-term carbohydrate diet in healthy sleepers promotes an increase in the percentage of slow-wave sleep. This includes a production in the percentage of dreaming sleep (REM sleep), when compared to the control with a mixed diet. It’s believed that these sleep changes could very well be linked to the metabolism of the fat content of the low carbohydrate diet. In addition, the ingestion of antidepressants and certain SSRI’s can increase the duration of slow-wave sleep periods; however, the effects of THC on slow-wave sleep remain controversial. Total sleep time in these instances is often unaffected due to a person’s alarm clock, circadian rhythms, or early morning obligations.

Woman getting deep sleep before alarm clock rings

How to Get More Deep Sleep

The most important thing that you can do to increase your amount of deep sleep is to allow yourself adequate total sleep time. Often, individuals will deprive themselves of adequate total sleep. In addition to reducing deep sleep, REM sleep is also shortened.

There is some data to suggest that vigorous exercise can increase or consolidate deep sleep. Some sleep specialists recommend aerobic activities like jogging, running, and swimming. For those who are prone to insomnia, it is best to exercise earlier in the day and not before bedtime.

In Summary

Stage three of the sleep cycle stages, slow-wave sleep (deep sleep), is a crucial part of your cognitive functioning. It plays a major role in memory consolidation and brain restoration. Because of its importance for your overall health, you must increase your amount of deep sleep by allowing yourself to have enough total sleep time each night. Additionally, exercise and a healthy diet are a couple of different methods you can try to help increase your slow-wave sleep.

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102 thoughts on “Deep Sleep: How to Get More of It

  1. Michael Stimpson Reply

    The low carb effect on sleep is interesting. Also there’s evidence that alzheimers is linked to insulin resistance, diabetes of the brain, could this also be due to low levels of deep sleep as the brain no longer has the fuel available to facilitate REM?

  2. Anonymous Reply

    I came across this article after trying to figure out why my mom was only getting 20 minutes of deep sleep. I have been following a keto diet for the past 9 months and typically obtain 80-100 minutes of sleep. My mother may have insomnia, but other than that I do believe the low carb lifestyle achieves more minutes of deep sleep. I have obtained my data from both a Fitbit band and Wyze watch. Best of luck increasing your deep sleep.

  3. EQG Reply

    I’m a 61 year old woman. My REM and Light sleep are really good. My deep sleep is an average of 8%. I’ve tried everything to increase this number. Cool, dark room. I’m in bed by 10PM. I don’t drink any caffeine, no alcohol. I don’t do heavy duty exercise, but I get my heart going at least 3-4 times a week. I take a warm shower before bed. TV and social media off for at least an hour before I go to bed. I eat healthy … lots of fruits/veggies. I don’t eat meat. I do eat chicken and fish. I don’t eat anything heavy at least 3 hours before bedtime. No stress. It seems I’m doing everything right … right? Is it possible that this is hereditary and nothing we do can change that?

  4. EQG Reply

    I’m 61. Don’t watch tv nor am I on social media for at least an hour before I go to bed. I eat extremely healthy (little sugar and very little meat). Exercise (not extreme but it does get my heart rate up). Warm shower before bed. In bed by 10PM. Dark room. 74 temperature. Good REM and light sleep. No stress. Consider myself pretty healthy. Yet, my average deep sleep is 8%. I’ve tried everything. Could this just be hereditary and no matter what we try, nothing will work?

  5. Matt Kieffer Reply

    Ooler pad, crossfit at least every other day, no coffee, no alcohol, 6 to 8 hour eating window, blue light filtering glasses at least 2 hours before bed, multivitamin, meditation.

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