Sleep cycle.

What Happens During Sleep?

Sleep is restorative, yet it is an active state that affects both your physical and mental well-being.

Sleep is prompted by natural cycles of activity in the brain and consists of two basic states: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, which consists of Stages 1 through 4.

During sleep, the body cycles between non-REM and REM sleep. Typically, people begin the sleep cycle with a period of non-REM sleep followed by a very short period of REM sleep. Dreams generally occur in the REM stage of sleep.

What Is Non-REM Sleep?

The period of NREM sleep is made up of stages 1-4. Each stage can last from 5 to 15 minutes. A completed cycle of sleep consists of a progression from stages 1-4 before REM sleep is attained, then the cycle starts over again.

  • Stage 1: Polysomnography (sleep readings) shows a reduction in activity between wakefulness and stage 1 sleep. The eyes are closed during Stage 1 sleep. One can be awakened without difficulty, however, if aroused from this stage of sleep, a person may feel as if he or she has not slept. Stage 1 may last for five to 10 minutes. Many may notice the feeling of falling during this stage of sleep, which may cause a sudden muscle contraction (called hypnic myoclonia).
  • Stage 2: This is a period of light sleep during which polysomnographic readings show intermittent peaks and valleys, or positive and negative waves. These waves indicate spontaneous periods of muscle tone mixed with periods of muscle relaxation. The heart rate slows and the body temperature decreases. At this point, the body prepares to enter deep sleep.
  • Stages 3 and 4: These are deep sleep stages, with stage 4 being more intense than Stage 3. These stages are known as slow-wave, or delta, sleep. If aroused from sleep during these stages, a person may feel disoriented for a few minutes.

During the deep stages of NREM sleep, the body repairs and regenerates tissues, builds bone and muscle, and appears to strengthen the immune system. As you get older, you sleep more lightly and get less deep sleep. Aging is also associated with shorter time spans of sleep, although studies show the amount of sleep needed doesn’t appear to diminish with age.

Studies show that the length of sleep is not what causes us to be refreshed upon waking. The key factor is the number of complete sleep cycles we enjoy. Each sleep cycle contains five distinct phases, which exhibit different brain- wave patterns. For our purposes, it suffices to say that one sleep cycle lasts an average of 90 minutes: 65 minutes of normal, or non-REM (rapid eye movement), sleep; 20 minutes of REM sleep (in which we dream); and a final 5 minutes of non-REM sleep. The REM sleep phases are shorter during earlier cycles (less than 20 minutes) and longer during later ones (more than 20 minutes). If we were to sleep completely naturally, with no alarm clocks or other sleep disturbances, we would wake up, on the average, after a multiple of 90 minutes–for example, after 4 1/2 hours, 6 hours, 7 1/2 hours, or 9 hours, but not after 7 or 8 hours, which are not multiples of 90 minutes. In the period between cycles we are not actually sleeping: it is a sort of twilight zone from which, if we are not disturbed (by light, cold, a full bladder, noise), we move into another 90-minute cycle. A person who sleeps only four cycles (6 hours) will feel more rested than someone who has slept for 8 to 10 hours but who has not been allowed to complete any one cycle because of being awakened before it was completed….

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