Please note, Our Sleep Guide is proudly supported by our readers. The product links you’ll find on Our Sleep Guide are referrals and if you purchase an item we do make a small compensation. Please see our disclosure page for full details.
What is a sleep cycle and how does it effect you? Well, when you are sleeping, your brain doesn’t just shut off. It’s not just a period of rest. Instead, you should think of sleeping as closing a store for the day. Overnight, a cleaning crew comes in to tidy things up and get the place optimally ordered for the next day. When you sleep, pathways in your brain are being renewed or broken down as toxins are being removed. These pathways allow for communication between nerve endings.
When you don’t get adequate sleep, this process can’t occur properly. This can leave you feeling groggy and confused. Also sleep plays an importation role for the rest of the body. The functions of effective organ performance, diseases resistance, and metabolism are influenced by how much sleep you get each night. Your body can suffer from high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity when you don’t receive enough shuteye. This is why paying attention to your sleep cycle is important. Keep reading to learn more about the stages of sleep, how to get better rest and maximize your rest.
Sleep Cycle – What Happens When You Sleep?
Science says that sleep occurs in several stages. We can only visit each stage when sleeping for a healthy amount of time. This gives the structures within the brain the opportunity to work to improve your quality of everyday life. Deep in the brain, a small structure called the hypothalamus acts as the control center. It contains several groups of nerve cells that tell you when to sleep and when to wake.
Inside the hypothalamus is the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SNC). This portion clusters of thousands of cells that sense the light exposure the eyes are receiving. It then gives corresponding messages to the pineal gland that match the circadian rhythms according to day and night.
The pineal gland produces melatonin, a hormone which helps us to sleep. The basal forebrain promotes sleep and wakefulness as the midbrain works as an arousal system. The brain stem works with the hypothalamus. Together they produce GABA, a brain chemical the suppresses the arousal centers of these portions in the brain.
The brain stem also sends signals to relax the body’s muscles during REM sleep. During REM the thalamus also sends images, sounds, and other sensations to the cerebral cortex enabling us to dream. The amygdala is extremely active during REM sleep as it processes emotions. This complex procedure just can’t work without the proper time to visit each cycle of sleep.
Stages of Your Sleep Cycle:
There are 5 stages that you go through multiple times each night while sleeping. Bringing you deeper and deeper into sleep to allow your body and mind to rejuvenate. Each of these stages serving their own importance in the sleep cycle and your transition between wakefulness and slumber.
Sleep Cycle – Stage 1:
Stage one of sleep is a non-REM sleep stage. It occurs when you first begin drifting off to sleep. Stage one only lasts for a few minutes before you move onto the next stage of sleep. This can last up to seven minutes. However, sometimes this stage only takes a few seconds, depending on how tired you are and your environment.
During this time, you may feel yourself coming in and out of sleep. You might notice yourself letting go of your thoughts from that day. Your breathing, eye movements, and heartbeat all slow as you begin to relax your muscles. Occasional muscle twitches are not uncommon as your brain waves slow down and shift from the daytime wakefulness patterns. The brain waves now produce alpha and theta waves. If you have ever begun quickly startled awake, you were probably experiencing stage one of sleep.
Sleep Cycle – Stage 2:
During the second stage of sleep, you will lightly snooze in preparation to reach a deeper state of sleep. In addition to the slowing of your breathing and heartbeat slowing, your body temperature drops. Your muscles relax even further, and eye movement also ceases during this cycle. While your brain activity slows down, you will have occasional moments of increased electrical activity.
These periods are known as “sleep spindles.” They happen early in the cycle before the brain waves turn down for the rest of the stage. Stage two of sleep is where you end up often as you cycle through the other stages. Waking after this stage of sleep can make you feel slightly refreshed. This practice is often labeled a “power nap.”
Sleep Cycle – Stage 3 & 4:
Stages three and four are the final portions of sleep before you reach REM sleep. The third stage is the beginning of the deep sleep periods. During this time, the brain creates slower delta waves. There will be no eye movement or muscle activity during this time. It becomes more difficult to be awakened during this stage because your body is less stimulated by environmental influences.
In the fourth and final stage before REM sleep, you sleep the deepest. More delta waves are produced by the brain while the body begins its restorative process. It is even more difficult to be woken at this point because the body is hard at work. Muscles and tissues are replenished, growth and development are encouraged, and the immune system strengthens. All of these 4 stages slowly leading up to the last stage, REM.
