We have all heard that we should get an adequate amount of sleep each night but do you know why?  Or what each stage of sleep contributes?  And what is an adequate amount, anyway?  Consider this your simple guide to all things sleep.  Since learning the details of how it works, it completely changed my outlook on how much I should be getting and has almost made it easier for me to comply with my sleep schedule.

The 4 Stages of Sleep

There are 4 stages in the sleep cycle and you go through this cycle multiple times a night.  Each cycle has its importance, although some stages seem a little more important than others.  3 of these stages are non-REM sleep with the last of the cycle being REM sleep.  The 4 stages are Wakefulness, Light Sleep, Deep Sleep, and REM Sleep. 

Wakefulness

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When you first crawl into bed and begin the process of sleeping, you start off, obviously, in a wakefulness stage.  In this stage, you are transitioning from being awake to being asleep.  Your heartbeat begins to slow as does your breathing and your muscles start to relax.  It is during this time you may have some muscle twitches that may wake you up slightly.  Think of this stage as a testing of the waters.  You have started to fall asleep but don’t feel like it as you are still aware of sounds and movements around you.  This stage lasts anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes.  You will then enter the Light Sleep stage.

Light Sleep

During this stage muscles have completely relaxed, eye movement has ceased, and your body temperature drops.  You are asleep but can still be awoken fairly easily.  While this is the light stage, it is not shallow and is extremely important.  You spend 50%-60% of your night in this stage.  A lot of your body maintenance happens during this stage such as the regulation of your metabolism.  This is also when you process emotions and memories.  Therefore, getting adequate sleep leads to spending a good deal of time in this stage creating a healthier, better functioning you.

As a side note, if you could schedule the optimum time to wake up, it would be during this stage.  Waking up in the later stages can create grogginess and confusion and leave you feeling more tired throughout the day.  There are multiple devices out there that can monitor your sleep and even wake you up at the optimal time. I, personally, love my FitBit Versa. While my version doesn’t have the option for optimal wake-up time, the newest version does.

From here, you dive into Deep Sleep.

Deep Sleep

During Deep Sleep, you become unresponsive to outside stimuli making it much harder for someone to wake you up.  This stage is very important as this is the stage where you become the most rested.  Your brain is essentially offline, your muscles are completely relaxed, and there is no dreaming.  Your body spends this time rebuilding and repairing your muscles and cells.  This has also been shown to be when your immune system is strengthened. 

Deep Sleep accounts for around 20% of your night.  It is suggested that adults need about 1.5 to 1.8 hours of deep sleep each night.  However, depending on the person, some may need a little more than this to feel fully rested.  While there is a minimum need for deep sleep, there is no such thing as too much.

REM Sleep

Following your first round of Deep Sleep, and about 90 minutes after you fall asleep, you enter REM, or Rapid Eye Movement, Sleep.  During REM Sleep, your brain becomes extremely active while your body remains inactive and, essentially, paralyzed.  Your eyes begin to move rapidly, hence the name, your heart rate increases, and your breathing becomes irregular. 

This stage is also very important as this is the stage where you clear your brain of the things that aren’t needed in regards to emotion and memory and solidly processes the things that are needed.  This is why should always get a good night’s sleep after studying for a test as it is during this time that those things are really committed to memory.  This is the stage where dreaming occurs, which is, essentially, your body’s way of processing the information you have received over time.

After REM Sleep, the cycle continues in a wave pattern.  You will return to deep and light stages and alternate between them all with occasional periods of being awake.  However, these awake periods are so brief you will likely not remember them in the morning. 

Tracking Your Patterns

As I mentioned before, there are a number of devices out there to track your sleep patterns, if you are interested.  I, personally, use this Fitbit Versa which will track my pattern using my heartbeat and show me a graph of it the next morning.  It will also show me the breakdown of how much time I spent in each stage.  It is a great tool for identifying if I am getting adequate rest or not.

There are apps out there that you can put on your phone that will track your movements in bed but these are not nearly as accurate.  They are good in a pinch, though. 

Tracking your sleep is a great way, as I said, to monitor your sleep and see if there are problems.  Especially if you sense you aren’t getting adequate sleep and do not want to immediately see a sleep specialist.  Tracking will give you an idea.  If you find that you are not getting adequate sleep, you next step would be to see a specialist who can help pinpoint issues you may be having from sleep apnea to insomnia and other disorders.

Tips for a Good Night’s Rest

In order for these stages to be effective, you need to aim for a good night’s sleep.  For every person, this may be different.  Experts agree that most adults need between 7-9 hours of sleep to be well rested.  You should experiment and keep track of your sleep to determine what works best for you.  I have found that about 8 hours seems to be my number.  Anything too much before 8 or too far past 8 and I will be groggy almost the entire day.  I have only discovered recently as I finally started paying attention to how my sleep has affected me at various hours.  In order to help you get a good night’s rest, I’ve listed a few tips:

Track Your Sleep Patterns

As I mentioned above, track your patterns and find your sweet spot.  Once you do this, you can better schedule your bedtime and set your alarm appropriately.

Sleepify Your Bedroom

Make your bedroom sleep-friendly.  You can do this by doing the following:

Make It Dark

Make your bedroom as dark as possible.  I’m talking pitch-black, if you can stand it.  Light really messes with our brains chemistry when it comes to sleep.  Even the tiniest spot of light can disrupt it.  Get blackout curtains for the windows, keep electronics out of your room or hidden away, and even cover up the little dots of light you see on alarm clocks, smoke detectors, and televisions.  If all else fails, use a sleep mask.  You may think that these dots of light don’t matter but they can make a difference.

Check Your Bed

Make sure your bed is comfortable and your bedding is fresh.  Bedding that hasn’t been washed recently or, at the very least, hasn’t been made up on the bed can feel dirty and uncomfortable.  There is something so sublimely luxurious about crawling into a freshly made bed. 

Use a Relaxing Scent

Fill your room or spray your sheets with a relaxing scent like lavender.  Lavender is known to relax the mind and body and has been used in the treatment of insomnia.  To make your own Lavender Linen Spray gather the following items:

Directions: Combine 2 Tablespoons of Witch Hazel with 10-15 drops of Lavender Essential Oil in a small spray bottle and shake for 20 seconds.  The Witch Hazel helps the oil to mix with the water without separating.  Add 3 ounces (or about 6 Tablespoons) of water and shake again.  Mist lightly over your bedroom linen.

If you want a smaller bottle, mix the spray in a jar before filling your spray bottle and store the leftover in the jar with a tight-fitting lid.

Turn Off Your Electronics

Set a time to turn off your electronics and stick to it.  I recommend putting away all electronics at least an hour before you plan to go to bed.  This allows your brain to come down off of the light emitted from electronics that can disrupt your sleep for several hours after you turn them off.  There is a fun, free app I started using called Sleep Town that will remind you at the time you set and then it builds your town while you are sleeping.  If you try to play with your phone during the set time, all your buildings will be destroyed.  It’s silly but can be effective for some people.

Do Something Relaxing

Choose a relaxing activity to replace electronics before bed.  Read a book, take a warm bath with a few drops of lavender in it, or drink an herbal tea and listen to soft music.  Find something that is relaxing and that you enjoy and make it part of your bedtime routine.

As you can see, sleep is an extremely important process that we should take much more seriously than we tend to.  Since learning about how it really works, I have really started paying attention to how and when I sleep.  It helps to think that I’m processing memories and refreshing my body instead of just wasting time that I could be doing something else.  I urge you to start thinking about this process a little more and never take it for granted and I wish you all a good night’s sleep.

For an even deeper look at sleep, see Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep.

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