Have you ever felt tired at work, despite getting eight hours of sleep the night before? Although you are getting a good amount of sleep, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you’re getting the right type of sleep. Night-time rest is a process that runs for several cycles across 4 stages. Find out more about your sleep stages in the following guide. 

After reading it you’ll be able to:

  • Learn what the 4 stages of sleep are
  • Identify sleep issues you may be experiencing
  • Realise what the ‘awake’ stage of sleep involves
  • Know what happens during the ‘light’ sleep stage
  • Appreciate the body’s working in the ‘deep’ stage of sleep
  • Better comprehend the function sleep plays in our health and mental health
  • Understand what occurs in the ‘REM’ stage of sleep and why it is so important

There are four common categories when it comes to the division of sleep. These are awake, light, deep, and REM sleep. None of these phases are necessarily more important than the other, as they are all essential. 

The first three stages of sleep are known as NREM sleep, also known as quiet sleep, and one stage of REM sleep also recognised as paradoxical sleep. Paradoxical sleep is a distinctive stage within a night’s sleep whereby intense brain activity takes place inside the forebrain and midbrain. It is distinguished by the presence of dreaming and the absence of motor functions, with the exception of the eye muscles and the diaphragm.

A woman in bed experiencing one of the 4 stages of sleep

What Happens In Each Stage Of Sleep?

The ‘Awake’ Stage Of Sleep

The awake stage is the phase spent in bed both before and during falling asleep. Also known as microsleep, it is a transitional period in which your eyes might still be open. It also consists of brief moments during the night in which you are not properly asleep.

The ‘Light’ Stage Of Sleep

Light sleep makes up the majority of our sleep. During this light phase of sleep the heart and breathing rate slow down as the body begins to relax. Bursts of electrical activity in the brain boosts its ability to remember and learn. The body is still quite alert during this phase, so unlike during deep sleep or REM, external forces that affect the senses, such as noise and temperature, can still easily wake you up. Light sleep is the optimal phase of sleep to be woken up in the morning.

This light stage of sleep involves:

  • Brain activity slowing down, but it is still highly susceptible to external stimulation arousing interest
  • The body relaxes, with a reduction in activity in eye movement, breathing and heartbeat
  • As muscles ease, they can often twitch, leading to ‘jumping’

Something most of us will have experienced at one point or another, the ‘jumping’ sensation is known as the myoclonic jerk. It is an extremely common part of falling asleep, and is often accompanied by hypnagogic hallucinations such as a feeling of falling or hearing your name being called.

The ‘Deep’ Stage Of Sleep

Unlike the light sleep phase, during deep sleep the body becomes far less responsive to any outside factors. In this stage of sleep breathing slows down, muscles relax, blood pressure drops and the heart rate usually becomes much more regular.

Within the deep sleep phase, the ‘thinking’ parts of the brain are mostly ‘switched off’. Getting deep sleep is important for the body to repair itself and recuperate, which it does partly by increasing blood flow to the muscles. Unlike in light and REM sleep, you do not dream at all during deep sleep, and are very likely to feel dazed and confused if woken up during this period. 

A time when the growth hormone is released, studies have shown that deep sleep helps to strengthen the body’s immune system.

The ‘REM’ Stage Of Sleep 

Rapid Eye Movement sleep (REM) is the stage which typically happens around 90 minutes after falling asleep. During REM the body’s heart rate and breathing quicken as the brain becomes more active. This stage of sleep happens in numerous periods, each getting progressively longer every time. The initial section of REM usually lasts for approximately 10 minutes. The final part of REM can last around 60 minutes. 

Due to the brain being increasingly active at this stage of sleep, REM is the phase whereby dreams are at their most vivid. A crucially important part of sleep, REM activates and accelerates the areas of the brain that help with learning and are associated with the increased production of proteins. Whilst fully grown adults are only in REM for around 20% of their sleeping time, newborn babies can spend up to half of the night in REM sleep.

An important part of REM is that it affords the body’s cells a chance to carry out maintenance. Bone and muscle growth are encouraged by secreting hormones, while repairs strengthen your abilities to fight infections and other ailments. 

In order to prevent you from acting out your dreams, despite the brain being incredibly active during REM, the body is overtaken by a paralysing force. 

