Sleep. We all need it, and sometimes it seems like we just can’t get enough of it. Even those of us who regularly capture the recommended seven to nine hours can still find ourselves grumbling at the sound of the morning alarm clock.
So what’s the solution — more sleep? Or is it that we’re not getting enough deep sleep? To answer that question, let’s take a look at the four stages of sleep, and what they mean for your body.
Stages of Sleep
It might not feel like a lot happens in the hours between falling asleep and waking back up. But the reality is that you’re actually all kinds of active while you’re getting your zzz’s. While you’re snoozing, your body is constantly cycling between multiple stages of sleep. These stages swing back and forth between REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep, with each offering different levels of restfulness.
As you begin to doze off, you enter the first stage of sleep. This is NREM sleep. It doesn’t last very long, and it’s easily interrupted. Your breathing slows, you relax, your muscles maybe twitch a little bit, and then you’re off to stage 2.
Unfortunately, stage 2 isn’t much more restful than stage 1 — but it’s a step in the right direction. Your muscles relax, your heart rate slows, and after about 30–60 minutes (give or take), your brain waves begin to show signs of slow-wave activity.
Finally, you can start getting some deep sleep — just not a whole lot right at once. Stage 3 is the deep-sleep stage, but it tends to only last for about 20–40 minutes. During this stage your breathing, heart rate, and brain waves slow even further, your body temperature drops and you become very difficult to wake up. Your body also uses this stage to repair damaged tissue, grow new cells, produce hormones, and take care of other essential housekeeping chores. If you don’t get enough of stage 3, you’ll definitely feel it in the morning.
After about 90 minutes or so, your body slips out of deep sleep and into the REM stage. REM is a whole other kind of sleep — your heart rate, breathing, and brain activity speed up, your eyes begin moving rapidly behind your eyelids, and basically your different systems reach near-wake activity levels. And your brain goes nuts; you start experiencing vivid hallucinations (people call them dreams, but whatever), and your muscles may enter a state of paralysis so that you don’t end up physically acting out whatever hijinks your getting up to in your head.
REM may last for about an hour, after which everything starts over at stage one. Most people experience a few full sleep cycles per night, but when it comes to that all-important deep sleep, stage three is where it’s at.
So… How Much Deep Sleep Should I Get?
If you’ve been keeping track of the numbers, you’ll see that the deep-sleep stage only accounts for a fraction of the overall cycle. This means that if you’re a healthy adult sleeping for eight hours at night, you’re really only getting an hour or so of legitimate deep sleep. But don’t worry! That’s really all your body needs. And actually, those who are over 65 may need even less.
Ideally, if you’re getting a full-night’s sleep, you shouldn’t have to worry about how much deep sleep you need; your body should be able to take care of all that on its own. However, there may be circumstances preventing you from getting to (or remaining in) the deep-sleep stage.
If you’re waking up exhausted after seven or eight hours, it could be an indication that deep sleep isn’t happening.
How to Get More Deep Sleep
Here are some tips to help you get deeper sleep:
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine before bed.
- Keep a consistent sleeping schedule.
- Exercise at least 20–30 minutes per day.
- Avoid computers, television, and electronic screens before bed.
- Make sure that your room is dark and comfortable.
- Replace your mattress and/or pillows if they aren’t providing enough support.
- If these other tips aren’t working, consult your doctor.
Want to get the most out of your sleep? Upgrade your sleep game today!