Whether you know it or not, the sleep phases your brain cycles through at night have a great deal to do with the way you feel the next day. A lack of full-spectrum sleep can affect your mood in not-so-pleasant ways. The way you wake up matters, too. If this all sounds rather dire, don’t worry. Once you understand how sleep works, you may be better able to fall asleep and wake refreshed and ready to take on the world.
The nature of sleep
Sleep scientists note two processes that are essential to sleep. Circadian rhythms set the pace for each individual’s sleep-wake patterns. This internal clock can be reset with practice, especially by establishing a regular bedtime and waking time over the course of several weeks. The other process necessary to sleep involves a brain chemical called adenosine. During wakeful hours, this chemical slowly builds up until the brain feels the urge to sleep. People who succumb to adenosine during the day and take long naps often find it difficult to fall asleep at their regular bedtime.
Typically, the brain cycles through four distinct phases of sleep over a period of around an hour and a half. During one night, the brain may move through these rhythmic sleep cycles several times, says the Sleep Foundation.
The four cycles of sleep
Like ocean waves, the four phases of human sleep come in rhythmic cycles. When newly asleep, the brain shifts into a cycle known to neurologists as NREM Stage I sleep. During this initial sleep phase, the brain moves from the awake alpha wave state to a more restful, beta wave NREM Stage II cycle. This is when muscles fully relax in order to prevent the body from physically acting out dreams that will ensue. This light, dreamless phase of sleep comprises around half of all sleep time, according to The World of Lucid Dreaming magazine.
The third cycle of sleep is known as NREM Stage III-IV and finds the brain in a totally unconscious delta wave state. As dreamless as the NREM Stages I and II, the third stage is when sleepwalking is likeliest to occur. As paradoxical as it sounds, REM, or the fourth stage of sleep, is when the brain is most active, but waking up is hardest to do. Sleepers who don’t get adequate REM sleep may suffer from impaired memory and other brain-related issues.
The best time to wake is when your brain is lightly sleeping
Sleep studies show that people who are awakened during deep, dream-filled REM sleep have a harder time adjusting to sudden consciousness than persons who are awakened during a lighter phase of sleep. 21st-century sleep technology such as the Alarm Clock for Me app from Apalon can be preset to wake a user during their lightest sleep phase. Try this app for Android for yourself at the Google Play store.
Be sure to get a good night’s sleep as often as you can. One or two late nights probably won’t hurt you, but it sure feels better when you sleep smartly and wake refreshed the next day.
Abbie Dixon works at a sleep clinic so is able to provide some interesting information (and tips!) regarding sleep in her articles. Outside of work, Abbie is a new mom juggling work and parenting.