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How does the sleep cycle work?

We all need sleep. And lots of us wish we could get that lil’ bit extra, right? During the night, we all experience sleep cycles. Find out what they are, how they work and how to use them to your advantage so you wake up buzzing for the day ahead!

Why do we need different stages of sleep?

We need different stages of sleep as each one serves a different function. You might feel like nothing much is really going on whilst you sleep. In fact, the reality is very different. Each stage has an important impact on your brain and body. 

Some of the things that happen are:

  • Your breathing rate changes
  • Your temperature fluctuates
  • Heartbeat and blood pressure changes
  • Brain activity changes
  • Muscles relax
  • Hormone production changes

Exactly what happens depends on what stage of sleep you are in. 

What are the stages of sleep?

Non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep

Stage 1 - Drowsiness

What’s the most perfect time of the day… Pyjama time! Changing into your pyjamas is one of those special highlights of the day. It signifies work is over, all those pesky daily tasks are complete and it’s time for some soothing shut-eye. 


When you first get cosy in bed, it’s time to welcome stage one of sleep - drowsiness. This stage generally lasts between 5 and 10 minutes. It lasts longer if you can’t switch off racing thoughts or you are disturbed by a noise.


During this time, you might have that all-time fun experience of falling to your doom. Thanks to your lovely brain, you are jolted back into an awake state. They don’t call it ‘dropping off’ for nothing.

Stage 2 - Light sleep

During this stage, your breathing and heart rate slow down as you relax more deeply. The temperature of your body lowers. This stage of sleep lasts up to 20 minutes in total. You will be unaware of your surroundings and your brain is focused on processing memories from the day. 

Stage 3 - Moderate to deep sleep

During the third stage, you gradually transition into deeper sleep. Your brain waves slow to Delta waves. This is why it is also called slow wave sleep. This stage is crucial for body repair. It boosts your immune system and is thought to contribute to creativity and problem solving. This stage lasts between 30-40 minutes. As you move through the sleep cycles, the time spent in deep sleep reduces.

REM (rapid eye movement) sleep

Stage 4 - REM sleep

This stage is when your brain shows the most activity. It produces Beta waves, that are the same waves produced during an awakened state. REM sleep means your eyes move rapidly whilst closed (unless you are a kooky open-eyed sleeper). Whether you remember them or not, this is the stage when we enter dreamland. For health and safety reasons, your body is paralysed to stop you from acting out your dreams. 

What is a sleep cycle?

Each sleep cycle is made up of the four stages - three non-REM and one REM stage. Once you have completed these four stages, the cycle begins again. Each cycle lasts approximately 90 minutes, and we go through an average of 4-6 cycles each night. The actual number will depend on how long you sleep for. 


Your sleep cycle is regulated by your sleep-wake cycle known as the circadian rhythmAs your cycles progress, you spend less time in non-REM sleep and more time in REM sleep.

What if you skip a sleep stage?

Missing out on any of the sleep stages can impact your health and wellbeing. If you wake up during stage three - your deep sleep phase - you will feel completely disorientated. This is called sleep inertia. It will take you much longer to feel ‘with it’ and your productivity during the day will suffer. 


If you miss out on REM sleep, you will find it difficult to process emotions and memories. It is also the stage that prepares us for wakefulness. So lack of REM time can affect your energy levels and concentration during the day. 

Can you improve your sleep cycles?

After REM sleep, you can start to wake up. This is particularly common if you experience disturbed sleep. It’s that time of the night when you realise you need the bathroom or you need a drink of water. The problem is, when you move around, you wake up a little more and once your brain starts buzzing, it can be difficult to get back to your lovely shut eye. 


The good news is there are things you can do to improve your sleep cycles. That way, you will get the most benefit from your nightly snooze

Work with night and day

Exposure to light during the day and darkness at night are crucial for our circadian rhythm. Getting outside every morning helps reset your body clock. Invest in some blackout curtains so your room is super dark at night and you will find it much easier to nod off.

Fix your sleep routine

When your routine is all out of whack, your sleep cycles won’t work for you. Try following a sleep schedule for at least a week and see how you feel. Go to bed at a set time and set your alarm to wake you at the same time every morning. We guarantee you’ll feel the benefits.

Relax fully before bed

Checking emails, watching horror films or scrolling the socials is far from relaxing. Step away from the tech at least an hour before bed to give your mind a chance to chill. An on-trend relaxation technique is aromatherapy. Using calming essential oils such as lavender releases stress, gets you ready for sleep and improves your sleep quality What’s not to love?

Wake up during REM sleep

As your brain is most alert during REM sleep, it makes sense to wake during this stage. But how is that possible? Think about how long it generally takes you to fall asleep at night. Then add on intervals of 90 minutes (the average sleep cycle length). Then work back from your usual waking time. After a bit of trial and error, you could be waking up refreshed and revitalised every day - result!

Use an app

There are plenty of sleep apps available. After using an app for a week or so, you will get a good idea of the quality of your sleep. Some apps have an alarm feature that prevents you from being woken up during deep sleep. Say goodbye to groggy mornings!