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Understanding Your Sleep Cycle

What is happening as you make your way through each stage of sleep at night? We’re here to break it down.

Apr 02, 2020

A good night's rest happens in four steps. You may have heard of them before: non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep stages. Each of the four stages varies in its effects on your physical and mental health. Each stage of sleep has a different effect on your mind and body. But between crawling into bed each night and that good morning stretch, so much happens! Here’s the breakdown:

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Stage 1

There are three stages of NREM sleep before REM sleep happens. The first stage of sleep is the dozing stage, known as light sleep. You know, when your eyelids feel heavy and you start drifting off. It’s the transitional stage between alert and asleep. For about 5-10 minutes before entering stage 2 of sleep, our brain waves start to slow down but little to no rest actually happens here.

Stage 2

At this point in your sleep, your heartbeat and breathing have steadied and your body temperature cools down a bit. Your mind and body are preparing to enter deep sleep but you may still be tossing and turning. According to the American Sleep Foundation, we spend about 50% of our sleep in stage 2 of NREM sleep. Interestingly enough, it’s also been said that the majority of our memory storage happens at this stage, which only lasts about 10-20 minutes per cycle. 

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Stage 3 

Finally, relaxation kicks in (yay!). By this stage, you’ve entered a deep sleep and your mind and body are restoring. You’re unlikely to be responsive to any external stimuli in stage 3 of NREM sleep since your muscles are deeply relaxed and your brain waves are at the slowest they’ll get in your sleep cycle. This stage lasts roughly 30-40 minutes before REM sleep begins. It is perhaps the most vital stage for our day-to-day wellbeing. Deep sleep helps us to maintain low stress levels, have healthy metabolism rates and productive energy levels. 

Stage 4 

The final sleep stage is REM sleep. It’s identified by rapid eye movement, heavier breathing, and increased brain activity. This is also known as the dreaming stage. It occurs about an hour and a half after the sleep cycle begins and only lasts a few minutes. Our brain activity is similar to that of when we’re awake, but our bodies are immobile during this stage. As we get older, the amount of time we spend in REM sleep decreases. 

Deep sleep is not only restorative but it’s essential to our overall health. There are a few ways to be proactive about achieving deep sleep. Some of those ways include keeping room temperatures cool and dark, giving yourself enough time for a full night of rest, and keeping bedtime snacks to a minimum. As we know, it’s recommended that adults get 7-9 hours of sleep each night, going through the sleep cycle multiple times. Knowing about our sleep cycle and how to support it will help us all wake up more well-rested and ready to take on the day!

Written by Cybele Ramirez

Cybele is a freelance writer covering all things culture and lifestyle. She’s also a content strategist in the tech startup space and mastering Media Studies at The New School. You can find this native New Yorker canoodling her two dogs, trying out a new recipe, or on IG @cybelina.

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