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With only so many hours in a day, millions of people across the nation compromise the number of hours of sleep they get each night in an effort to get done all of the things they need to. However, compromising sleep can have a significant impact on the brain’s ability to flow through all necessary sleep stages.

To achieve restorative sleep, the brain must transition through the four major sleep stages — each of which plays a crucial role in restoring the mind and body, and preparing you for what is to come the following day.

With so much importance on sleep, and successfully filtering through the many stages of sleep, there is one question on everyone’s mind —  which sleep stage is the most important?

What is a Sleep Cycle?

Understanding the brain basics, like what a sleep cycle is, will help you better understand their sleeping patterns, and how to achieve better sleep. Through the night, the brain goes through four separate sleep stages that make up a sleep cycle.

It’s common for a person to cycle the REM stages and Non-REM stages about 4 to 6 times each night. The amount of time spent in a sleep stage changes throughout the night, and differs from one person to the next based on things including age, sleep habits, and alcohol or caffeine consumption.

What are Sleep Stages?

Healthy sleep habits rely on the brain being able to undergo all four stages of sleep. Though there are four sleep stages, most people go through the same stage multiple times throughout the night, although the amount of time spent in each stage differs the longer a person is asleep.

The four common sleep stages occur as a direct result of brain activity at the time of sleep.

Stage 1 / N1

The first stage of sleep, commonly referred to as non-REM sleep, or N1, is thought to be one of the shortest stages of sleep a person goes through during the night. Sleep specialists believe this stage of NREM sleep occurs as a person begins dozing off to sleep.

What happens during the Stage 1 sleep cycle?

Stage 1 of a sleep cycle occurs early on in the night, often beginning as soon as you close your eyes. During this stage of sleep, various bodily functions, including slow twitching movements and decreased brain activity begin to slow. You can be easily woken during this stage, making it more difficult to stay asleep during the first stages of sleep.

Stage 2 / N2

Sleep Stage Two, commonly referred to as N2 sleep, as it is another NREM sleep stage, occurs as your body drifts off to sleep, and is accompanied by a more relaxed, unconscious state than the first. It commonly lasts anywhere from 10 minutes up to 60 minutes.

What happens during the Stage 2 sleep cycle?

As the brain enters into the second stage of sleep, your body becomes more subdued to outside disturbances, making it more difficult, but not impossible, to be woken from sleep. Usually, you experience a decrease in body temperature, brain waves slow significantly, and breathing and heart rate slow.

During this stage of non-Rapid Eye Movement sleep, eye movement comes to a halt, as the brain enters into a deeper sleep than before. This stage of sleep is often repeated, though each phase becomes longer as the night continues.

Stage 3 / N3

The third stage of sleep, another non-REM sleep stage, is accompanied by slow brain waves giving it the name “Slow-Wave Sleep”. This third stage of deep sleep lasts approximately 20 to 40 minutes, and is crucial in the restoration of the human body.

What happens during the Stage 3 sleep cycle?

As the body enters into the third stage of sleep, also known as deep sleep or Delta sleep, it is extremely difficult to be woken by external factors, such as bad weather, a partner snoring, or other loud noises. The third stage of sleep is often repeated throughout the night, though it gets shorter as you sleep. Body temperature decreases, brain waves slow and develop distinct patterns of Delta waves, and other vital functions slow down, including breathing and heart rate.

Stage 4 / R

The previously mentioned stages of sleep were all non-REM sleep stages, meaning brain waves slowed, allowing deep sleep to occur; however, the fourth stage of sleep is accompanied by rapid eye movement, and an increase in bodily functions and brain activity. REM sleep stages last up to 60 minutes per cycle, and do not occur until at least 90 minutes after falling asleep.

What happens during the Stage 4 sleep cycle?

During the REM stage of sleep, brain activity increases significantly - often nearing levels that an awake person experiences. Though brain activity is close to awake activity levels, the body experiences temporary paralysis of the muscles, keeping you in a less deep sleep. Eyes begin moving rapidly, and dreaming occurs during this stage of sleep.

Which Sleep Stage is Most Important?

Each stage of sleep, whether it be REM  sleep, or NREM sleep, plays a crucial role in healthy sleep. Without each of the stages of sleep, the body experiences impairment to key bodily functions, including emotional regulation, thinking, and a person’s overall physical health and well being.

It is thought that the Third Stage of sleep is most important, as it is responsible for tissue growth and repair, cellular regeneration, and immune system boosts. However, non-REM sleep has been shown to allow the body to experience muscle and bone growth, immune boosts, and tissue repair.

