Sleep vs. Rest: What’s the Difference?

Woman sleeping in bed.


Most people spend roughly one-third of their lives asleep. In an average lifetime, most people spend more time sleeping than working at their jobs or doing anything else. Given the significant amount of time people spend sleeping, it must be necessary for the health and wellbeing of the average person. While researchers are not yet entirely sure why the body needs a complete cycle of sleep every 24 hours, the benefits of sleep versus resting quietly for an equivalent length of time are well known. Sleep helps your body recharge and restore itself after a long day and helps your brain lay down new pathways. In addition, sleep may boost your body’s ability to fight off infection and mood disorders. Simply resting doesn’t seem to bring the same benefits, however. Sleep, it seems, is a crucial part of overall good mental and physical health.

What Is Sleep?

Sleep is a complex biological process that affects your whole body. When you sleep, your body undergoes hormonal changes that influence how almost every system in your body works. While you sleep, your body rapidly regenerates cells that have been damaged or lost during the day. Your brain lays down new pathways that seem to strengthen fresh memories and help you learn new skills. Sleeping bodies rest for most of the night, which allows them to heal from the previous day’s hard work. Much of the growth that young people experience happens during sleep, as growth pads at the ends of bones expand overnight. Despite all these physiological changes, the fundamental purpose of sleep remains a mystery.

How Sleep Is Different From Rest

Sleep is different from rest. When you rest, your body relaxes and undergoes some changes that sleep brings. It’s typical for a resting person’s heart rate and respiration to slow down somewhat and have a slight drop in blood pressure and other vital signs. Resting people might recline and close their eyes, control their breathing or meditate. However, rest differs from sleep since resting people remain conscious and aware of their surroundings the whole time. In addition, most of the hormonal changes that mark sleep are absent if you’re resting. While your muscles may get some downtime to repair themselves, rest periods usually aren’t long enough or deep enough to fully restore them the way an entire night of sleep can.

Why Does Sleep Matter?

Most people know that healthy adults need seven or more hours of sleep a night. However, the amount of sleep needed changes with age. School-age children, for example, generally need 9 or 10 hours of sleep a night, while younger children may need 11 hours a day or more. While the exact amount of sleep you need varies from person to person, getting a whole night of sleep is one of the most important things you can do to keep healthy. 

The health benefits of sleep have been studied for decades. Getting enough sleep affects your health across the board and influences everything from your mood and temper to your immunity and ability to maintain a healthy weight. People who don’t get the sleep they need tend to be irritable, have trouble making clear decisions during the day, and frequently report feeling more stressed and unhappy than people who get all the sleep they need. Sleeping well may even reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other potentially serious medical conditions.

When Rest Isn’t Enough

Resting is not a bad thing for your body. Taking a short break after mental or physical activity to rest without sleeping does seem to carry significant benefits, including some improvements to cognitive functioning. Rest isn’t enough on its own, however, to get the benefits sleep brings. 

There are several reasons for this. For one, rest periods rarely last as long as sleep. While most people sleep 7 or 8 hours a night, the average period of resting wakefulness runs from a few minutes to an hour or two. Another reason you need sleep, no matter how much rest you get during the day, is the deep state of torpor sleep, which is highly productive for mental regeneration. Laying down new pathways in the brain may still happen during rest. Still, the long cycle of REM sleep seems to allow for more complex mental regeneration than an afternoon catnap.

Getting Enough Sleep to Stay Healthy

Not all sleep is equal. Many conditions can get in the way of you getting a whole night’s sleep. If your sleep is interrupted by any of a dozen potentially serious sleep problems, you could wake up feeling exhausted and may not get the benefits of adequate sleep, even if you were technically unconscious for the whole 8 hours. Some common issues that may negatively affect your sleep include:

  • Snoring may disturb your sleep and partially or fully wake you up during the night
  • Sleep apnea symptoms are potentially a serious health risk for many people
  • Bruxism, which is nocturnal tooth grinding that can damage teeth and cause you to lose sleep

If you have any of these symptoms, you may need to speak with a doctor to manage them and get back to standard sleep patterns. For example, your doctor may encourage you to try varying your sleep routine, prescribe medication or encourage you to sleep with a CPAP machine to protect your breathing during the night.

Sleep and Rest Together

Sleep vs. rest is not an either/or proposition. You almost certainly need a complete cycle of sleep each night. Resting and sleeping can help you feel energetic and refreshed to get by during the day, improve your health and gain the medical and mental health benefits of both sleep and rest.

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2 thoughts on “Sleep vs. Rest: What’s the Difference?

  1. Kali Patrick Reply

    Rest and relaxation is not sleep, it’s true. However for most of my sleep coaching clients, re-learning how to rest and restore the balance of their nervous system is a prerequisite to improving their sleep situation. When people are on “go mode” all day, there is great benefit to nightly sleep when the ability to truly rest is restored.

  2. Donna Reply

    sleep study for all.
    suggested if you don’t feel rested. I found out in my 50’s that I have OSA. and now undergoing CPAP. and my sleep is now getting better with therapy

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