The 5 Stages of Sleep & What They Mean

Do you ever wonder why you dream at night or experience certain things when you sleep? Sleep is more than a passive state of unconsciousness. It’s a unique and multifaceted process that plays a pivotal part in the rest and rejuvenation of your mind and body.

Check out this sleep guide to enlighten you on the benefits of sleep and what it takes to get a good night’s rest. We’ll breakdown everything you need to know about the sleep cycle, the various stages of sleep, plus practical tips on how to develop healthy sleeping habits. 

Keep on reading to learn more!

Man sleeping in bed

Understanding the Sleep Cycle 

There are five different stages of sleep. Each one is classified into two categories—REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep—and is connected to specific brain wave activities. 

When you go to bed at night, your body goes through the sleep cycle and slips into the NREM sleep and REM sleep stages. Each stage can last for up to 90 minutes, going deeper and longer as the evening progresses. On average, you complete a sleep cycle anywhere from four to six times, which can add up to six to nine hours of bedtime.

You must complete the sleep cycle every night to maintain your physical and cognitive functions running smoothly. Without getting a proper full night’s rest, you may end up feeling sluggish and unable to focus the next day. Furthermore, studies suggest that lack of sleep increases your risk of developing obesity, depression, cardiovascular diseases, and metabolic illness like diabetes. 

Now, let’s delve deeper into the differences between NREM and REM sleep and the various stages of sleep and take a closer look at what your body feels at each point. 

NREM Sleep 

NREM sleep makes up 75 percent of the entire sleep cycle and covers stages one to four. 

N1, Formerly Stage One 

The first stage of sleep is considered NREM sleep and is your transitional period from wakefulness to sleepiness. In the beginning, it can last anywhere from five to 15 minutes. In this initial phase of the sleep cycle, you have only begun to drift off, and it is still easy to wake you up. 

Here’s what happens to the body in stage one of the sleep cycle.

  • Your heartbeat begins to slow down
  • Breathing calms down gradually
  • Eye movement prepares to stop
  • Muscles all over your body relax little by little

In some instances, you may imagine that you are falling from your bed and experience involuntary muscle contractions or twitching afterwards, which is called the hypnic myoclonia. 

N2, Formerly Stage Two 

N2 is when you begin to tune out your surroundings and to fall into a light sleep. Here’s what happens to the body in stage one of the sleep cycle.

  • Heartbeat and breathing slows down even more
  • Core body temperature drops. 
  • Eye movement stops 

According to sleep experts, sleep spindles, which refers to sudden bursts of oscillatory brain activity and which can be observed in an EEG reading, happens in the N2 stage of the sleep cycle. Sleep spindles (along with sleep structures called the K complexes) prevent the brain from being roused from slumber. Among all the different sleep stages, you spend most of the night here.

N3, Formerly Stage Three and Four 

Deep sleep happens in the third and fourth stages of the sleep cycle. Unlike the first two sleep stages, it’s relatively difficult to wake you up from N3. Also referred to as slow-wave sleep, it’s the most restorative stage of sleep, according to the Sleep Foundation. 

  • Blood pressure drops
  • Body’s energy stores are replenished 
  • Tissue growth and repair happens
  • Essential hormones for growth and muscle development are released

It is during these deepest stages of sleep that people experience parasomnias, which include sleepwalking, sleep talking, and night terrors.

Woman in deep sleep

REM Sleep 

The last stage is REM sleep, which comprises 25 percent of the sleep cycle. It occurs about 90 minutes after falling asleep and gets longer throughout the night. It’s where the brain becomes active again and facilitates dreaming while the body becomes immobile. 

REM sleep is a critical factor in your overall emotional and brain development. Some of its known benefits include:

  • Restoring the energy to power the brain and body
  • Supporting brain development of newborn infants
  • Facilitates short-term and long-term memory

Based on studies, people who fail to enter REM sleep often deal with these consequences:

  • Struggle to remember memories they had before drifting off to sleep
  • Have weak coping mechanisms when faced with challenging situations
  • Have a heightened risk for migraines 
  • More likely to encounter issues with excessive weight gain or obesity

How to Develop Good Sleeping Habits

Everything we discussed above effectively illustrates how dramatically sleep can affect our health and quality of life. If you feel perpetually tired despite clocking in hours of sleep, it could be an indication that you are not completing a healthy sleep cycle. If so, an intervention is necessary as soon as possible before the repercussions become irreparable. 

Check out these helpful sleep tips:

  • Skip the caffeine at least four hours before bedtime to prevent stimulating the brain when it should be preparing for rest.
  • Maintain an ideal temperature for sleep. It’s 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius).
  • Stop smoking. Smokers are known to have poor REM sleep quality.
  • Avoid alcohol. Drinking alcoholic beverages may help you doze off fast, but it only gets you stuck in the lighter stages of sleep.
  • Stick to a set bedtime schedule. Your body will get used to the routine and anticipate it.
  • Use your sleep cycle to determine your wake up time. Based on the 90-minute interval of each period, set your alarm clock to a time when you have gone through all the different sleep stages.   

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