Sleep is one of the most important things you can do in order to have a healthy mind and body. If you’ve ever doubted that statement, then go without one or two nights of sleep and you’ll quickly see how much it is needed.
Now, you may be wondering, exactly what happens when you go to bed at night?
In this article, we will cover the sleep cycle, its entire length as well as a few tips and guidelines that can help you to get better quality of sleep every night.
How Long Is A Sleep Cycle?
There are five stages in a sleep cycle, and a cycle lasts 90 minutes.
During that time, you move through 5 stages of sleep. The first 4 stages of the cycle is called NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. The fifth stage is REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.
We will quickly look at an overview of each stage.
The Five Stages Of The Sleep Cycle
Stage 1: This stage represents approximately 4% of the 90 minute cycle and here you experience light sleep where your muscle activity starts to slow down. You may experience some light muscle twitching at this stage.
Stage 2: This stage takes up 45 – 55% of the cycle which is the majority of it and your breathing as well as your heart rate slows down. Typically, there’s a slight decrease in body temperature.
Stage 3: This accounts for only 4 – 6% of the cycle and it represents your deep sleep. At this time, your brain generates slow delta waves.
Stage 4: This stage is 12 – 15% of your sleep cycle and in this stage you will enter extremely deep sleep. There is very limited muscle activity and rhythmic breathing. Your brain will also produce delta waves.
Stage 5: The final stage represents 20 – 25% of the sleep cycle and in this stage the brainwaves speed up and dreams tend to occur. There is also rapid eye movement, the heart rate increases and breathing becomes rapid and shallow.
These five stages occur over a 90 minute period of sleep.
Now, as mentioned previously, the first 4 stages are NREM sleep. You will basically move from falling asleep to light and then deep sleep.
A person who is in stage 4 is typically very challenging to wake up. In these stages, there is not much muscle activity and little to no movement of the eyes.
In REM sleep, this is the final stage of the sleep cycle where there is typically a lot of eye movement. There is no known explanation for the rapid eye movements. However, it is thought that this is caused by interacting in dreams.
While your eyes are able to move, the majority of your body remains paralyzed. With the exception of the important muscles, such as your heart and diaphragm. Which continue functioning normally so you are kept alive.
What Happens At Night During The Sleep Cycle?
Now, you may be thinking that since a sleep cycle is 90 minutes, then a night’s sleep may consist of 4 – 6 of these cycles.
However, it’s not as straightforward as that. In the course of an entire night’s sleep, the amount of time spent in each stage of sleep, starts to change.
Typically speaking, in the first 2 to 3 sleep cycles of the night, most people spend the majority of that time in stages 3 – 4 of the sleep cycle (NREM sleep). The last 2 – 3 cycles of the night are then spent in REM sleep.
Sleep is quite complex since the amount of NREM to REM sleep you get per night is also dependent on the time of night, and where each individual is in their own sleep.
So, if you fall asleep between 11pm – 3am then you will likely experience more NREM sleep in the earlier hours and REM sleep between 3am – 7am.
As a result, people that have a tendency to be night owls and fall asleep later in the night will get more REM sleep than people who typically go to bed earlier in the night.
There is much complexity in sleep and it is still quite a mystery to many scientists.
How Sleep Changes Across The Lifespan
Most typical adults sleep around 8 hours per night, however, the amount of time a person needs to sleep is totally individual. While one person may be fine with 7 hours of sleep, another person may need at least 9 hours.
Teenagers in general need a bit more sleep than most adults. They tend to need about 9 hours of sleep per night in order to be properly functional the next day.
Sleep needs typically decrease as you get older. Your age does not only determine how much sleep you get but also the type of sleep.
When you move from childhood to being an adult, there is usually a reduction in the deep sleep you get which are stages 3 and 4 in the sleep cycle.
This change occurs during the adolescence where this stage 3-4 sleep is then replaced by stage 2 sleep.
So, as you get older, the amount of deep sleep you get reduces as well as your REM sleep.
How Long Is A Sleep Cycle For Babies?
If you’re wondering about babies and toddlers, then you should know that the sleep cycle of most babies is actually 60 minutes long and newborns in particular spend all of their sleep time in the REM state.
However, by the time that baby turns 2 years old, he/she will have cut down their REM sleep to only a quarter of their sleep time.
Napping For Health And Happiness
Many people love napping during the day, however, you may have experienced some differences in how you feel after you nap.
You can either wake up feeling refreshed or more tired and groggy than before you took a nap. This is a result of where you are in the sleep cycle when you awaken.
It is best to give yourself a 90 minute nap, which is a full sleep cycle in order to wake up refreshed. It is a great way to retain a new skill you’ve learned or even after studying for an exam.
