It’s no secret that we all need sleep. Anyone who’s ever pulled an all-nighter can attest to just how important a good night’s rest is. But exactly what happens when we drift off to sleep is still not entirely clear.
What we do know is that while sleep might be a time of rest, it’s anything but passive. It’s actually a complex and dynamic process that cycles through 4 distinct stages – each serving a key purpose.
Today, we’re going to dive into exactly what takes place during each of these sleep cycle stages. And more importantly, we’re going to cover exactly how you can optimize your sleep and ensure you’re catching plenty of high-quality shut-eye.
How Many Stages of Sleep Are There?
Sleep isn’t uniform. Rather, you run through several rounds of a “sleep cycle” that’s made up of 4 distinct stages. In a typical night’s sleep, the average person will go through anywhere from 4 to 6 sleep cycles – continuously progressing through each stage of sleep before starting the cycle all over again.
Each stage of your sleep cycle plays a crucial role and can be broken into two distinct categories: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep.
Let’s take a little deeper look at each of these 4 unique sleep cycle stages:1,2
NREM Sleep Stage 1
The first stage of NREM sleep is the transition from wakefulness to sleep. This phase includes those first few minutes where you begin to “doze off” and your brain waves begin slowing down from their daytime wakefulness.
Physiologically, what occurs during stage 1 sleep, is a decrease in your breathing, heart rate, and eye movements. Your muscles also begin to relax, although sometimes you’ll have occasional twitches. During this light stage of sleep, you can be awakened easily, but if left undisturbed, you’ll quickly slip into the next stage of NREM sleep.
NREM Sleep Stage 2
During stage 2 of NREM sleep, you ease a little further into sleep. Your muscles become more relaxed, your heart rate and breathing slow even further. Your eye movement stops and your body temperature begins to drop.
As a whole, your brain wave activity slows even more, but it’s marked by brief bursts of electrical activity that actually help you resist being woken up by external stimuli. The length of this stage of sleep will vary, usually getting longer and longer with each cycle – but you’ll typically spend about half your sleep time in stage 2 of NREM sleep.
NREM Sleep Stage 3
Stage 3 of NREM sleep is the deepest stage of sleep and is critical for achieving the restorative rest that leaves you feeling refreshed in the morning. During this stage, your breathing and heart rate slow to their lowest levels and your muscles are fully relaxed.
Your brain waves slow to an identifiable pattern, with slower frequencies known as delta waves. Similar to stage 2, the length of time you spend in stage 3 will fluctuate throughout the night – but this stage tends to get shorter and shorter with each sleep cycle.
REM Sleep (Stage 4)
The fourth and final stage of sleep is REM sleep. In the REM stage of sleep, your brain activity begins to perk up, nearing levels seen during wakefulness. Your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing increase. Your eyes move quickly from side to side behind your closed eyelids. At the same time, you’ll experience temporary paralysis of your muscles – in a state known as atonia.
The length of the REM stage will vary throughout the night, but on average, you spend about a quarter of your sleep time in this stage. As you transition out of REM sleep, you re-enter the light sleep of stage 1 and begin the cycle over again.
What Stage of Sleep Do You Dream In?
The majority of your dreams take place during REM sleep. As brain activity increases and different areas of your brain are stimulated, you experience vivid dreams. In order to protect you from “acting out” your dreams, your brain simultaneously sends signals that shut off neurons in your spinal cord – temporarily paralyzing your major muscle groups.
Exactly why we dream is still a mystery. Some speculate it may be a way for us to process emotions and information that we encounter in our day-to-day lives. Regardless of exactly what purpose dreams serve, there’s ample evidence that REM sleep and dreaming are essential to our cognitive functions like learning, memory, and creativity.3
So let’s take a look at some ways you can optimize your sleep and ensure you’re logging plenty of crucial rest.
How to Sleep Better Than Ever
When it comes to getting truly restorative sleep, you want to focus on both quantity and quality.
For most people, the ideal amount of sleep is 7-8 hours each night. And you’ll want to aim for high-quality sleep – meaning uninterrupted sleep that allows you to seamlessly run through each stage of the sleep cycle throughout the night. To improve your sleep habits and get a better night’s rest, here’s what I recommend:
- Avoid caffeine late in the day: Having an afternoon latte or tea stimulates your brain – leaving you wired and wide awake when it’s time for bed. Skip caffeine later in the day to allow your body to wind down naturally.
- Avoid alcohol before bed: While alcohol may help you doze off initially, it actually disrupts your sleep pattern – robbing you of essential REM sleep. So, moderate alcohol consumption and avoid it close to bedtime.
