Do you have sleep envy? When someone tells you that they were in a deep slumber all night long, do you feel a little cheated?
In reality no one stays in a deep sleep all night, everyone bobs to the surface periodically but by morning, they may not remember having woken. The truth is, we are very poor perceivers of how we sleep but if we do it well, we do not give a second thought to all that is going on while we sleep.
Far from the inactive state that many believe it to be, sleep is actually quite dynamic. Certainly our consciousness is temporarily suspended but our body is busy healing, regenerating and preparing us for the challenges of the day ahead.
Our body transitions through different stages of sleep, all with their own unique functions. Let me explain this further with an outline of the sleep stages and what they do:
Awake: Ok, so obviously you are not asleep at this point but to understand how we recognise stages of sleep, you first need to know that while awake, our brain waves are high frequency and very busy.
Stage 1: The brain activity is starting to slow and muscles start to relax. We are very easily disturbed and may have some awareness of our surroundings. Have you ever changed the television channel because your partner is snoring beside you, only to have them tell you off, strongly denying that they were asleep? They were probably in stage 1. It is at this stage we may experience hypnogogic jerks – that sudden jump as you are drifting off to sleep.
Stage 2: This is where we spend a majority of the night (usually 30 to 40%). We are still quite easily woken and it is not particularly refreshing in itself but it is the pathway to the good stuff.
Stage 3: Now we get to the good stuff. Also known as slow wave or deep sleep, the brain activity is at its slowest. Have you ever had a phone call in the middle of the night and taken some time to understand what the noise is? This is because of the deficit between what your brain waves were doing and what they need to do in order to become focussed and alert. Deep sleep is when our body undergoes repair work and other vital processes and is therefore essential for our physical wellbeing..
Stage REM: Rapid Eye Movement refers to flickering eye movements side to side, like reading with your eyes closed. The brain is very active during REM and it can be misinterpreted as being awake. We believe REM to be important for our psychological wellbeing and some memory consolidation. Most vivid dreaming occurs in REM, often becoming increasingly bizarre towards morning. Fortunately our muscle tone is absent during REM so we generally do not act out our dreams. Some people wake before their muscle tone is “switched on” and experience brief paralysis; scary but not harmful. People who do not have a “muscle off” switch have REM Behavioural Disorder which can result in excessive movement during sleep or performing quite intricate manoeuvres, even driving a car!
If you would like to know more about dreaming, click here.
A combination of these stages constitutes our first sleep cycle of the night. This takes approximately 90 minutes….. And then we Re-cycle! We do this 4 to 5 times, depending on the duration of our sleep. As the night progresses, the structure will change as the body cleverly prioritises what is needed for our wellbeing. The first 2 sleep cycles are mostly stage 3, so we get the good stuff “up front” in case our sleep is cut short.
REM, being the next important stage, will often make a brief appearance between the first 2 cycles and then in longer blocks in the second half of the night. This is why many people complain that after the first 2 to 3 hours, their sleep is light and easily disturbed. Never underestimate the importance of this “light” sleep, it has valuable qualities.
It is perfectly normal to wake between sleep cycles but it should be easy to resume sleep. If you are not aware of this, it is easy to become frustrated or anxious about these awakenings. This very reaction will often create difficulty resuming sleep and so insomnia begins! Did you know that the strongest driving force behind insomnia is anxiety about not sleeping!!
Normal sleep architecture from bed time to morning, including brief wakeful periods every hour or two.
So now you know what is supposed to be going on while you are sleeping. If you still have that sleep envy, why not have a look around our website. If you do not find your answers, feel free to contact us and we would be delighted to help you to become the envy of others!