The 5 Stages of Sleep: Getting The Benefits of Sleep You Need

Eli Ben-Yehuda

Written by Eli Ben-Yehuda

On November 20, 2019

The sleep cycle is an oscillation between the slow-wave and REM phases of sleep. It is sometimes called the ultradian sleep cycle, sleep–dream cycle, or REM-NREM cycle, to distinguish it from the circadian alternation between sleep and wakefulness. In humans, this cycle takes 1–2 hours.

The Stages of Sleep

Stage One: Alpha Waves

When we are preparing to drift off, we go though Alpha and Theta, and have periods of dreaminess, almost like daydreaming, except we are beginning to fall asleep.

These are interesting states, in that we experience them throughout the day and some people may have more of these waves than others.
Those who practice meditation, or deep prayerfulness, often kinda “hang out” in Alpha. It’s a restful place. During this stage, it’s not unusual to experience strange and extremely vivid sensations or a feeling of falling followed by sudden muscle contractions. These are known as hypnogogic hallucinations.

You may even feel like you are hearing someone call your name, or the phone ringing.
We then begin to enter Theta, which is still a relatively light period between being awake and asleep. This usually lasts for 5-10 minutes. Research has shown that the average sleeper takes about 7 minutes to fall asleep. You may fall asleep sooner, or take longer.

Stage Two: Deep Relaxation

The second stage of sleep lasts about 20 minutes. As we move into stage 2 sleep, the body goes into a state of deep relaxation. Theta waves still dominate the activity of the brain, but they are interrupted by brief bursts of activity known as sleep spindles . A sleep spindle is a rapid burst of higher frequency brain waves that may be important for learning and memory. In addition, the appearance of K-complexes is often associated with stage 2 sleep. A K-complex is a very high amplitude pattern of brain activity that may in some cases occur in response to environmental stimuli. Thus, K-complexes might serve as a bridge to higher levels of arousal in response to what is going on in our environments.

Stage Three: Delta Waves Begin

Deep, slow brain waves known as Delta Waves begin to emerge during this stage. It is a transitional period between light sleep and a very deep sleep. Stage 3 and stage 4 of sleep are often referred to as deep sleep or slow-wave sleep because these stages are characterized by low frequency (up to 4 Hz), high amplitude delta waves. During this time, an individual’s heart rate and respiration slow dramatically.

It is much more difficult to awaken someone from sleep during stage 3 and stage 4 than during earlier stages. Interestingly, individuals who have increased levels of alpha brain wave activity (more often associated with wakefulness and transition into stage 1 sleep) during stage 3 and stage 4 often report that they do not feel refreshed upon waking, regardless of how long they slept.

Stage Four: Delta Sleep

This is sometimes referred to as Delta Sleep because of the delta waves that occur during this time. Stage Four is a deep sleep that lasts for about 30 minutes. Sleepwalking and bed-wetting typically happen at the end of Stage Four sleep. (This does not include the problems that can happen with sleep medications like Ambien and Lunesta).

Stage Five: REM Sleep Phase

Most dreaming occurs during Stage Five, known as REM. REM sleep is characterized by eye movement, increased respiration rate and increased brain activity. REM sleep is also referred to as paradoxical sleep because, while the brain and other body systems become more active, your muscles become more relaxed, or paralyzed. Dreaming occurs because of increased brain activity, but voluntary muscles become paralyzed.

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Voluntary muscles are those that you need to move by choice, for example, your arms and legs. Involuntary muscles are those that include your heart and gut. They move on their own.
Rapid eye movement, or REM sleep, is when you typically dream. You may have images float by in earlier stages, particularly when you are going through Alpha or Theta, but the actual dream state occurs in REM.

This period of paralyzation is a built-in protective measure to keep you from harming yourself. When you are paralyzed, you can’t leap out of bed and run. Do you ever feel like you can’t escape during a dream? Well, the truth is, you can’t. You can breathe, and your heart is working, but you really can’t move.

Do Cycles Go In Order?

Sleep does not progress through all of these stages in sequence, however. Sleep begins in Stage One and progresses into stages 2, 3, and 4. Then, after Stage Four sleep, Stages Three, then Two are repeated before going into REM sleep. Once REM is over, we usually return to Stage Two sleep. Sleep cycles through these stages approximately 4 or 5 times throughout the night.
We typically enter REM approximately 90 minutes after falling asleep.

The first cycle of REM often lasts only a short amount of time, but each cycle becomes longer. This is why we need long periods of sleep each night. If we get short periods of sleep, we can’t really get through the stages we need to heal and stay healthy. REM can last up to an hour as our sleep progresses. In case you are wondering, if you feel like a dream is taking a long period of time, it really is.

Contrary to what was once believed, dreams take as long as they actually seem.
Do you ever wonder why you don’t dream when you sleep? The truth is, if you are getting proper amounts of sleep in proper time periods, and not taking medications or using alcohol or illegal substances, you are dreaming. You just don’t remember them unless they wake you.
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