Understanding Your REM Sleep Cycle
To the naked eye, someone who is sleeping looks pretty much the same the entire time they are asleep. Closed eyes, light breathing, maybe a little drool… But what’s going on behind those eyelids is much more complicated than we can observe from the outside.
The Sleep Cycle
There are two basic stages in the sleeping process: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, and a lot is going on during each of them. Our sleep cycle typically starts with NREM sleep, followed by a short period of REM sleep, then repeats. Each sleep cycle takes between 90 and 110 minutes. This means that if you get eight hours of sleep a night, you’re experiencing about 5 sleep cycles. It is healthiest to wake up early in the cycle, so you are not interrupting your deepest sleep.
Understanding NREM Sleep
NREM sleep has four stages that your body gradually progresses through on its way to REM sleep:
- Stage 1: Brain activity is reduced, and your eyes are closed as your muscles begin to relax. This sleep level is very light, however, and it’s easy to wake someone up. They may not even think they have been asleep. This stage usually lasts around 5-10 minutes.
- Stage 2: A light and dreamless sleep, during which your body experiences intermediate periods of muscle tone and muscle relaxation. As your heart rate slows and your body temperature lowers, you become ready to enter deep sleep. You spend about half of your time sleeping in Stage 2 sleep.
- Stage 3: The beginning of deep sleep, which is known as slow-wave sleep. If you wake up during this stage, you may feel quite disoriented. While you are in deep sleep, the body restores itself, repairing and regenerating tissue, building bone and muscle, and bolstering the immune system.
- Stage 4: Similar to Stage 3, but more intense.
Understanding REM Sleep
When you enter into REM sleep, your eyes begin to move rapidly in different directions, and your heart rate and respiration speed up erratically. Interestingly, the brainwave patterns that are recorded during the REM stage of sleep are quite similar to those recorded when you are awake. During REM sleep, you experience dreams, but your muscles become paralyzed. The length of your REM periods during the night increases with each completed sleep cycle. The first REM period usually lasts about ten minutes, and they can extend up to an hour.
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