Sleep Cycle – REM (Rapid Eye Movement):
The last of the sleep stages is the REM cycle, or Rapid Eye Movement sleep. It happens around 90 minutes after you fall asleep and work your way through the preceding cycles. The name of this cycle comes from the way your eyes moving quickly back and forth behind your eyelids.
Brain activity during this stage is comparative to when you are in wakefulness with mixed frequencies. Your breathing increases and becomes irregular. Your heart rate and blood pressure rise almost to levels of wakefulness. And your arms and legs are paralyzed during this state, which prevents you from reacting physically to your dreams.
While you can dream during the other sleep cycles, most dreaming happens during REM sleep. The length of REM sleep can shorten as you age. It’s likely that memory consolidation needs both REM sleep and non-REM sleep. REM sleep is when the brain consolidates and processes information from the day before, converting it into long-term memory.
A typical adult will cycle through five to six REM cycles per night. As the night goes on, the REM cycles get closer together. This means you’re more likely to awake from a vivid dream in mornings.
How Much Sleep Do You Need?
In short, the amount of sleep you need each night for optimal health and well-being depends on your age. Everyone is different, and therefore needs a different amount of sleep. A lot goes into figuring out specific numbers for everyone, meaning there is no set rule on a specific amount of time. Babies will often sleep anywhere from 16 to 18 hours per day. This might be due to the brain development and rapid growth taking place at this age.
As infants age, their hours of sleep needed each night will decrease. When they reach school-age, the will only need roughly 9.5 hours of sleep per night. This estimate remains similar into the teenage years. Adults usually only need 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night to wake feeling refreshed.
After the age of 60, many adults notice their periods of sleep getting shorter and lighter. They often wake up several times throughout the night. Many elderly take medications as they begin to experience health complications. These medicines often interfere with natural sleep patterns.
Societal changes have had an adverse impact on the amount of sleep people are experiencing on average. Many adults are burdened by extreme workloads that leave them with less time in the day. They might intentionally skip out on sleep to catch up on housework or spending time with their families and friends. Another thing that is decreasing the amount of sleeps adults are seeing worldwide is the entertainment options that are available to us.
Adults and even children can turn on the TV at any given time to watch whichever programming we prefer, and the internet is at their fingertips thanks to smartphones. On the weekends or other days off from work, many will try to catch up on missed sleep. However, it is usually not enough due to how sleep-deprived they may be.
Genetics and Sleep:
Research has proven that genetics can play a big role in the amount of sleep you get. Many disorders that affect your quality of sleep have been identified, and more are becoming known through continued research. Genes that control the excitability of neurons, and “clock” genes have been identified. These reactions within the neurons and clock genes can heavily influence sleep pattern and circadian rhythms. Certain chromosomes can increase your vulnerability to developing a sleep disorder.
Different genes have also been discovered to produce disorders like familial advanced sleep-phase disorder, narcolepsy, and restless legs syndrome. While some of these genetic changes are in the cerebral cortex, other brain locations can be affected as well. Currently, scientists are looking to the fruit fly, worms, and zebrafish to locate molecular mechanisms and genetic variants impacting sleep. As time progresses, more research should reveal more information on inherited sleep patterns and risks for sleep disorders.
To find out if you have or are at risk for developing a sleep disorder, proper diagnosis must be performed. This usually involves completing a sleep study overnight at a sleep lab or sleep center. During your observation, your breathing, oxygen levels, eye and limb movements, heart rate, and brain waves are measured and recorded. Your observation may also include audio and video recording. Through the results, doctors can determine if you are reaching all the stages of sleep properly. From there, your doctor can work with you to develop a treatment plan and/or decide if further testing is necessary.
Sleep Tracking Tools & Smart Technology:
There are tons of ways to see how well you’re sleeping on your own from the comfort of your home. There are smartphone apps, bedside monitors, and wearable items, like bracelets, smartwatches, and headbands, that collect sleep data. Some of the things recorded are sound and movement during sleep, journal hours slept, and heartbeat and respiration monitoring.
Using an app to process this data, you can send the information for syncing with your other electronic devices. There are also devices that produce white noise, light for melatonin production stimulation, and gentle vibrations for improved sleep.
Eight Sleep Tracker:
The Eight Sleep Smart Mattress is a device you can place over your mattress to help you sleep better. Working with other phone apps, this product tracks your sleep, warms you, and can even coach you to improved rest. The Eight Sleep Smart Mattress has three different line compatible with the Eight Sleep Tracker to suit every need. There are several options within each of these lines to accommodate even more individual preferences.
