What Are the 4 Stages of the Sleep Cycle?

Getting the right amount of sleep is one of the best things you can do for your mental and physical health. However, it can sometimes be easier said than done. Many issues, ranging from stress to illness to construction outside your window, can impair your ability to get a good night’s sleep. Fortunately, most of these issues tend to be temporary.

Long-term insomnia is a more significant disruption to your sleep schedule that lasts weeks or months and can have highly adverse effects on your physical health, mental health, and cognitive ability. If you have insomnia, you’ve likely tried multiple methods to get your sleep cycle back on track. Knowing how the cycle works can help you understand what is going wrong and fix it.

Why Does the Sleep Cycle Matter?


Although people all follow the same rough patterns, your sleep needs are unique to you. For instance, most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep per night. However, if you naturally wake up rested after 6.5 hours and experience no adverse effects of sleep deprivation, that’s perfectly fine.

Getting enough sleep and having a healthy, consistent sleep cycle are essential for your overall well-being. Sleep is the time your body uses to repair itself from damage caused by free radicals bouncing around your system during the day. Your blood pressure is also lower while you’re asleep, which gives your heart a break. If you’re interested in how sleep affects you both mentally and physically, you can read more at Sleep Science by SleepMoment

Although the exact amount of sleep you need and what kind of schedule you get it on can be variable, the sleep stages are fixed, and each is important for your health. 

Non-REM Stage 1

The first stage of the sleep cycle is Stage 1 non-REM sleep. This is the lightest sleep stage, during which you are most easily awoken. You’re just starting to fall asleep. Your breathing is regular, and your brainwaves are slightly slower than while you are awake.

Non-REM Stage 2

As you slip deeper into sleep, you enter the second stage. This is when your muscles relax further, eye movement stops, and your body temperature drops. Your brain activity also slows more during this stage, save for occasional bursts of electrical activity. Most of your time asleep is spent in this stage.

Non-REM Stage 3

The final non-REM stage is the deepest stage of sleep. This stage is called slow-wave sleep, or delta sleep because your brainwaves are much slower. People in this stage of sleep are hard to wake. Some studies have shown that even sounds as loud as 100 decibels will not disturb those in this stage. 

Studies have also shown that when someone is sleep deprived, they tend to have a sharp rebound of slow-wave sleep, indicating that it is particularly important to your health.

REM Sleep

REM stands for rapid eye movement. This stage first occurs about 90 minutes after you first fall asleep and is associated with dreaming. During this stage, your brain waves are more active, almost like when you are awake. Your eyes move quickly from side to side, your breathing becomes heavier, and your heart speeds up. 

Your arm and leg muscles are paralyzed during this time, and it is assumed this is to make sure you cannot act out your dreams and potentially hurt yourself. Sleepwalking is often thought to be a failure of this paralysis. As you age, you tend to spend less time in REM sleep.

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Practical Applications

Knowing your sleep schedule’s inner workings can help you figure out what stage you are having trouble with when you can’t sleep. Insomnia can be characterized by an inability to fall asleep, an inability to stay asleep, or both. There are a few things you can do to help with these issues. 

Setting a sleep schedule and sticking to it helps train your body and brain to go to sleep. You can also try exercising for about 20 to 30 minutes per day at least a few hours before going to bed. Part of your before-bed routine should be to relax. You can try taking a hot bath, meditating, or reading. 

Try to avoid watching television or getting on your computer or phone while you are in bed. If you are having trouble falling asleep, don’t lie in bed awake. Try getting up and doing something else, like reading or listening to music, until you are tired.

Sleep Well

Sleep is vital for your health, so if you’re dealing with insomnia, you already know how important it is to fix the issue as soon as possible. You should discuss persistent sleeping issues with a doctor, who can perform tests to determine potential causes that may not be immediately obvious and recommend various treatment courses. 

If you are chronically sleep-deprived, you may be shocked at how much better you feel after a good night’s sleep.

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