Understanding sleep stages and the importance of each makes it easier for people to understand that each stage of sleep is important in its own way. Without enough time spent in each stage, the body experiences sleep deprivation symptoms and key functions, such as the below, cannot happen:

  • Memory formation and consolidation
  • Emotional processing
  • Learning
  • Balanced blood sugar and metabolism
  • Healthy immune system
  • Brain detoxification

Each sleep stage must occur in an effort to achieve deep sleep and restorative sleep. Without the first stage of light sleep, a person experiences extreme difficulty as they enter deep sleep.

What Affects Sleep Stages?

Stages of sleep vary from one person to the next; however, there are many things that can affect a person's ability to go through all stages of sleep, allowing them to fall asleep. Factors affecting sleep stages include:

Age

Newborn babies require a significantly more amount of sleep than the average adult. In fact, newborns spend more than half of the day sleeping, as it is crucial for development at this age. The Sleep Foundation has reported that newborns spend nearly 50 percent more time in REM sleep than young adults. In addition, as we reach older age, sleep naturally becomes lighter, making falling asleep and staying asleep more difficult.

Alcohol Consumption

Many believe consuming alcohol before falling asleep will help them sleep better, which is partially true, as alcohol holds sedative properties. However, alcohol makes it harder to enter into Rapid Eye Movement sleep early in the night, thus affecting each sleep stage to follow, as it takes longer for alcohol to exit the bloodstream during sleep.

Sleep Disorders

Sleep disorders often cause frequent waking at night, disrupting sleep cycles, and affecting your chance to get a good night’s sleep. Common sleep disorders include:

Insomnia

Insomnia is marked by periods of experiencing trouble sleeping throughout the night. It is a common sleep disorder, often exacerbated by stress, illness or injury, pain, and irregular sleep habits. Sleep medicine can help eliminate insomnia symptoms among young adults, and reduce the risk of developing sleep deprivation symptoms.

Sleep Apnea

Though common, Sleep Apnea is a potentially fatal sleep condition resulting in periodic pauses in breathing - also known as an apneic episode. Breathing starts and stops repeatedly through the night, significantly affecting sleep cycles, and making it more difficult to experience a good night’s sleep. A combination of sleep medicine and external Sleep Apnea devices can greatly improve sleep quality in a person living with this condition.

Restless Legs Syndrome

Have you experienced uncontrollable urges to move one or both of your legs as you lay down to fall asleep? You may be living with a condition known as Restless Legs Syndrome - a condition that, while it is not life-threatening, can disrupt sleep resulting in sleep deprivation. Sleep medicine has been proven to reduce the urges to move legs, making it easier to fall asleep at night.

Sleep History

Inconsistent or irregular sleep patterns, commonly experienced by shift workers, create unhealthy sleep habits over the course of several days to weeks, resulting in abnormal sleep cycles.

Pain

Conditions that cause chronic pain, such as Fibromyalgia or other chronic painful conditions, can make falling asleep seem impossible. When sleep patterns are disrupted, sleep cycles are inevitably in the path of destruction, making it hard to get enough sleep.

Mood Disorders

Many mood disorders, including anxiety, depression, and Bipolar Disorder have been linked to the exacerbation of common sleep disorders, unhealthy sleep time habits, and the inability to get enough deep sleep — a crucial part of restorative sleep.

Tips to Have a Better Sleep Cycle

Sleep is essential in creating, storing, and recalling memories, as well as boosting creativity, problem-solving skills, learning, and emotional processing. If you find yourself experiencing trouble sleeping at night, the following tips may help you to have a better night of sleep and regulate sleep cycles.

Spend More Time Outdoors

Natural ultraviolet radiation can help regulate the body’s circadian rhythm - the natural sleep-wake cycle living within each of us. The circadian rhythm helps the body to determine the difference between sleep and wake times, making it easier for us to sleep. By spending more time outdoors, we are exposed to more UV rays, as this type of radiation comes from direct sunlight.

Exercise Regularly

Exercise helps to maintain a person’s overall health, including regulating blood pressure, heart rate, and reducing the risk of developing serious diseases. Regular moderate exercise each day can help reduce the risk of experiencing excessive daytime sleepiness. In addition, rigorous activity before bedtime can shorten the amount of time it takes to fall asleep once your head hits the pillow.