The Eight Sleep Tracker fits over your mattress like a fitted sheet. It is filled with many sensors but has a silky-smooth top. From the side of the cover, it is attached to a pod that is then plugged into a wall outlet. With a quick download of an app, you can then synch the Eight Sleep Tracker for use. There are four main features to improve your quality of sleep. Fall Asleep Faster warms the bed to a perfect temperature for inducing comfortable sleep. Smart
Alarm helps you maintain a great routine for waking by gently stirring you naturally each day. Track Sleep Trends will show you what is going on while you sleep. Al Sleep Coach gives you recommendations based on your sleep patterns to improve your night. Home Integration works with your other home electronics to help you shut down and wake up. Each tracker is shipped for free and includes a 30-night trial and 1-year warranty.
Tomorrow Sleep Tracker:
The Tomorrow Sleep Tracker is another sleep tracking device comparative to the Eight Sleep Tracker. There are some major differences to note. For starters, the Tomorrow Sleep Tracker comes with two mattress sensors that are placed beneath the mattress. It also comes with a home port that connects to a power source and Wi-Fi. Simply download the Sleeptracker system and app on your smart devices and sync everything together.
The sensors work overnight to track your sleeping behavior converting the data for your monitoring. It records your sleep cycles, breathing and heart rates, and movement throughout your time of rest. Using the information collected, the Tomorrow Sleep Tracker offers customized suggestions. If you need any assistance, the Tomorrow Dream Team is available to help you out 24/7. There are five different major benefits to using the Tomorrow Sleep Tracker system. Sleep Analysis for Two works to give you and your partner individual data. It is not affected by furry family members sharing your bed and detects sleepers as light as 40 pounds.
Personalized Insights will help you improve your sleeping habits with daily, weekly, and monthly summaries. Your Sleep Coach records the type of sleep you’re in, targeting the right kind of sleep you need more of. Smart Home Integration makes the Tomorrow Sleep Tracker even better by syncing with Alexa. Personal Wake-up uses your phone for a soothing alarm that wakes you at the perfect time during your sleep cycle. The Tomorrow Sleep Tracker comes with a worry-free 100-night trial period and free returns.
Tips for Improving Your Sleep Cycle:
There are a few things you can start doing tonight to almost guarantee you better sleep. Following a few suggestions can get you waking up feeling more refreshed and prepared to take on your day. You owe it to yourself to get the sleep you need for restoration, and that starts with developing good habits. There are things you can do while you’re awake during your regular day. Incorporating a few of these practices in goes a long way.
- Don’t drink caffeine or alcoholic beverages before bed. Avoid using nicotine products in the evening before you go to sleep or get rid of them altogether.
- Exercise 20 to 30 minutes per day, but plan to accomplish this at least a few hours before your bedtime.
- Set a schedule that involves waking up and going to bed at the same time each day.
- You can also do a few things before bed that will help you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly.
- Creating a room conducive to sleeping is ideal. You’ll want to block out any bright lights and loud sounds.
- Keeping the room at a comfortable temperature that is not too cold or hot helps you to relax.
- You won’t want to have the TV or a computer running in your bedroom.
- Before you head to bed, do something relaxing, like taking a warm bath, reading, or anything else you find peaceful.
- If all else fails, you can also see a doctor to rule out any sleep disorders you may suffer from.
- And, most importantly find yourself a VERY comfortable mattress that gives you ideal support and comfort. We have several perfect suggestions in our Best Mattresses.
Sleep Cycle – Conclusion:
Our brains and bodies are complex things. They require an established pattern to promote healthy sleep. Without adequate time sleeping, we cannot make our way through the many cycles of REM and non-REM sleep we need. If doctors have assured you that you don’t suffer from a sleep disorder, maybe it’s time to develop better habits. Create a place favorable to sleeping properly and develop a schedule that allows you enough time.
You can find many products on the market and apps that will help you track and monitor your sleep behaviors. We recommend the Eight Sleep Tracker & Smart Mattress or the Tomorrow Sleep Tracker & Sleep Monitor System. Both devices allow you to sleep unencumbered by trackers that you must wear. They’ll help you with customized suggestions to getting a better night’s sleep. It’s worth it to put an importance on sleep since you spend about a third of your life doing it.
Want to know what our favorite mattresses and top picks are? Just go to our Best Mattresses page. Or check out some of popular pages for specific sleepers. Like the Best Mattresses for Side Sleepers or Best Mattresses for Hot Sleepers. And all the discounts can be found in one spot on our Mattress Coupons page!