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Sleep Disorders

Stages of Sleep

Most contemporary sleep experts divide the sleep-wake cycle into four stages. The first three are considered non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, and the fourth is rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

  • NREM Stage 1: This is the lightest and shortest stage of the sleep cycle, typically lasting five minutes or less. NREM Stage 1 represents the transition from wakefulness to sleep, marked by gradual decreases in your heart rate, breathing, muscle activity, and brain activity.
  • NREM Stage 2: During NREM Stage 2, which is also considered light sleep, your heart rate and body temperature significantly decrease, and eye movements cease. This stage lasts about 25 minutes during your first sleep cycle, but subsequently becomes longer throughout the night. NREM Stage 2 constitutes about half of your overall sleep.
  • NREM Stage 3: NREM Stage 3 is thought to be the deepest sleep stage, making you less likely to wake up during this stage than any other phase of your sleep cycle – even in the presence of loud noises. Heartbeat, breathing rates, muscle movements, and brain activity all reach their lowest levels.
  • REM: REM sleep is the most dynamic stage of your sleep cycle. This stage usually kicks off about 90 minutes after you fall asleep and is defined by significant side-to-side eye movements, elevated breathing, and a steep increase to your heart rate and blood pressure. Most dreaming occurs during REM sleep.

As with circadian rhythms and sleep-wake homeostasis, physiological and environmental factors can interfere with a healthy sleep cycle. Age, for example, influences the ratio of NREM and REM sleep. Newborns spend roughly 70% to 80% of their sleep cycle in REM sleep. This number gradually declines by age 5, at which point the REM stage represents 20% to 25% of total sleep. The amount of time asleep spent in the NREM 1 and NREM 2 stages also increases with age. Additionally, sleep disorders like sleep apnea and REM sleep disorder can shift the dynamic of a healthy sleep cycle.

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