- Create a nighttime routine: Sticking to a pre-sleep routine can help you wind down and train your brain to associate these habits with bedtime. Simple steps like brushing your teeth, washing your face, and slipping into pajamas can help you establish a better sleep rhythm.
- Keep your room comfortable: Fine-tune the temperature of your bedroom so you’re not too hot or cold – although keeping your room a little on the cooler side can help you sleep. Shut off all lights and use curtains or an eye mask to block out any lights.
- Use a fan or white noise: Bothersome noise can disrupt your sleep and keep you awake. Using a fan, white noise, or even earplugs can help drown out any sounds that might disturb you.
- Shut off electronics: Cell phones, laptops, and television cause mental stimulation that can be hard to shut off. Unplugging from all electronics at least 30 minutes before bed can help your brain wind down and drift off to sleep.
Cultivating these healthy habits can go a long way in improving your sleep – giving you that refreshed and “ready to take on the day” feeling each morning. But sometimes, you may need a little extra help to reach that deep restorative slumber.
Natural Sleep Supplements
While there’s no substitute for healthy lifestyle habits to promote healthy sleep, sometimes you might need a little extra help to get enough shut-eye. The good news is, you don’t have to rely on prescription drugs or other heavy-duty sleep aids to help you catch some z’s. There are some powerfully effective and safe all-natural sleep supplements.
Here are some of my favorites:
- Sleep Essentials: Sleep essentials is a potent combination of all-natural bioactive cofactors and amino acids. These compounds work together to naturally boost sleep-promoting hormones and neurotransmitters like GABA, melatonin, and serotonin. It’s designed to support normal uninterrupted sleep if you’re experiencing occasional difficulty falling or staying asleep.
- Dream Powder: Dream powder is a blend of ingredients designed to support the natural synthesis and balance of hormones and neurotransmitters that induce sleep and combat stress – allowing you to more easily drift off into peaceful slumber.
- LipoCalm: LipoCalm is a powerful blend of natural nutrients and botanicals calibrated to help ease your body into sleep. A dose of LipoCalm before bed helps trigger your brain to begin winding down and drifting off to sleep without any of the negative side effects that come with prescription sleep aids.
These potent supplements don’t rely on drugs that leave you groggy or have the potential to be habit-forming. Instead, they work with your body’s natural mechanisms to help you sleep better and longer. You can find all of these supplements and more at my online store. You can even get 10% off your first order by clicking right here.
Set Yourself Up for Success
While we still have a lot to learn about sleep, there’s no denying that it’s an often-overlooked pillar of health. Without logging adequate hours of high-quality sleep, we simply can’t show up as our best or truly support our overall well-being. Taking steps to make sleep a priority is one of the best things you can do for your health.
And while there’s no “one size fits all” solution for better sleep – or health for that matter – the suggestions outlined in this article apply to just about everyone. Try making tiny adjustments and incorporating small changes to improve your sleeping habits and optimize your shut-eye. Because when it comes to your health and well-being, you’re in the driver’s seat and your day-to-day choices add up in a big way.
If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more about how you can optimize your health, head over, and check out my blog. It’s chock-full of articles and resources to give you what you need to make informed and empowered choices about your health. And if you want to take it even deeper, I encourage you to sign up for my newsletter to get exclusive access to my very best tips and resources delivered straight to your inbox. All you have to do is enter your name and email address in the form below.
Now it’s time to hear from you. Were you surprised to learn about the 4 stages of sleep? What steps are you taking to improve your sleep habits? Leave your questions and thoughts in the comments below!
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The product mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to replace any recommendations or relationship with your physician. Please review references sited at end of article for scientific support of any claims made.
Dr. Jill Carnahan, MD is a Functional Medicine Expert. She uses functional medicine to help patients find the root cause of their illness and identify nutritional and biochemical imbalances that may be contributing to their symptoms by utilizing nutrition, supplements, lifestyle changes, or medication.
Dr. Jill was dually board certified in Family Medicine in 2006-2016 and in Integrative Holistic Medicine since 2005. She founded the Methodist Center for Integrative Medicine in Peoria, Illinois in 2009 and worked there as medical director. Then in 2010, she moved to Boulder, Colorado and opened Flatiron Functional Medicine where she has a widely sought-after medical practice with a broad range of clinical service including nutritional consultations, chiropractic therapy, naturopathic medicine, acupuncture, and massage therapy.
Dr. Jill is survivor of both breast cancer and Crohn’s disease and passionate about teaching patients how to live well and thrive in the midst of complex and chronic illness. She has been featured in Shape Magazine, Parade, Forbes, MindBodyGreen, First for Women, Townsend Newsletter, and The Huffington Post as well as seen on NBC News and Health segments with Joan Lunden.