Sleep was long considered just a uniform block of time when you are not awake. Thanks to sleep studies done over the past several decades, it is now known that sleep has distinct stages that cycle throughout the night in predictable patterns. How well rested you are and how well you function depend not just on your total sleep time but on how much of the various stages of sleep you get each night.
Your brain stays active throughout sleep, and each stage of sleep is linked to a distinctive pattern of electrical activity known as brain waves.
Sleep is divided into two basic types: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep (with four different stages). (See “Types of Sleep”.) Typically, sleep begins with non-REM sleep.
In stage 1 non-REM sleep, you sleep lightly and can be awakened easily by noises or other disturbances. During this first stage of sleep, your eyes move slowly, and your muscle activity slows. You then enter stage 2 non-REM sleep, when your eye movements stop.
Your brain shows a distinctive pattern of slower brain waves with occasional bursts of rapid waves.
When you progress into stage 3 non-REM sleep, your brain waves become even slower, although they are still punctuated by smaller, faster waves. By stage 4 non-REM sleep, the brain produces extremely slow waves almost exclusively. Stages 3 and 4 are considered deep sleep, during which it is very difficult to be awakened.
Children who wet the bed or sleep walk tend to do so during stages 3 or 4 of non-REM sleep. Deep sleep is considered the “restorative” part of sleep that is necessary for feeling well rested and energetic during the day.
During REM sleep, your eyes move rapidly in various directions, even though your eyelids remain closed. Your breathing also becomes more rapid, irregular, and shallow, and your heart rate and blood pressure increase. Dreaming typically occurs during REM sleep. During this type of sleep, your arm and leg muscles are temporarily paralyzed so that you cannot “act out” any dreams that you may be having.
Revision date: June 22, 2011
Last revised: by Andrew G. Epstein, M.D.