What’s a Sleep Cycle and Why Is It Important?
For something that we spend so much time doing, sleep is still not a well-understood phenomenon. Scientists are still learning more and more about the purpose sleep serves in restoring our minds and bodies. Until the 1920s, when modern sleep research began, scientists thought that your brain simply shut down during sleep. When the electroencephalogram was invented in 1929, they were able to see that in fact your brain can be quite active during sleep, and that it goes through different states characterized by different patterns of brain waves in a repeating pattern throughout the night.
This sleep cycle, comprised of 1 stage of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and 4 stages of non-REM sleep, repeats throughout the night, lasting about 90 to 110 minutes each time. In general, you progress from light sleep to deeper stages of sleep, culminating in a period of REM (the stage associated with dreaming) before returning to light sleep. Continuing research is increasingly pinpointing the differences between the stages of sleep and what happens to your body while these stages occur.
Knowing how this cycle works is important because missing out on either deep sleep or dreaming sleep can have negative consequences for your body and mind. Deep sleep is when your body releases growth hormone to repair muscles and stimulate tissue growth. This is also the period of sleep when your body’s immune system is activated and glucose metabolism in the brain increases, leading researchers to believe that this stage is important for supporting health, memory, and learning.
REM sleep, on the other hand, is associated with brain activity in the regions that control learning. Studies suggest that this type of sleep may help us organize and process the information we’ve learned from the previous day, as well as setting us up to better process what we experience in the day ahead. A recent study from Rutgers also suggests that getting a healthy amount of REM sleep can lower fear-based responses to negative stimuli (in the case of the study, mild electric shocks).
Deep sleep and REM sleep have reversed patterns throughout the night. In early sleep cycles, your periods of deep sleep are longer relative to those experienced later in the night, while REM sleep periods increase in length as sleep goes on. If you wake frequently in the night, or if you don’t sleep long enough, you risk interrupting or cutting short those critical periods of sleep. When you don’t spend enough time in either deep or REM sleep, your body will try to compensate by progressing to those stages more quickly the next time you do sleep to try to make up for the deficit. This means that when you’re deciding on how much sleep is enough, you need to focus not just on when you go to bed and when you wake up, but the quality of sleep you get during that time.
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