How Long is a Sleep Cycle?

How much sleep you should get is a hotly debated topic by experts and day-to-day theorists alike. As it is such an important part of our lives, and everyone has different requirements, it can be difficult to arrive at a definite decision on what is best for you. However, one way we can measure this is by looking at the science behind sleep cycles.

In the following guide, we will outline what sleep cycles are, why you might want to pay attention to them, and how you can best use your knowledge of them to improve your sleep.

What are Sleep Cycles?

As we sleep, our bodies enter different states of unconsciousness – these are known as sleep cycles. The first thing to understand about sleep science is that it is not completely consistent between each person, as everyone sleeps differently and for different lengths of time. 

Experts claim that sleeping for longer is not necessarily better than sleeping for less time, but that it is about doing so at the right times, managing your energy before bed and daily routines, all with the goal of improving your quality of sleep. For example, sleeping for the recommended eight hours will usually leave you feeling more energised than sleeping for ten, which can leave a person feeling groggy and more tired.

In an eight hour sleep, which most people consider to be a good amount, it is thought that you go through four to six sleep cycles. These progress as you sleep and last varying lengths of time, depending on variables such as how far into your sleep you are. It is thought that different people will spend different amounts of time in each cycle, and this is why optimum time spent sleeping depends on the person. 

The four stages of a sleep cycle

For each cycle that you go through, there are four different stages, and these can be ordered by the type of sleep that you are in when you go through them, of which there are two:

  • Non-rapid eye movement (NREM)
  • Rapid eye movement (REM)

These types of sleep are measured by brain activity, which is more active in REM and less in NREM. 

In chronological order, the four stages of a sleep cycle are:

  • Stage One (NREM) – lasts up to five minutes, and is the time in which a person is drifting off to sleep
  • Stage Two (NREM) – lasts between 10 minutes and an hour, during which the body drops in temperature, the muscles relax and the rates of breathing and heart slow. This is the longest stage and it typically increases in length in subsequent cycles.
  • Stage Three (NREM) – lasts between 20 and 40 minutes, and is known more commonly as deep sleep. The body relaxes even more and it can be difficult to wake up during this time. It is thought that waking during this stage can leave a groggy feeling. Scientists also believe that this is the stage in which the body repairs itself and grows, so it is an essential part of your night. The longest period of time spent in this stage is in the first few cycles, and it decreases over subsequent ones.
  • Stage Four (REM) – lasts 10 minutes to an hour, and increases in brain activity have been measured here. REM is named as such due to the fact that the eyes can move rapidly in this stage, as all of the body’s muscles except these and those required for breathing are put under a paralysis. It is thought that this is when vivid dreams occur due to activity of the cognitive areas of the brain. Stage Four may only last for minutes during the first cycle, but during later ones can be as long as an hour.

It can take up to an hour and a half to reach Stage Four, so each sleep cycle can take any amount of time from this to nearly two hours.

Why are sleep cycles so important?

As stated above, each cycle plays a different role for the body and mind – whether for learning, growth and healing or restoring of energy. It is clear from sleep deprivation symptoms that it is important to get good quality sleep, as lack of such can lead to physical fatigue, mental slowness and low mood. 

People who struggle with waking during sleep may find it harder to reach the later stages of a sleep cycle, which are arguably the most important for bodily recovery and development. 

How long should I sleep for?

There is no straightforward answer for this. As stated above, most experts agree that eight hours is a solid amount of sleep that will allow for reaping the most benefits from the different stages of sleep. The eight hour duration is timed based on average lengths of sleep cycles, encouraging the setting of alarms during the fourth stage of a cycle. Doing so consistently can improve your body’s natural clock, and can lead to easier awakenings, avoiding those difficult mornings.

Some claim that sleeping less is better for them, and this can certainly benefit productivity by increasing the amount of time spent awake. It is best to explore this once you feel more comfortable with and knowledgeable of your sleeping habits – if you can measure your sleep cycles, by using an app or through trial and error, this might help you to ensure you are hitting all the important stages.

For those who struggle with sleeping too much, it can be a large undertaking to improve this, but there are methods, such as improving your daily routine so you are more tired at night and can sleep early, or by simply forcing yourself to wake earlier – though this may lead to spending the adjusting days feeling more tired than usual. After a time, you will likely start to enjoy the benefits of fitting into the schedule of your unique sleep cycle.

How can I improve my quality of sleep?

As well as tiring yourself out during the day, you can do a number of things to improve your sleep, such as eating at the right times and avoiding staring at screens before bed. Perhaps one of the most important things you can do is to improve your environment; remove sources of noise, make sure you are at the right temperature at night and, of course, ensure you have a comfy bed.

At Linens Limited, we have a huge array of bedding options that may suit your needs. From sheets made of different fabrics to pillows designed for different postures – find your ideal bedding today by shopping at Linens, and get better sleep quality so you can be more energised during the day. 

For more information, visit our online store, where you will be able to browse hundreds of designs to make your sleeping environment more comfortable.

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