Some people have the ability to sleep through an earthquake, while others wake at the smallest sound. Being a light sleeper can mean you have a regularly disturbed sleep. It can be frustrating and, at times, mean that you end up lying awake for hours or never feeling refreshed. But is there a science behind why some people are light sleepers? If so, how can they change it? We investigate light sleeping and whether you can stop it.

What is light sleeping?

Your sleep consists of cycles of REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (none-rapid eye movement) cycles. You spend about 75% of your sleep in an NREM state, which is broken down into different stages of relaxation. Light sleep is categorised as ‘stage 1’. This is the phase at which your body is in between being asleep and awake. Light sleepers tend to remain in this phase for most of their sleep which therefore means they are awakened more easily.

Light sleeping woman

Everyday Health says ‘In general, young people spend more time in the deeper, heavier stages of sleep as they grow and develop. Older people spend less time in deep sleep stages and are more likely to complain of being light sleepers’. However, age isn’t the only factor when it comes to how deeply you sleep. Certain lifestyle factors can disrupt your sleep such as poor diet, medical conditions and a poor sleeping environment.

Read more: How To Reset Your Body Clock [Infographic]

Disturbed sleep

When sleep is disrupted, your body does not have enough time to become relaxed for REM sleep. Sleep expert Phil Torbet says ‘Light sleeping is a function of not getting enough REM sleep. And in many cases, disruption of sleep at night is directly related to tossing and turning which interrupts REM sleep’. Having a sleeping environment that is uncomfortable can cause you to wake up. Before going to sleep, ensure that your room is a nice temperature and there isn’t too much light.

Testing mattress

You should also consider whether your mattress is suitable. If you are waking up in the night in pain or feeling restless, you may need to replace your current mattress. It’s important to think about getting a new one if yours sags, has broken springs or doesn’t offer the support you need. Use our bed and mattress guide for more help on finding the perfect mattress for you.

Ambient sound

Aside from environmental and lifestyle choices, could there be a scientific reason for light sleeping? Sleep researchers at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital think there is. They have identified that some people’s brains are better at blocking out the ambient sound- the constant background noise that usually goes unnoticed. Discussing the study, Time Magazine say ‘as it continually monitors stimuli from the environment to protect against threats, the brain also actively blockades them to allow body and mind to recharge and rest during sleep’. It is this inability to effectively block the response that wakes us up due to an innate need to be alert to danger.

Woman struggling to sleep

The research focused on patterns produced by the thalamus- a region deep in the brain responsible for processing visual and auditory stimuli. Neurologist Dr Jeffrey Ellenbogen discovered that the number of pulses generated by the thalamus, known as sleep spindles, varied per person. The participants with a higher number of spindles slept through sounds easier.

Ellenbogen says that ‘more spindles meant they were more likely to be protected from sleep disruption’. If more work is carried out, this could mean a positive change for those with fewer spindles.

Are you a light sleeper who is struggling to stay asleep or do you have any tips? If so, tell us your story in the comments.