We’re all aware what a profound impact deep sleep can have on our well-being. Experts agree that anywhere between seven to ten hours of sleep is an ideal amount of time for our brains to get recharged through the night - a big part of this involves the different stages of sleep.
From figuring out the difference between REM sleep and NREM sleep, to getting to grips with the different factors that impact your sleep cycle, there’s a lot to learn about the stages of sleep. Whether you’re looking to understand how to achieve deeper sleep, or you want to break down the sleep stages in a more simple manner, here’s everything you might need to know.
The stages of sleep were first discovered in the 1950s, after the invention of the electroencephalogram, or the EEG as it is now popularly known. This was the first time researchers were able to get a close look at the sleep wake cycle, and it is why we’re able to differentiate so distinctly between REM stages and NREM stages of sleep today.
The stages of sleep can be split into two broad categories:
Both these phases are critical to a good night’s rest - if you’re experiencing interruptive sleep, or you simply can’t seem to relax during these phases, it’s highly likely you’re experiencing sleep deprivation.
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The first portion of your sleep wake cycle consists of NREM sleep, which is further broken down into three separate stages. The stages of NREM sleep include:
The very start of the sleep wake cycle, wakefulness is the lightest part of NREM sleep. Your body begins to prepare for the night ahead - this means both your breathing and heartbeat start to slow down and any tension in your muscle is released.
If you’re woken up from this sleep stage, you’re likely to feel like you are still awake. This is the opposite of deep sleep, during which you’re unable to stir easily, if at all, once you fall asleep.
During the second NREM sleep stage, also known as ‘light sleep’, your heart rate and breathing continue to drop, and you’re a little less likely to wake up or be interrupted during this period. Your body temperature also begins to decrease further. You might have trouble sleeping during this stage if you’re a hot sleeper, so make sure to check you have the right kind of bedding to stay uninterrupted during this period.
Your brain does something exciting in this phase of sleep - known as sleep spindles, these are basically quick bursts of high activity. Scientists believe sleep spindles can actually trigger the mechanisms necessary for synaptic plasticity, which is a scientific way of explaining the way we comprehend the world and process emotions.
The last two sleep stages are pretty critical for your well-being. You’re far less likely to wake up from this sleep stage. Your body is fully relaxed, and your heartbeat and breathing are both at their slowest rate yet. Those who have trouble sleeping through this phase of their sleep cycle tend to struggle with energy levels through the day.
Stage 3 is also known as ‘slow wave sleep’. This is the deepest phase of your sleep cycle. Slow wave sleep is commonly associated with sleepwalking, and is one of the most crucial stages of sleep for memory formation.
These stages of sleep are when your immune system begins to strengthen itself. The tissues in your body begin to repair themselves and grow at this stage, so they can be crucial for cell regeneration and healing your body. This is why these stages are especially important to complete if you have to be on your feet all day, or are an athlete who needs to recover from a day of hard workouts.
An inability to stay sleeping through these particular sleep stages might be indicative of deeper sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea or sleep deprivation. If you’ve ever woken up feeling particularly groggy or lethargic, you probably woke up in the middle of a slow wave sleep stage, which is why you’re still feeling tired.
Once you’re done with the NREM stages of sleep, it’s time to move on to REM. The rapid eye movement stage comes around nearly ninety minutes into your night of sleep, and as the stages of sleep progress, this period lasts longer and longer.
During this time, your heartbeat and breathing quicken, and it is this stage of sleep that is responsible for dreams. The way we experience REM sleep can vary depending on a lot of factors such as health and age - infants spend up to 50% of their sleep cycle in REM sleep, for instance, whereas adults only spend about 20% of the same.
It’s important for your brain to complete its REM sleep stages before waking up. Most of us are all too familiar with waking up in the middle of a bad dream and feeling like you’ve had no sleep at all - this is because interrupting your REM cycle leaves you groggy.
Understanding the stages of sleep and how they can contribute to a more balanced version of yourself is important when you’re trying to get better sleep. You spend anywhere from 4-7 hours per night in NREM sleep, whereas you only spend around 90-120 minutes in REM sleep.
To really maximize the benefits of a good night’s sleep, it’s crucial to understand the role each stage has in helping your body recuperate. Sleep disorders are more common in those who don’t get a balanced amount of sleep each night - understanding that each of your sleep stages hold importance can help you get that much closer to achieving better rest.
If you tend to have trouble sleeping more generally, it’s important to optimize your sleep setup so that you’re priming yourself for a comfy night. From finding the most comfortable mattress you can to ensuring you follow a strict sleep schedule, keeping things simple is the easiest way to catch up on your eight hours each night.
Getting a good night’s sleep is all about putting daily habits into practice with discipline. With the right balance of NREM and REM sleep, you’ll be moving through the stages of sleep like a pro, and feeling more energized than ever as you wake up, ready to take on the day.
Are you getting a good night’s sleep? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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Disclaimer. We love sleep and we want you to get the best sleep possible. But we do not provide medical advice. This blog is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical info, diagnosis, or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our blog.