The sleep stages we go through at night is an interesting topic, especially for those of us who are keen to improve the quality of our sleep. There are, however, some misconceptions around what the sleep stages are, so I would like to clear these up for you today.
Some of these misconceptions can cause people to worry about the sleep they are getting, and this can be compounded by the use of apps that estimate the quality of your sleep.
In the last section of this post I am going to explain the stages of sleep in some detail – but before you scroll down to that, I encourage you to read my points below about the misconceptions and also the trouble with over-analyzing those sleep stages.
“I encourage you to not get hung up on this, or over-analyze the quality of sleep that you think you are getting.”
Let’s start with a big truth about sleep stages
You are probably not able to control the way you progress through those sleep stages during the night. The way your sleep stages are distributed might be something you’ve thought about and wondered if you can optimize.
As far as I know, there is nobody out there with a formula to control how much REM sleep you get per night — it’s a natural process led by your body.
There are so many physical and emotional factors at play that we really do need to accept what we cannot control. We need to stop dissecting and overanalyzing the data from our sleep apps, and switch our focus to what we can influence, such as waking up in the morning with enough energy for the day.
Focus on achieving quality sleep
This is about your sleep in general, not about overanalyzing sleep stages or data from an app.
If you missed my video on how to define what quality sleep is for you, then go and check that one out, as it will help you with this.
As the patterns of everybody’s sleep stages are all so individual, then comparing your amount of REM sleep with somebody else’s is not helpful. Again, this is about relaxing and letting go of what we can’t control.
The practicalities of quality sleep
Once you’ve stopped focusing on your sleep stages, you can work on the more practical things, such as your ability to drift off and get to sleep in the first place. Sleeping through the night without interruptions, waking up both mentally and physically in the mornings, and of course being able to maintain your energy levels throughout the day.
These outcomes are what I’m referring to when I talk about the practicalities of quality sleep, and when you can actually achieve those, the distribution of your sleep stages won’t matter as much.
The only exception to this rule is if your doctor diagnoses you as having a sleep disorder. If in doubt then speak to your GP in the first instance.
But for those of us struggling with insomnia, focusing on those practicalities of good sleep is what will really count.
The different sleep stages
The sleep stages can be put into two categories; REM (rapid eye movement, associated with dreaming), and NREM (non-REM) sleep.
The NREM sleep comes first, and is split over a few stages as follows.
This is the lightest and typically shortest stage, beginning quite soon after your head hits the pillow, dependent on tiredness or how ready for sleep you feel. In this first stage of averagely 7 minutes, you can be easily woken.
Your brain is producing both alpha and theta waves. You are relaxed yet still reasonably aware of noises and movements around you.
This is still a fairly light sleep, but your body is starting to settle in for the night now, which is reflected by your pulse rate and body temperature decreasing.
At this stage your brain waves are starting to create a pattern called ‘sleep spindles’. If you looked at it on an EEG graph, you would see little regular bursts of the needle oscillating up and down.
You may get into this stage in a power nap of around 20 minutes.
Stage 3 (which is sometimes broken down to stages 3 and 4)
Whether you break stages 3 and 4 down makes little difference, so we can leave that to the doctors and scientists. The key thing to know about this stage is that it’s a deep, restorative sleep that comes before REM sleep and dreaming.
Your brain is producing delta waves and your immune systems is doing it’s repair work, whether that’s fighting any germs you picked up during the day, or repairing micro-tears in your muscles from exercise.
This stage is known to be important for gathering enough energy for the following day, so it’s understandable why people get hung up on getting enough of this sleep, although I do still advise against obsessing over sleep app data.
This is where a very common misconception comes in! People seem to have picked up the idea that a complete sleep cycle is 90 minutes long. When in fact, that’s just the average length of your NREM sleep. REM sleep comes after the NREM stages, and begins at around 90 minutes after entering stage 1.
Interestingly, REM stages don’t have the same average time across the board. Normally, REM cycles become progressively longer as your night’s sleep continues, which is why you often wake in the morning while a dream is still occurring.
While the NREM stages of sleep are marked with a decline in pulse rate, blood pressure and respiration rate, REM is marked with an increase. And of course, the well-know jerky eye-movements are occurring here.
REM sleep is associated with memory consolidation and being good for learning. You might have noticed that you often dream about things that have happened that day. Interestingly, REM sleep is the time your brain sorts the short-term memories of the day into long-term memory storage.
While there is a clear and definite pattern to our sleep cycles, it is worth keeping in mind the individual differences at play. We are all a little different; our physical stressors and emotions affect our sleep requirements, as do our age.
And while I agree that it’s helpful to know about these stages, and certainly to bust some myths, I encourage you to focus on developing good sleep habits around the practicalities mentioned earlier in this post. Over-analyzing your sleep cycles and comparing them to those of other people is not going to help you, in fact is will only add pressure that you don’t need.
So relax and focus on what you can influence, such as your approach to sleep as a whole.