Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC is a clinician, Naturopathic Practitioner, clinical researcher, author, and adjunct professor at the University of Bridgeport. His work has been published in peer-reviewed medical journals and he speaks at conferences around the globe.
Sleep efficiency refers to the amount of time you spend sleeping vs. the amount of time you lie in bed. So if you spend 10 hours in bed a night but only sleep for 8 hours, you have an 80% rate of sleep efficiency.
A normal rate of sleep efficiency for adults is about 85%, but the higher the percentage, the better. You don’t want to go below 80%.
You can track your sleep efficiency using a biometric tracking device like the Oura ring.
If you’ve ever had sleep problems, you’re probably familiar with phrases like sleep quality, sleep hygiene, and certainly sleep deprivation, but what do you know about your sleep efficiency?
Sleep efficiency refers to the total amount of time spent in your bed — whether it’s waiting to fall asleep, awakening in the middle of the night to roll over, or the time spent trying to sleep after you’re fully awake in the morning — vs. the amount of time you actually spend sleeping.
The sleep efficiency equation looks like this :
[Time spent sleeping] divided by [Total time spent in bed] = Sleep efficiency
For example, a sleep efficiency of 7.5 hours slept with nine hours in bed would be about 83%.
Calculating your sleep efficiency provides a more quantitative way to gauge how well you’re sleeping, and tracking it allows you to see your progress as you improve your sleep.
Let’s take a more detailed look at sleep efficiency, how it changes as we age, signs you may have low sleep efficiency, and the best ways to increase sleep efficiency.
What Is Sleep Efficiency and Why Should We Care About It?
Here’s that sleep efficiency equation again:
[Time spent sleeping] / [Total time spent in bed] = Sleep efficiency
Knowing our sleep efficiency goes one step beyond simply understanding our sleep duration, taking into account how much “effort” it takes to fall asleep and stay asleep.
For example, we may be getting seven hours of sleep a night, but if that sleep is banked by two hours spent falling asleep and one hour awake during the middle of the night before falling asleep again, that would only be 70% sleep efficiency.
We may be technically meeting the seven-hour threshold of enough sleep, but that sleep efficiency score means it may not have been a very restful night of sleep. It may have even been stressful to reach those seven hours, and that’s the opposite of what we want. Taking steps to improve sleep efficiency can translate to better quality sleep and less time spent lying awake in bed.
Sleep Efficiency Declines With Aging
Sleep studies tell us that sleep efficiency generally decreases with age.
Sleep efficiency tends to drop from 85% in 39- to 49-year-olds, to 81% in 60- to 69-year-olds, and even further to 76% in people over 80 .
Research also shows that sleep efficiency below 80% is significantly associated with an increased risk of death in elderly people .
A systematic review and meta-analysis (the highest quality of scientific research) looking at 5,273 participants found that, with every decade of age in healthy adults :
Total sleep time dropped by 10.1 minutes
Sleep efficiency decreased by 2.1%
Waking after sleep onset increased by 9.7 minutes
Waking events increased by 2.1 events per hour
Apnea events increased by 1.2 per hour
Mean blood oxygen saturation decreased by 0.6%
Periodic limb movements increased by 1.2 events per hour
So as we get older, it’s even more important to pay attention to how much sleep we’re getting, as well as sleep quality, to counteract the natural decline in sleep with aging.
What Is a Good Sleep Efficiency Ratio?
When it comes to sleep efficiency, the higher the better. If you fell asleep as soon as your head hit the pillow and didn’t wake up for a full eight hours, that would be 100% sleep efficiency.
That’s next to impossible for most people, so we want to aim for the next best thing.
A normal sleep efficiency score for adults is 85-89% . I would consider anything above 90% very healthy.
Here are some more sleep efficiency scores for reference. Where do you fall on an average night of sleep?
Spend 15 minutes awake in bed (8/8.25): 97%
Spend 30 minutes awake in bed (8/8.5): 94%
Spend 45 minutes awake in bed (8/8.75): 91%
Spend an hour awake in bed (8/9): 88%
Spend 75 minutes awake in bed (8/9.25): 86%
Spend 90 minutes awake in bed (8/9.5): 84%
Spend an hour and 45 minutes awake in bed (8/9.75): 82%
Spend 2 hours awake in bed (8/10): 80%
Poor sleep efficiency would be anything below 80%. You definitely want to stick to above 80% for your overall health, but most research seems to suggest that 85% is normal for adults.
