Understanding the Sleep Cycles and the Importance of Restorative Sleep

Medically reviewed by Jamie Nicole
Medically reviewed by Jamie Nicole on August 29, 2020
Founder & CEO of The Natural Healing Coach, LLC
Updated on September 16th, 2020
Sleep Cycles

The importance of good sleep cannot be underestimated.  Introducing the right habits into your bedtime routine can help you sleep better and improve your overall health.

However, getting a good night’s sleep can be elusive for many of us.  Many things can potentially disrupt your sleep patterns and make it hard to drift off into a natural sleep. Many of us are sleep deprived and don’t even know it.  

To assess your sleep deficit, ask yourself:

  1. Am I often tired?
  2. Am I using caffeine to get through the day?
  3. Do I wake up often during the night?
  4. Do I wake up feeling refreshed or exhausted?
  5. Do I get drowsy while driving or watching TV? 

If you answered yes to any of these questions, keep reading. You can benefit from learning more about how to get a better night’s sleep.

Before we get into what we can do to get a better night’s sleep, we must first dive into what is considered “good sleep” and how all parts of our body interact to help us achieve it.  The first step in this learning process is learning about the stages of sleep. 

Each night you take a journey through the different stages of sleep. During this time, even though you are unaware, your brain and body are in an active state.  Each stage of sleep has a therapeutic purpose.  How well your body navigates each step at night plays a significant role in how your body helps you navigate life the following day.

Ideally, as you sleep, you go through multiple 90-minute cycles through the stages of sleep.  Each of these cycles plays a pivotal role in maintaining your physical, mental, and emotional health.  Just as our health is very bio-individual, so is our sleep.  The amount of each stage of sleep varies significantly by a person and by day/night.

Stages of Sleep

There are 2 categories of sleep: non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep (which has three different stages) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Both categories are exactly what they sound like.  With non-REM sleep, your eyes remain still, while with REM sleep, your eyes move rapidly under your eyelids.

Together, non-REM and REM sleep makes up one cycle where your brain progresses sequentially through each stage of sleep: wake, light sleep, deep sleep, REM, and repeat.  You go through all stages of non-REM and REM sleep multiple times during a typical night, with increasingly longer, deeper REM periods occurring toward morning. 

Wake Stage

The Wake Stage is often  considered Stage 1

Stage 1, non-REM sleep, is the transition from wakefulness to slumber.  Your brain waves start to slow from their daytime wakefulness patterns. 

During light sleep:

  • heart-rate and breathing slows
  • eye movements slow
  • your muscles relax

Light Sleep Stage

The Light Sleep Stage is considered Stage 2

This stage is a period of mild sleep before you enter a night of deeper sleep.  Light sleep initiates your sleep cycle and acts as a transition to deeper sleep stages. Brain wave activity slows but is characterized by short bursts of activity.  You spend an excess of your repeated sleep cycles in stage 2 sleep than in other sleep stages.

During light sleep:

  • heart rate and breathing slows further
  • eye movement stops
  • muscles relax even further and may jerk
  • respiration slows 
  • body temperature drops
  • sleep begins

Deep Sleep

The Deep Sleep Stage is often considered Stage 3

Deep sleep focuses on your body. It is the period of deep sleep that you need to feel refreshed in the morning. It is the most rejuvenating and restorative sleep stage, and it is the stage responsible for promoting muscle growth and repair as well as waste removal in your brain.  

Deep sleep occurs in more extended periods during the first half of the night—your heartbeat and breathing slow to their lowest levels during sleep. Your brain waves become even slower. Your muscles are relaxed.  Have you felt awakened from a deep sleep?  How did it feel?  In this stage, you have difficulty waking and are often disoriented or groggy when awakened.

During deep sleep: 

  • blood pressure drops
  • blood flow increases to muscles
  • repair hormones (i.e., growth hormone) are released
  • tissue growth and cell repair occurs
  • long, slow brain waves 
  • brain flushes out waste 

REM Sleep

The REM Stage is often  considered Stage 4

REM sleep first occurs about one and a half hours after falling asleep.  Our eyes move fastly from side to side behind closed eyelids.  Our breathing becomes faster and irregular, and your heart rate and blood pressure increase to near waking levels. 

REM sleep is essential to re-energizing your mind. Most of our dreaming occurs during REM sleep, although some can also occur in non-REM sleep.  REM is associated with dreaming, memory consolidation, learning, and problem-solving. As we age, we sleep less of your time in REM sleep.  