The REM stage often involves:

  • A ‘lighting up’ of brain activity
  • The body becoming relaxed to the point of immobilisation
  • Faster, irregular breathing patterns
  • Eyes rapidly darting back and forth
  • Dreaming

As well as storing information as memories, it may also be the case that the REM stage of sleep is also when emotions are ‘processed’ into memories.

Time Spent In Each Stage Of Sleep

Whilst it is different for everyone, there are averages for how long we spend in each phase of sleep during a night’s rest.

Typically, the ‘light sleep’ stage takes up the majority, accounting for around 50-60%. Compared to the amount of deep or REM sleep you have, getting too much or too little light sleep has less of an effect on how you feel the following day. 

Deep sleep is likely to account for anywhere from 10-25% of your sleep, the amount differing depending on age. Whilst it is not possible to have an excessive amount of deep sleep, you can certainly suffer from too little, which can lead to problems such as extreme tiredness or even a compromised immune system.  

Comprising up to 20-25% of your sleep time is REM, taking place during the later stage of your night’s rest. A lack of REM sleep often leads to feeling groggy and unable to concentrate the following day, whereas consistently getting too much REM sleep can cause excessive brain activation. This can cause you to feel irritable and moody. In extreme cases, medication can be prescribed to sufferers.

Common Causes Of Sleep Disruption

While it can be normal to experience the odd night of sleep that is not continuous, recurring interrupted sleep can be indicative of deeper issues. The problem with sleep being disturbed is that it interferes with the cycles of a sleep stage, cutting it short, or encouraging it to repeat before terminating. 

Common disruptions that can affect sleep cycles are:

  • Unhealthy Lifestyle: Caffeine, alcohol, smoking, obesity and a lack of exercise
  • Age: Older people tend to sleep light, and are therefore easily woken
  • Urination: Some people have to get up several times a night to pee
  • Pain: People who are recently hurt or suffering from illnesses that involve pain
  • Mental Health: Depression and anxiety can often lead to problems sleeping
  • Sleeping Disorders: These include sleep apnoea (difficulty breathing) and restless leg syndrome (Jimmy legs) 

It is important to experience uninterrupted sleep on a regular basis.

Top Benefits Of Healthy Sleep

Over a long period of time getting the optimal amount of sleep helps the mind organise and store memories more efficiently. Of course, we all want to be at our best, but it is particularly important for anyone aiming for high achievement activities. For example, there can be a marked improvement from developing a good sleep routine for people working on their athletic performance. The benefits of regular great sleep include:

  • Sharper focus
  • Emotional control
  • Memory recall
  • Improved rationality
  • Better problem solving
  • Greater creativity

It is important to make sure you not only get enough sleep each night, but the right kind of sleep. If you’re experiencing any of the following difficulties then it is likely the needs of one or more of the sleep stages are not being met.  

  • Problems falling asleep
  • Problems staying asleep
  • Feeling fatigue during the day
  • Lacking mental alertness during the day
  • Need to nap beyond regular sleep times
  • Excessive snoring or difficulties breathing during sleep times
  • Depression and / or anxieties taking over your life

We have advice on how to fall asleep more quickly, as well as tips on how to combat insomnia, elsewhere in the sleep science section. Any of these issues being experienced in the extreme however, require further research and preferably advice from a medically trained expert. If you think your sleep problems stem from difficulties getting comfortable, then it may be time to consider getting a new bed, mattress or bedding. 

One possible benefit of a good night's sleep where all 4 stages were experienced is being happier

Start your journey to better sleep by finding your perfect bed from our wide selection at Land of Beds.

Need Help With Your Sleep?

Great sleep hygiene is essential to a healthy lifestyle. Noisy neighbours, passing car headlights and a snoring partner might be beyond our control, but what we can help with is assembling the bed that’s just right for you. 

Deciding on the best bed for your needs depends on several factors.

What type of sleeper are you?

What temperature do you sleep best in?

What materials are you most comfortable on?

There is no need to lose sleep over trying to choose the ideal bed and bedding for your night-time needs. Our bed experts at Land of Beds pride themselves on their specialist knowledge and ability to help you find the bed and bedding that’s best for you

Our customer-first policy means we listen and give good, independent advice based on the needs of the individual. By pairing consumers up with ethically sourced, affordable, quality products, we provide as many people as possible with a great night’s sleep. 

If you would like help being connected with your ideal bed, feel free to get in touch with us on 01928 242829