What Does the Sleep Cycle Look Like: Overview of the Different Stages of Sleep

Sleep is one of the most important factors that impact our health because it helps us feel energized, motivated, focused, and productive. Sleep too little or too much, and you may feel tired, unfocused, moody, and unhappy.

But did you know there’s more to sleep than just closing your eyes and waking up in the morning?

Sleep is not a passive activity but an active process where your brain goes through various stages. And each stage plays an integral part in regenerating our mind and body.

By understanding different stages of sleep and how they impact your physical and mental well-being, you can unlock the full potential of a good night’s sleep.

So, let’s take a closer look at the sleep cycle and the phases we go through during the night. We’ll also discuss the consequences of sleep deprivation and give you some tips on how to improve sleep quality.

What Is the Sleep Cycle?

The sleep cycle refers to the pattern of transitions between different stages of sleep that occur throughout the night. It lasts 90-120 minutes in adults, which means that most of us go through four or five sleep cycles each night.

A typical sleep cycle includes non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) stages N1, N2, and N3, followed by a period of REM sleep.

Understanding the sleep cycle is important because it helps us appreciate the dynamic nature of sleep and how each stage contributes to overall restorative benefits.

Non-REM (NREM) Sleep

Scientists have divided sleep into different stages based on the dominant type of brain waves during each phase. These brain waves are simply repetitive neural activities of our central nervous system.

Beta waves are the most prevalent when we are awake and alert, while alpha waves become more dominant as we slow down and become drowsy. As we transition to sleep, our brains additionally slow down, which is why scientists observe different types of brain waves.

NREM sleep consists of three stages, starting with light sleep and finishing up with deep, slow-wave sleep. We spend around 75% of our total sleep in these NREM stages.

Now, let’s see what happens in every stage of NREM sleep.

N1 (Stage 1) – Light Sleep

N1 is the lightest stage of sleep when our brains additionally slow down, and the brain shows mixed activity. Our muscles begin to relax, and our breathing begins to slow down.

The N1 stage only lasts several minutes. However, despite being brief, this stage helps us transition from wakefulness to deeper sleep stages, preparing our bodies for the restorative benefits of our nightly slumber.

N1 is often called light sleep because waking somebody up during this stage is easy. It’s also a time when we may experience hypnic jerks, sudden muscle contractions that can wake us up. However, you can quickly move to the next stage if you’re not disturbed during this time.

N2 (Stage 2) – Deeper Sleep

At Stage 2 of NREM sleep, your heart rate and body temperature drop, and your brain waves slow down. This stage is characterized by short, powerful bursts of neural activity in specific brain regions called sleep spindles.

Scientists believe that sleep spindles are responsible for processing information, consolidating memory, and helping us retain what we’ve learned during waking hours.

In addition to sleep spindles, the N2 stage can be recognized by K-complexes. These are the longest and most distinct brain waves that play a role in memory consolidation. In addition, K-complexes help us maintain sleep by blocking outside stimuli. That’s why you aren’t as easily awakened during N2 as during N1.

Stage 2 typically lasts about 25 minutes during the first sleep cycle of the night and then lengthens with each cycle. In fact, it accounts for around 45% of total sleep.

N3 (Stage 3) – Deepest NREM Sleep

Stage 3 is also known as deep, delta, or slow-wave sleep because it is characterized by delta waves with a very low frequency. Our heart rate and body temperature are at the lowest point, and our muscles are completely relaxed.

This deep state of relaxation allows our bodies to repair and regenerate tissues. It’s when our bodies release the growth hormone and cytokines, which play a vital role in tissue repair, muscle growth, fighting inflammation, and other necessary processes. That’s why deep sleep is essential for muscle growth, building bone mass, and strengthening the immune system.

Besides physical health, deep sleep is also vital for mental health. It seems particularly important for emotional regulation and reducing stress. That’s why you feel better when you wake up after a night of restful, deep sleep.

During N3, we are less likely to wake up due to outside stimuli. However, you will feel groggy and fatigued if something awakens you during deep sleep. This phenomenon is also known as sleep inertia.

Most adults get one to two hours of deep sleep per night, which is 20-40% of total sleep time.

REM Sleep

The REM stage is associated with dreaming, which scientists speculate is a way for our brains to regulate emotions, consolidate memory, process information, and maintain mental health. Dreams can also occur during other stages of sleep but are less common and less vivid.

During REM sleep, our brain waves become similar to those when we’re awake (beta brain waves), and our eyes rapidly move back and forth, hence the name “rapid eye movement.”

Our breathing and heart rate also become more irregular, and our muscles become paralyzed, which prevents us from acting out our dreams.

The first REM stage typically occurs after 90 minutes of sleep and lasts around ten minutes. Each following period of REM sleep is longer, and the final one can last up to an hour. As a result, we spend around 25% of our total sleep time in the REM stage.

What Can Disrupt Stages of Sleep

It’s important to mention that your sleep architecture depends on your genetics, lifestyle choices, age, and other factors.

Here are some things that can disrupt standard sleep architecture:

  • AgeBabies spend a lot of time in REM sleep, while older adults tend to spend less time in REM and deep sleep.
  • Sleep disorders – Certain disorders like sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome can cause people to wake up at night, disrupting the normal sleep cycle.
  • Alcohol – Alcohol and sedatives reduce the time spent in REM and deep sleep.
  • Recent sleep patterns – Your sleep cycle can suffer if you have an irregular sleep schedule or get insufficient sleep a few days in a row.
  • Caffeine – Caffeine and other stimulants can make it harder to initiate sleep and progress through the sleep cycle.
  • Stress – Stress and anxiety can also make it harder to fall and stay asleep, disrupting your sleep architecture.
  • Chronic pain – People with chronic pain often wake up at night, which reduces the amount of deep and REM sleep.

Importance of Getting Enough Sleep

Not spending enough time in certain stages of sleep can affect you in various ways. In the short term, it can make it hard to:

  • Learn and focus
  • Recall memory and information
  • Be creative
  • Solve problems effectively
  • Control your emotions
  • Make rational decisions

Chronic disruption of the sleep cycle increases the chances of:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Chronic pain
  • Inflammation
  • Weight gain
  • Diabetes
  • Mental health disorders

In addition, lack of sleep significantly impacts your quality of life and well-being. That’s why you should make it a priority.

11 Quick Tips to Improve Sleep Quality

Here are some quick tips on how to improve your sleep quality:

  1. Stick to a regular sleeping schedule
  2. Create a relaxing bedtime routine
  3. Spend some time in the sun during the day
  4. Avoid alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine in the afternoon
  5. Create a dark, cool, and comfortable sleeping environment
  6. Exercise regularly
  7. Avoid using screens at least 30 minutes before bedtime
  8. Be careful about what you eat in the evening
  9. Invest in a comfortable mattress that can support you
  10. Practice relaxation techniques to reduce stress and anxiety
  11. Seek medical help if you suspect an underlying sleep disorder


A good night’s sleep is critical for our physical and mental well-being, and understanding the different stages of sleep can help achieve it.

Each night we go through several sleep cycles consisting of three NREM stages and one REM sleep stage. Disruptions in this sleep architecture can have serious consequences, but thankfully there are simple steps we can take to improve our sleep quality.

By prioritizing your sleep and taking proactive steps to improve it, you can significantly boost your health and quality of life. So, make your sleep a priority and enjoy countless benefits.

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