Understanding the stages of your sleep cycle

Understanding the stages of your sleep cycle

Sleep is one of the most basic human needs - but not all sleep was created equal. While there are four stages of sleep that make up your nightly cycles, some are more important for your wellbeing and health than others. 

While some stages support memory and brain function, others repair and rejuvenate your physical body. There’s even a stage of your sleep that essentially leaves you paralysed, except for the eyes and muscles that control breathing.

Suffice to say, sleep is more complicated than just lights out and eyes closed. So let’s learn a little more about how we sleep and why…

Sleep Stage 1 (N1)

Sleep is divided into two main categories: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep and Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) sleep, with stage 1 the first of three NREM types. 

Stage 1 is the initial phase that occurs when you start to drift off to sleep. This stage is relatively short, lasting only a few minutes in the earlier part of the night, and although it’s considered a light sleep stage, it still plays a significant role in preparing your body and mind for deeper sleep.

During this stage, your brain begins to slow down its activity, and your body starts to relax. This initial shift sets the stage for the subsequent stages of the sleep cycle, and is the phase associated with brief, dream-like sensory experiences - think sudden muscle jerks or vivid images - that are part of the brain falling into sleep.

The N1 stage is the where the brain produces alpha waves, relatively low-frequency brain waves that indicate a state of relaxation and mental calmness. During this stage, it’s easy to wake someone up, but if left undisturbed, you can move quickly into stage 2, making this a vital bridge into the land of nod. 

Top tips for improving stage 1

It’s worth noting that this initial stage of your sleep cycle is where your sleep hygiene can have a big impact. By that, we mean the setup of your bedroom, lighting, noise and overall comfort levels. Tick those boxes and you’ll have an easier time drifting into stage 2.

Our top tips? Create a calming bedtime routine to signal your body that it's time to wind down - we’re talking reading a book, practising meditation or relaxing, mindful techniques, and taking a warm bath. Other things like switching screens off to minimise blue light and using blackout curtains, earplugs, or white noise machines to reduce disturbances will also make a big difference.



Sleep Stage 2 (N2)

Stage 2 of the sleep cycle, also known as N2, is the second phase of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, characterised by the brain's processing and consolidating of memories. Lasting between 10 and 25 minutes on average, this is the stage where your brain is essentially cataloguing information from your day, integrating new knowledge and filing things into your long-term memory. 

As your body prepares for deeper sleep, your core temperature starts to dip slightly to support restorative processes, while short bursts of brain activity, known as sleep spindles, protect your precious sleeping state from external disturbances, and can even lessen the likelihood of waking up during the holy grail REM sleep. 

Research also points to the correlation between these sleep spindles and better performance on memory tasks, making N2 an essential stage for cognitive function and learning.

But the thing that stands out the most about the N2 stage is that humans spend about half of their total sleep time in this phase. While stage 1 is a big player in falling asleep, stage 2 is crucial for sleep continuity throughout the night. As the sleep cycle repeats, spending adequate time in this stage promises a balanced and healthy pattern of slumber.

Top tips for improving stage 2

Getting yourself into a consistent sleep schedule will make a world of difference to your N2, helping regulate your body's internal clock and improve sleep continuity. And in good news for customers of The Natural Bedding Company, experts say having a comfortable mattress and bedding can help extend your time in the land of N2. The fact that our products are organic mattresses, natural latex pillows, and low tox bedding? Well that’s just the cherry on top!



Sleep Stage 3 (N3)

The deepest of the non-rapid eye movement sleep, stage 3 is a huge player in how rested and healthy you feel. It’s one of the deepest and most restorative stages of sleep, with research showing that it’s essential to maximising bodily recovery and growth. 

During the first half of your sleep, N3 can last between 20 and 40 minutes, but over time, stage 3 gets shorter in favour of REM sleep (stage 4). Experts claim the N3 part of the cycle can bolster your immune system and, despite lower brain activity, contribute to insightful thinking, creativity, and memory.

During the deep sleep of N3, our muscle activity lessens to allow our body to strengthen its defence mechanisms against infections and illnesses. But that’s not all - N3 also helps our bodies produce growth hormones essential for tissue repair and muscle growth, and even contributes to a healthier, more balanced mental state, thanks to its links with emotional processing and stress regulation. 

If that wasn’t enough to knock your socks off, recent research suggests that deep sleep may also facilitate the removal of waste products and toxins from the brain, promoting brain health and preventing neurodegenerative conditions. And last - but certainly not least - this phase gives you that invigorating boost of energy the next morning. The ultimate feel-good product of sleep. 

Top tips for improving stage 3

Ready to leap out of bed each day? Getting your sleep hygiene in order is key to boosting your third stage of sleep. We’re talking specifically about keeping your sleep environment clean, cool, and free from sensory distractions. A gentle evening yoga sesh and regular exercise can help prep your body for sleep, provided you’re not hitting the treadmill too close to bedtime. Plus, if you cut back on liquids before bed, you’ll reduce the need to wake up for bathroom trips during deep sleep.

And of course, if you suspect you might be struggling with a sleep disorder like sleep apnea, seek professional help and treatment to ensure you’re not missing out on this juicy part of your deep sleep.



Sleep Stage 4 (REM)

Probably the most familiar part of our sleep cycle, REM sleep refers to the rapid eye movement that occurs during this stage. During REM, our brain activity picks right up, nearing levels seen when we’re awake, but interestingly, the rest of our body enters a temporary paralysis known as atonia. The only exceptions are the muscles that control our breathing and our eyes which, while closed, can be seen moving quickly - hence the name.

Early on in the night, REM sleep can last just minutes during a 90 minute cycle, however as our sleep cycles lengthen out, we can spend as long as one hour in this deep stage of sleep, with around 25% of our sleep being REM. 

It’s during this fourth stage of sleep that our brains are most active, which is why our dreams are so vivid in REM. Experts also believe REM to be essential to cognitive functions like memory, learning, and creativity, as well as the many benefits of the stage 3 NREM sleep. Everything from immunity to blood pressure and cardiovascular health benefit from regular REM sleep, not to mention daily functioning like improved focus, concentration, and reaction times.

Top tips for improving stage 4

The best way to maximise your REM sleep is to allow for adequate hours in bed. The professionals say to aim for 7-9 hours a night for adults, as REM sleep typically occurs later in the sleep cycle during the second half of the night. More time in bed? You don’t have to tell us twice! 

Alcohol, caffeine and certain medications can suppress REM sleep, so it's best to limit their use close to bedtime, while also staying on top of your nightly sleep routine and bedroom setup.


The science of sleep

It’s no surprise that countless studies and experts have devoted themselves to understanding how our sleep functions. Across every spectrum of our wellbeing, sleep is undoubtedly one of the strongest influencers, with each stage in the cycle playing its own important role. 

While NREM sleep aids in physical restoration, memory, and learning, the deeper stages of N3 and REM build on this to bring deeper healing, emotional processing, and physical benefits to our minds and bodies. So whether it’s setting your room up for more restful sleep, having a regular bedtime, or limiting the ways our sleep can be disturbed, every adjustment that supports our sleep is worth it. Then when we fall asleep, the cycles are left to their own devices. So it pays to know how and what you’re working towards! 

Now, we’re off to get ready for our sleep-in.