If you’re trying to recover from tiredness and are short on time, then a quick 15 to 20 minute nap is ideal, and some studies show that even a 5 minute nap can help.
If you feel a great deal of grogginess after you nap, then this is what is known as sleep inertia.
Sleep Schedules And Biphasic Sleep
The majority of people tend to get all of their sleep at night, in one long continuous chunk of time.
However, many scientists continue to question if that is the optimal way for us to sleep.
In some cultures, they practice biphasic sleep. That’s where there is 6 hours of sleep at night, and an hour and a half of sleep in the afternoon or during the day.
This is often known as an afternoon siesta in particular countries. Many scientists have found that this type of sleep may be better suited to our circadian rhythms since most people tend to feel very tired around 2 pm.
In countries such as Italy, many businesses and stores close for an hour or two in order to facilitate naps every afternoon.
According to various sleep experts, afternoon naps may be a great solution for people who don’t get enough sleep at night.
However, if you suffer with insomnia, then afternoon napping may make your insomnia worse and it’s not recommended.
How To Get Better Sleep
Since we have just looked at the sleep cycle, you may be wondering how you can improve the quality of your sleep.
Unfortunately, due to our modern and busy lives, most people don’t get the best quality of sleep which results in a continuous fatigue. Thankfully, there are many ways that you can improve sleep quality and we will now look at a few of them.
Get More Sun During The Day
The body has a natural clock which is known as the circadian rhythm. This internal clock is what tells your body when its time to sleep and it also governs your hormones, brain and body.
When you expose your body to natural sunlight, this helps to keep your circadian rhythm on track and healthy.
Many people who had insomnia and increased how much natural sunlight they were exposed to, reported a decrease in their insomnia and were able to fall asleep much faster than before.
Older adults were also able to get more hours of sleep, just by getting more sun exposure during the day.
Don’t Drink Caffeine In The Evening Or Night
Caffeine has numerous benefits and can significantly increase your focus and ability to concentrate. However, when you drink it in the evening or night, this causes your nervous system to become stimulated which doesn’t allow your body to relax.
Since caffeine stays in the body for 4 – 6 hours, it is not recommended that you drink it after 4 pm since this will negatively affect your ability to sleep.
Melatonin supplements are a sleep aid since melatonin is a sleep hormone that tells your body that it’s time to sleep.
According to various studies, taking this supplement can greatly improve your ability to fall asleep as well as improve your sleep quality.
In most countries, melatonin is available over the counter but in some countries you may require a prescription.
It is best to start with a low dose so you can determine your tolerance and then increase your dosage as required.
Cut Down On The Alcohol
Drinking alcohol, especially in the night, can negatively affect your sleep. It alters your body’s natural melatonin production and increases symptoms of sleep apnea and snoring.
It also negatively impacts your sleep patterns which results in poor quality sleep.
Optimize The Bedroom
Next, you need to optimize your bedroom so that it is conducive to sleep.
This means that you should control the temperature, furniture arrangement, external light, noise etc.
There are studies that indicate that noise negative impacts sleep quality as well as external lights.
As a result, you should try to arrange your bedroom in such a way that any impediments to good sleep are removed or at least reduced. By making your bedroom a clean, cool and relaxing space, you will be able to sleep better.
Don’t Eat Too Late
If you eat your meals just before bed, then this can cause hormone disruption as well as sleep disruption.
However, eating particular foods can help with your sleep. In many instances, a high carb meal that is eaten at least 4 hours before bed can help you to fall asleep faster.
However, late night eating can reduce the quality of your sleep while also negatively affecting the release of HGH (human growth hormone).
Take A Bath Or Shower Before Bed
Another strategy that can help you to sleep better is to take a bath or shower before bed. This has been shown to help most adults and especially older adults to fall asleep faster and get better quality sleep.
A warm shower 90 minutes before sleep time has been found to help most adults get more deep sleep. If you don’t want to have a full bath or shower, you can wash your feet with hot water to experience similar results.
Get A Good Bed, Pillow & Mattress
The quality of your bed can affect the quality of your sleep. New bedding can improve sleep whereas poor quality bedding can cause back pain and poor sleep.
The best type of mattress, pillow and bedding is quite subjective, so you will need to find the best ones that feel comfortable to you.
According to studies, new bedding can reduce shoulder pain, back stiffness, back pain and other bodily pains.
In closing, we have just looked at the sleep cycle and how to get better quality sleep. So, if you don’t have the best sleep, it is advisable that you use the information above to make the necessary changes to your life so that you can enjoy the full benefits of good sleep once again.