Learn how the quality of your sleep can affect your health and well-being
Sleep is a vital part of our everyday lives. Ideally, we spend a good third of each day asleep. This makes both the amount and the quality of sleep we get pretty important. Understanding the connection between sleep and health and well-being is key to prioritizing a good night’s rest.
Each night (or day if you work a night shift), your brain and body undergo a series of stages of sleep, known as the sleep cycle. Understanding how sleep cycles work can potentially help you ensure you’re following good sleep hygiene, which is a series of practices that encourage optimal sleep.
Here’s an overview of how sleep cycles work and how to use this know-how to get the most out of your non-waking hours.
The Four Stages of Sleep
When we power down for the night — or a longer nap — we cycle through four stages, or types of sleep. Three of those stages are “non-REM” sleep, and the fourth is known as REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, the sleep stage when the most vivid of our dreams occur. Each sleep stage serves a different purpose for the body and/or the brain.
Sleep Stage One
Stage one is both the shortest and lightest sleep phase, usually lasting only a few minutes. Think of it as the movie trailer previewing the deeper sleep to come. Your body starts to slow things down, including eye movements, breathing, and heart rate. At this “cat nap” stage of sleep, it’s pretty easy to awaken again.
Sleep Stage Two
This stage deepens the processes started in stage one – your muscles relax even further, eye movements stop, and your sense of alertness and awareness of your surroundings decreases. This is a good sleep stage for a 30-40 minute power nap. Stage two lasts from about 30 minutes to an hour.
Sleep Stage Three
This stage is where deep sleep begins as your brain waves slow down even more. Lasting from 20 to 40 minutes, this is the stage of sleep that helps you feel well-rested in the morning. Your brain waves are even slower during this stage.
Did you know that in addition to helping you feel rejuvenated in the morning, your body works on self-repair and regeneration during sleep? Stage three is where these processes occur, repairing and building bone and muscle tissue and bolstering your immune system.
Sleep Stage Four: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep
REM sleep is the sleep cycle in which dreams most vividly occur, usually about 90 minutes after you first fall asleep. While the exact purpose of dreams isn’t yet known, scientists theorize that dreams help us process emotions from the day before.
Adults tend to have several periods of REM sleep, each one growing gradually longer and lasting up to an hour. After steadily and more deeply powering down in the first three stages, the brain and body become active again during this phase. Rapid eye movement, the physical phenomenon for which this sleep stage is named, occurs as breathing and heart rate also increase.
Fun fact: According to WebMD, Babies spend about 50% of their sleep time in REM sleep, while adults spend about 20% in this stage. As we age, we spend less and less time in the REM stage of sleep.
While each sleep stage tends to occur in this order, the sleep cycle is typically repeated three or four times throughout the night.
Which sleep cycle is most important?
Everyone’s need for sleep is different, and there’s no single magic amount of sleep a person needs. However, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, each sleep stage is uniquely important to allowing the body and mind to regenerate and refresh. Bottom line: Make sure you sleep long enough every day in order to cycle through all of the sleep stages for several hours each night. This will allow your body to get what it needs to repair and reboot itself.
The ideal sleep cycle for naps
According to The Mayo Clinic, staying within stages one and two are ideal for napping — meaning that a 10- to 20-minute nap is best. This prevents so-called sleep inertia, where you wake up from a deeper state of sleep (stages three or four/REM sleep) with a groggy feeling that’s hard to shake. Longer naps can potentially also mess with your regular sleep routine. While everyone’s need for sleep and ability to nap are different, a good rule of thumb is to stick to cat naps (10 minutes or less) or power naps (about 30 minutes or less) whenever possible.
Do sleep trackers really work?
Potentially, but probably not to track your actual sleep cycles. There are smartphone and watch apps, wearable fitness trackers, and dedicated sleep cycle apps that claim to track the quality and duration of your sleep. However, these apps don’t directly measure the quality of your sleep (only a medical sleep study conducted by healthcare professionals can do that). Instead, these apps track periods of inactivity and restlessness. Therefore, sleep cycle apps and trackers can be useful in terms of logging how much sleep you’re getting, and when.
Most of us probably don’t need another reason to prioritize getting enough sleep. Hopefully this overview of the stages of sleep highlights the benefits of the sleep cycle in helping your body and mind feel refreshed. If you need some extra comfort help you sleep better, check out our variety of organic mattress toppers, pillows, bedding, and accessories in the Naturally Nestled shop.