There are five stages of sleep and each distinct stage serves a different purpose. You cycle through all five stages several times (on average 4 to 6 times) each night, not always in the same order. Dreaming occurs in only one of the five stages. Following is a description of the sleep stages and what happens during each.
This is the lightest stage of sleep, the transition phase, where you feel yourself drifting off. If you were to forget about the alarm clock and allow yourself to wake up naturally, Stage 1 sleep would be the last stage before you fully wake up. You don't spend too much time in Stage 1 sleep, typically five to 10 minutes, just enough to allow your body to slow down and your muscles to relax.
The second stage of sleep is still considered light sleep. Your brain activity starts to slow down, as well as your heart rate and breathing. Your body temperature falls a little and you're beginning to reach a state of total relaxation in preparation for the deeper sleep to come.
Stage 3 sleep is the start of deep sleep, also known as slow wave sleep. During stage 3, your brain waves are slow "delta waves," although there may still be short bursts of faster of brain activity (also known as beta-waves). If you were to get awakened suddenly during this stage, you would be groggy and confused, and find it difficult to focus at first.
Of the five stages of sleep, this is the one when you experience your deepest sleep of the night. Your brain only shows delta-wave (slow wave) activity, and it's difficult to wake someone up when they're in Stage 4 of sleep.
It's during Stage 4 sleep that children are most likely to suffer from bedwetting or sleep terrors. Stages 3 and 4 can last anywhere from 5 - 15 minutes each, but the first deep sleep of the night is more likely to be an hour or so. This is the time when the body does most of it's repair work and regeneration.
This is the stage of sleep when you dream. It is also referred to as "active sleep" or REM sleep, which stands for the rapid eye movements that characterize Stage 5. During REM sleep, your blood flow, breathing, and brain activity increases. An EEG would show that your brain is about as active as it is when you're awake.
Another aspect of Stage 5 sleep is that the muscles in your arms and legs will go through periods of paralysis. Scientists speculate that this may be nature's way of protecting us from acting out our dreams.
The first period of REM sleep of the night usually begins about 90 minutes after you start drifting off, and lasts for about 10 minutes. As the night passes, the periods of REM sleep become longer, with the final episode lasting an hour or so.
Babies may spend as much as half of the time they're asleep in the REM phase. For a healthy adult, Stage 5 occurs for about 20 to 25% of the time you are sleeping, and decreases with age.
Scientists and researchers are continually learning more about the mechanics and physiological effects of sleep, and what happens during the five stages of sleep.
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