Signs You May Have Low Sleep Efficiency
Of course, significant sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep disruption throughout the night (such as with a newborn) are obvious signs of low sleep efficiency.
But you may have other signs of low sleep efficiency that are more subtle than lying awake in bed for hours trying to fall asleep. For example, snoring or restricted breathing is a significant issue for many people and greatly affects sleep quality. And yet many people don’t even know they have breathing restrictions.
Fatigue upon awakening and daytime sleepiness are other signs of poor-quality sleep, and an indicator that you may be experiencing sleep disruptions that you don’t remember in the morning.
How to Track Your Sleep Efficiency
There are a few ways to take a more scientific look at your sleep and identify your sleep efficiency.
One way is a sleep study, also called a polysomnography. This is a test that tracks some of your body’s functions as you sleep or try to sleep .
Polysomnography measures sleep cycles and stages by tracking :
Air passing in and out of your lungs as you breathe
Oxygen level in the blood
How easy or hard it is to breathe
How fast or slow you breathe
However, this involves being in a controlled environment (i.e., not your home), hooked up to testing equipment, and not sleeping in your own bed.
If you’re already a sensitive sleeper, you know how much sleeping in a different environment can affect your quality of sleep. So at the Ruscio Institute for Functional Medicine, we typically recommend at-home tracking methods to our patients who are concerned about sleep quality.
One tool I’ve discussed many times on the podcast is the Oura ring, which can document your sleep-wake cycles almost as well as traditional sleep studies. It may even be more accurate, since you’re able to use it in the comfort of your own home, where you sleep every night. Another test I may have patients do at home is the WatchPAT sleep test. I’ve used this at-home sleep apnea test myself, and have found the data useful for many of my patients.
Best Ways to Increase Sleep Efficiency
Once you have a baseline for your sleep efficiency, how can you go about improving it?
Here’s a quick overview of the most helpful treatments in sleep medicine, according to research:
Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) in-person and online [5, 6, 7, 8]
A 2022 study analyzed 54 randomized controlled trials (11,815 participants) to compare the subjective effectiveness of digital CBT-I approaches in adults with insomnia. Compared with those who received usual care, those who received web-based CBT-I with a therapist experienced:
More total sleep time (by 23.19 minutes on average)
Less time to fall asleep (by 18.76 minutes on average)
Less waking after sleep onset (by 31.40 minutes on average)
More sleep efficiency (by 10.37% on average)
Overall, CBT-I was effective at improving insomnia parameters, including sleep efficiency, and may be an optimal treatment for adults with insomnia .
Another study analyzed 21 RCTs (755 participants) to understand the effects of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) on adult sleep quality, including sleep efficiency.
Overall, those who did HIIT tended to report large increases in sleep quality and small to medium improvements in sleep efficiency afterward .
Based on 11 RCTs with 775 participants, limited evidence suggests that acupuncture (particularly 12 sessions or more) can improve total sleep time, sleep efficiency, and awakenings in people with primary insomnia .
Developing good sleep habits, such as winding down activity at least an hour before bed, dimming lights at night, putting yourself on a sleep schedule with a regular lights-off and wake-up time, and maybe something like keeping a sleep diary each day to track your progress, are all additional practices for better sleep. These will also help regulate your circadian rhythm over time, which has far-reaching health benefits even beyond feeling well-rested.
I discuss several of these approaches in my conversation with Dr. Nik Hedberg on my podcast, Dr. Ruscio Radio. You can listen to that episode here. We also touch on the benefits of mouth taping, which sleep research hasn’t caught onto yet, but I’ve found it effective with many of my patients.
As a quick note, treatments that did not improve sleep efficiency in adults include:
Sleep Efficiency Is Important, But It’s Not Everything
It occurs to me that sleep efficiency can be one marker that we may be tempted to fixate on, possibly to our detriment overall. Sleep health is incredibly important, but the difference between 97% efficiency and 99% is redundant.
Do the best you can to improve your sleep efficiency and dial in your other pillars of health for a bigger picture of overall well-being.
If you want to know more about my first-hand experience, I did a full episode of Dr. Ruscio Radio on my journey to sleep optimization, including the testing I did and the misleading advice I received along the way.
The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high-quality formulations to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.
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