understanding sleep

Sleep? It’s a biological function there is simply no substitute for, and one that we understand better every day. Once shrouded in myth and mystery in tales like Sleeping Beauty and Rip Van Winkle, we now understand how important sleep is to our health and well-being. Good sleep is never a waste of time, and sleeping extra hours doesn’t mean you are lazy or unmotivated.

Our bodies talk to us! Our stomachs signal (sometimes loudly) when we’re hungry; our mouths become dry when we are thirsty, and our bodies want to slow down when we are tired. Why does this happen?

Tick-tock. We have a “sleep clock” that regulates when we are sleepy or awake, in part by increasing the production of melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep, when exposed to darkness.

Are you getting any?
If you cannot sleep, you are not alone – everyone sleeps badly sometimes, and some people sleep badly all the time. More than half of all Canadians (58%) over the age of 15 report difficulty going to sleep or staying asleep, with 18% sleeping less than 5 hours per night. Here are some other Canadian sleep facts.

Please explore our website. We’ll explain how sleep works, why it’s important, what the consequences of poor sleep are, how to improve sleep hygiene – and when it’s time to consult your pharmacist or physician.


Defining sleep isn’t that simple. There are different kinds of sleep, divided into two distinct types – non-REM (no rapid eye movement) and REM. There are four stages to non-REM sleep. In a good night of sleep, your body will experience each of these stages in a cycle lasting approximately 90 minutes.

Non-REM Sleep REM Sleep
A period of very light sleep (about 5 minutes long), in which eye and muscle activity slow down. During this time, we may be easily awakened.
It is during REM sleep that we begin to dream. Our heart and respiration rates rise, as does our blood pressure, and our breathing is shallow. Eye movement is rapid and irregular, and the muscles of our arms and legs become paralyzed. Our first period of REM sleep generally begins about 90 minutes after we fall asleep.
Our eye activity stops, our brain waves slow down, but other small bursts of brain activity begin. This sleep stage lasts about 10–25 minutes.
There is no eye or muscle movement during this stage, at which deep sleep begins. Our brain waves slow down more, and we are difficult to awaken at this stage.
This is our period of deepest sleep. Our physical energy is restored so that we can feel well rested the next day.

It is not just how long we are asleep, but how much of each stage of sleep we get that determines how rested we feel in the morning, and how well we are able to function. When we enjoy a good night’s sleep, we are likely to feel more energetic the next day. Deep sleep is the time when the body repairs itself; it contributes to helping repair muscle and tissue and also helps to boost our immune system. REM sleep renews the mind and plays an important role in learning and memory.


Some people suffer from sleep disorders (like sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome) that make sleeplessness an ongoing problem. But for most of us who experience sleepless nights or periods of insomnia, the reasons can be subtle (but perhaps just as difficult to control). Here are a few things that can affect our sleep:

bottle cigs mug alarm hamper

  • Too much caffeine – from drinking coffee, tea or colas
  • Nicotine – it stimulates the central nervous system
  • Stress, anxiety, or depression
  • Changes in lifestyle, like a move, or a new job
  • Shift work
  • Environmental factors, such as noise
  • Pain
  • Hormonal changes

Any of these factors can be a sleep thief. Certain prescription medications can also have an effect on overall sleep quality.

Insomnia is defined as:

  • difficulty getting to sleep and/or staying asleep
  • waking up too early
  • trouble sleeping despite adequate opportunity for sleep

Insomnia is also characterized by at least one of the following, which may occur during the day:

  • fatigue or sleepiness
  • mood disturbance or irritability
  • lack of motivation and energy
  • errors or accidents while working or driving
  • tension headaches

Insomnia can be acute or chronic. Acute insomnia is a short-term problem that is generally the result of stress or change (new job, final exams, illness). It generally lasts only a few nights or a few weeks, and an over-the-counter sleep aid may help you relieve occasional nighttime sleeplessness. To find out more about Unisom® products, click here.
Chronic insomnia is a long-term problem in which a person experiences poor sleep or not enough sleep for at least 30 days. If this describes you, see a physician or a sleep specialist.

How do you know if you’re suffering from insomnia? Take this quick test.


It’s different for everyone… but on average, adults should try to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Age matters, and here are some suggestions for different age groups:

Age Group Recommended amount of sleep
Infants 14–15 hours
Children and adolescents 10 to 11 hours
Adults 7–9 hours

Other factors play a role. For example, older adults may experience a lighter quality of nighttime sleep, which may result in a greater need for daytime naps, and pregnant women may need additional hours of sleep. Women are more likely than men to report insomnia. For more information on women and sleep, click here.

Still, what you really want is to wake up feeling refreshed and energized, ready to take on the world. Here is some information on how to help determine what amount of sleep is right for you.

When should you seek help for a sleep problem?

If you find that you frequently feel sleepy during the day, or that your lack of sleep is affecting your quality of life, even though you think you’re getting the right amount of “quality” sleep, talk to your pharmacist or physician. We all deserve a good night’s sleep.