Stages of Sleep and How to Get Better Sleep

Sleep. It’s a basic necessity of life – as fundamental to our health and well-being like air, food, and water. When we sleep well, we wake up refreshed, alert, and ready to start the day. When we don’t, every aspect of our lives can suffer.

Sleep Is More Than Just Closing Your Eyes

So what constitutes “a good night’s sleep?” According to the National Sleep Foundation, the amount of sleep you need to be your best is as individual as the amount of food you need.

It isn’t simply how many hours of sleep you get that matters, but how good you feel and how well you’re able to perform each day.

Stages of Sleep

Sleep is a dynamic process with a complex “architecture” that alternates between several stages throughout the night, each serving a different purpose in your sleep cycle. The first three stages are categorized as non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and the last stage as rapid eye movement (REM).

In a normal sleep pattern, you begin your nightly journey by descending into the first stage, a light sleep. During this stage you’re in and out of sleep, and your body and muscle activity slows down. It’s not uncommon to feel your body “twitch” at this time.

In the second stage, you begin to fall asleep and feel disconnected from your surroundings. Your brain activity decreases, and your body temperature drops.

Next is the third stage, also called “slow wave sleep.” This is the deepest and most restorative stage of sleep. Your brain produces slow waves, blood pressure drops, breathing slows down, and muscles fully relax. If you’re awakened during this stage, you feel disoriented momentarily.

After about 90 minutes of being asleep, you enter into the last stage, REM sleep. During this stage, your eyes move back and forth, brain activity increases, dreams begin, and your body becomes immobile (you can’t move).

Once you finish a cycle, you start over again. As your sleep progresses, the time you spend in the third stage decreases and the time you spend in REM increases.

If any stage gets interrupted, or the full cycle isn’t repeated enough times, you miss out on the full restorative powers of sleep. In other words, you don’t wake up the next morning feeling as refreshed.

Improving Your Sleep

It’s a myth that we need less sleep as we age, but it’s a fact that most of us sleep less at one stretch than we did when we were younger. Changes in sleep patterns can be dramatic, and sleep problems are more common among the elderly.

Because sleep is so crucial to our overall health, it’s important to know what you can do to improve it. Below are some helpful tips that are good for people of any age.

  • Follow a regular schedule of going to bed and waking up in the morning. Do not alter this schedule by more than one half hour on weekends.
  • Avoid beverages containing caffeine such as coffee, tea, or soft drinks after 2 p.m., and always consume them in moderation.
  • Do not drink alcohol to help you sleep. It can make you feel sleepy initially, but then it disrupts the normal pattern of sleep.
  • Make sure your sleeping environment is relaxing and conducive to sleep. The room should be very dark, quiet, and at a comfortable temperature.
  • Get some exercise every day, but not within two hours of bedtime.
  • Avoid napping during the day, if possible. If daytime sleepiness becomes overwhelming, it may be a sign of sleep dysfunction. Limit naptime to less than one hour, occurring no later than 3 p.m.
  • Establish a relaxing bedtime routine. This might include taking a hot bath or shower, having a warm glass of milk, or reading a book. Once you find what works for you, make it your regular routine.
  • Use your bed only for sleeping. Do not watch TV in bed, eat, etc. Learn to associate your bed with sleeping.
  • Do not be a “clock watcher” in bed. Turn the face of the clock away from you, since the only time you need to know is when the alarm goes off.
  • Leave your bedroom if you’re unable to sleep or stay asleep and engage in a quiet activity elsewhere. Return to bed when you’re sleepy.

What to Do If It Doesn't Get Better

If you experience significant sleep problems for a month or more, or if you find that sleepiness during the day interferes with your normal tasks, make an appointment to talk with your doctor.

Meet the Author

Robert D. Geck, MD is a Pulmonologist at Aurora Health Center in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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