During REM sleep:

  • respiration increases
  • heart rate increases 
  • temperature regulation is switched off
  • brain activity is high; vivid dreams may occur
  • the body becomes immobile to stop you from acting out dreams
  • blood flow increases to genitals

[Also Read: How Quality Sleep Boosts Your Immune System]

How Much Sleep Do You Need?

There is no fixed number when it comes to the amount of sleep we need, as it depends on several factors.  The amount of sleep we need and our sleep patterns change over time. Generally, the younger you are, the more rest you need. 

Babies can require anywhere from 16 to 18 hours a day.  School-age children need 9-10 hours of sleep per night.  However, adults need anywhere from 7-9 hours of sleep nightly.  

Based on that news, are you getting enough sleep at night?  Most of you are working longer hours and have more and more responsibilities on our plates.  If it is not that, we are consumed with a 24-hour entertainment cycle that keeps us from going through a proper sleep cycle.  We are Netflix and chilling instead of resting and relaxing.

No matter how strongly we may wish we can catch up on life and our sleep, we continue in this sleep deprivation cycle as our to-do lists continue to grow…..even on the weekends.

[Also Read: Why Proper Sleep is Important for Healthy Living]

Getting Into Your Sleep Rhythm

One of the ways that I recommend getting better sleep is to get into your circadian rhythm.  Living a circadian lifestyle means that you live in the natural 24-hour cycle from light to dark.

Why is this important? Our hormones are dependent on mother nature’s cycle and respond to the rhythm of our day correspondingly.  We are meant to wake up with the sun (or as near to sunrise as possible) as our cortisol is at its peak at that time, and as the day goes on, our cortisol decreases, and our body prepares to rest. 

This is how nature works.  No one is “intrinsically” a night owl.  If a person believes that they function best at night,  they more than likely experience hormonal dysregulation. Changes should be made to shift back into the natural cycle for better sleep and better health.

Tips on How to Make the Shift

Wake up naturally without an alarm device.  If this is difficult at first, set your alarm for a quiet “easing” into wakefulness by using a chime or gong or even a sunlight clock until you naturally wake on your own. 

Turn any conventional clocks around or cover them.  If this is not possible, at a minimum, set a schedule – go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.

Make sure you are getting your most important things done in the morning, which requires more energy than others like exercising, stressful projects, etc. When exercising, try to get in 20-30 minutes a day.  If you cannot do it in the morning, try to get it done at least 3 hours before bed. 

Eat on a schedule and eat proper food. Eliminate all processed,  grains, refined sugars, and anything that comes in a box.  Breakfast should never taste like dessert.

Expose your skin and eyes to sunlight (vitamin D) at least 15-20 minutes per day—preferably bare legs and arms.  Walk barefoot inside, outside, etc.  Experience the earth beneath your feet.  If that’s not the season to be bare, get natural vitamin D rays for your home and talk to your doctor about supplementing.

Eat before 6:30 p.m. and prepare your meal a lighter meal than your breakfast or lunch. If you still struggle with wakefulness, eat a small fat/protein/carb snack before bed to stop the surge of adrenaline and cortisol that often happens in the night when blood sugar is off.

Skip nicotine and caffeine late in the day and alcoholic beverages before bed.

As the day winds down, close your blinds and soften the lights.  Try lighting a few candles and turning on some relaxing music.

Relax before bed – try a warm bath with lavender essential oil, reading, or another relaxing routine like stretching or practice guided relaxation and learn to turn off the sympathetic nervous system.

Turn off ALL electronic devices by 8:00 p.m. or use blue blocker sunglasses to watch TV, read the computer, or read electronic books.

Remove ALL light sources from your bedroom (including; phones, televisions, alarm clock lights, and light that filters through windows, etc. if this is not possible, wear an eye mask for total darkness.  

Fall asleep by 10:00 p.m at the earliest. Jot down all the things you THINK you may worry about once your eyes are closed; the next days’ projects, what didn’t get done that day etc. Once it is noted on a paper, you release it from your mind and energy and free yourself to rest. 

If you still struggle with stressful thoughts, work on reducing stress during the day with a stress-reducing app like Headspace or Calm.

If you can’t sleep, do something else, like listening to music or reading, until you feel tired. 

If these steps don’t solve your sleep problems, see a physician if you have a problem sleeping or if you feel unusually tired during the day.  Most sleep disorders can be treated appropriately. Get your adrenals tested with a diurnal saliva test and determine if you have highs and lows at the wrong part of the day.  

About The Author:

Jamie Nicole has established herself as a leading expert in the health & wellness industry as certified holistic health & autoimmune strategist, dance fitness instructor, and health & wellness motivational speaker.

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