Avoid Stimulating Food or Drinks too Close to Bedtime

It is no secret that caffeinated beverages, such as coffee or energy drinks, can impact the ability to fall asleep. However, substances such as nicotine and alcohol can also affect sleep. Sleep experts recommend avoiding these and other energy-inducing food or drinks at least two hours before bedtime in an effort to get high-quality rest.

Limit Screen Time

Electronic devices such as televisions, cell phones, and tablets emit blue light, which is responsible for disrupting a normal circadian rhythm. Sleep specialists recommend setting yourself up for success at bedtime by limiting screen time up to two hours before bedtime.

Increase Deep Sleep

Deep sleep has been linked to the physical recovery of bones, tissues, and other vital functions of the body and brain. Without it, the body becomes more susceptible to symptoms of sleep deprivation, neurological disorders, and other common mood disorders that can have a negative impact on a person’s life. To achieve more deep sleep, it is recommended to avoid stress, maintain a healthy diet and healthy sleep routine, as well as sleep in a cool, dark room.

Establish a Consistent Sleep Schedule

Creating a consistent bedtime routine, including eating dinner, taking a bath, and climbing into bed at the same time every night trains the brain to understand when bedtime is approaching. Sleep experts recommend sticking to the same bedtime routine every day, even when on vacation, or experiencing illness. If you find yourself missing a day here or there, it is okay - stick with the routine as best as you can.

Seek Professional Help

Are you experiencing difficulty sleeping as a result of neurological disorders, mood disorders, or other sleep disorders? It might be time to seek a professional opinion from your trusted physician, as further treatment may be needed.

Treatment for anxiety or depression can greatly improve sleep quality, which in turn can improve your daily life. Whether it be prescription medication, a calming technique,  like yoga or meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy, or a combination of the three — talk with your doctor to determine the best course of treatment for you.

Upgrade Your Bedding

Many people fall short of replacing their mattresses and pillows at the recommended intervals. Pillows should be replaced every one to two years, while mattresses can be a bit more tricky. It is recommended to replace your mattress if you experience:

  • Asymmetrical, or premature sagging
  • Pain in various areas, including the back or hips
  • You wake feeling stuffy, similar to that of seasonal allergies

At Latex For Less, we offer the most affordable, natural tools for healthy sleep night after night. Whether you are on the hunt for a 100 percent natural latex mattress with a two-sided, flippable firmness capability and Eco-Institut purity, or the perfect luxurious latex pillow we have nothing but the best for you!

Choosing the right mattress can seem daunting. Because of that, we provide each customer a 120-night risk-free trial period when purchasing a new mattress. In doing so, you can try the mattress, risk-free, or return it at no cost to you, if it is not the perfect fit. Should you choose to keep the mattress, it is backed by our 20-year warranty, made in the United States, and backed by exceptional certificates of purity.

Takeaway

Sleep is one of the most important, yet overlooked things we can allow ourselves. Millions of people around the world find themselves compromising sleep quality or quantity in an effort to get all other things done first. Remember that sleep does more for the body and mind than we can physically see, including memory formation and consolidation, emotional processing, learning, and immune system and metabolism balance.

When we understand sleep, we understand how to achieve better, deeper sleep. The team of specialists at Latex For Less understands the importance of a good night’s rest, which is why we strive to provide exceptional quality bedding to help you sleep better night after night. In addition to limiting the amount of stress you are exposed to during the day, maintaining a healthy and well-balanced diet, and ensuring a cool, dark sleep space, choosing the perfect mattress and pillows can help you fall asleep faster, thus beginning the first sleep cycle of the night.

Do not wait until a small problem becomes too much to bear. By acting fast, receiving treatment for any underlying conditions, and ensuring a calming sleep oasis, you are setting yourself up for a successful night of sleep. If you are experiencing symptoms of an underlying condition, reach out for help as soon as possible, as early intervention and treatment are crucial in maintaining healthy sleep.

Elizabeth Magill

Elizabeth Magill is a professional freelance writer and editor who holds an MBA. Liz specializes in writing about health news, medical conditions, healthy living, small business, career and work, personal finance, and green-living, including news and trending topics in these specialties. Her clients include Healthline, The Motley Fool, GoBanking Rates, LIVESTRONG.com, Big Interview, HealthNews, Intuit Small Business Blog, Intuit Health, American News Report, Travels.com, IFX Medical, and many others. She’s also a published eBook author and ghost writer for various clients in the health, medical, career, small business, and personal finance niches.