NREM Sleep

Falling asleep is more complicated than just hopping into bed. Read about how your brain works to power down during NREM sleep.

By Andrea Pisani Babich

Our sleep cycles consist of two basic types of sleep: non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, which has three stages, and rapid eye movement sleep (REM). These four stages of sleep comprise one complete sleep cycle, which usually lasts about 90 minutes. Earlier cycles take a bit less time and later cycles take a bit longer than 90 minutes.

If we get our recommended seven to nine hours of sleep, we cycle through all four stages of sleep five or six times. When we complete one cycle, our brains bring us back to the beginning of a new cycle. Then we continue to alternate between NREM sleep and REM sleep as the night progresses. With each successive sleep cycle, we spend more time in REM sleep and less time in NREM sleep, specifically Stage 3 of NREM.

Such a sophisticated sequence of sleep stages surely has its function, but scientists cannot say with certainty what that is. Some researchers theorize that the sequencing and timing of REM and NREM sleep optimize physical and mental restoration as well as some aspects of memory consolidation, but this topic remains controversial.

While there are still questions about sleep, we do know that each stage of the sleep cycle has its own characteristics and purpose, with the three “powering down” stages of NREM being markedly different from the intense brain activity of REM sleep.

The Three Stages of NREM Sleep

Sleep researchers discovered the stages of sleep using an electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure brainwave activity during sleep. The different brainwaves that occur as the night progresses define each sleep stage and are responsible for their distinguishing features.

Stage 1

This stage, sometimes called N1, marks the transition from wakefulness to sleep. Brainwaves begin to slow by as much as 50%, along with your heartbeat, breathing, and eye movements. Your muscles begin to relax, and many people experience hypnic jerks or sudden muscle contractions that result in a limb twitch or whole-body startle. Some people may also experience a falling sensation as they drift off to sleep. Sleep is light during this stage, and you can still be awakened easily. This light sleep stage lasts only 5 to 10 minutes.

Stage 2

The second sleep stage (N2) is a continuation of the slowing process begun in N1. Your heartbeat and breathing slow further, slow eye movements come to a complete halt, and your body temperature drops as it prepares to enter the deep sleep of Stage 3. The most notable features of N2 sleep are brief bursts of intense and rapid brain activity called sleep spindles.

Researchers have shown that sleep spindles clear a path for new learning. In their study, Matthew Walker and his colleagues at the University of Berkeley demonstrated that sleep spindles move fact-based memories from areas of limited storage to areas with greater capacity for information and long-term memories.

Stage 2 sleep accounts for half of our total sleep time – about 10 to 25 minutes per sleep cycle – and occurs for longer durations in the second half of the night. That means if you cut your total sleep time short by even an hour or two, you may not be able to learn as much as you could on a solid seven to nine hours of sleep.

K-complexes also occur exclusively during N2 sleep. K-complexes are large brainwaves that are drastically different from the brain activity before and after them. They often occur in response to sounds or other disturbances in our environment while we sleep. Sleep experts believe that the combination of K-complexes and sleep spindles help you stay asleep and allow you to enter the deep sleep that follows N2.

Stage 3

Also known as N3 or Slow Wave Sleep (SWS), this stage marks the deepest sleep of the night. Your heartbeat and breathing slow to their lowest levels during this stage. Brain activity is also slow, and you become much harder to arouse in N3.

This stage usually last 20 to 40 minutes and decreases in duration in successive sleep cycles. During N3, your body repairs and regrows tissue, builds muscle and bone, and strengthens the immune system. As a result, sufficient N3 sleep is necessary for you to feel refreshed in the morning.

People under 30 years old get in total about two hours of this deep sleep each night, but your time spent in N3 sleep decreases as you get older. After the age of 65, you may spend as little as 30 minutes per night in deep sleep.

Parasomnias like sleepwalking, sleep talking, and night terrors occur during this deepest sleep stage.

Dreaming and NREM Sleep

After we complete all three stages of NREM sleep, we briefly enter the lighter sleep of N2 before entering a period of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The most well-known characteristics of REM sleep are the quick eye movements under closed eyelids for which it is named and the presence of vivid and often memorable dreams.

For years sleep experts agreed that dreams occurred exclusively during REM sleep. Recent studies, however, have found that dreams do indeed occur during NREM sleep, although they appear to be slightly less frequent, tend to be less intense, and we usually don’t remember them.

These finding mark a revolution in our thinking about dreams, but many questions remain about why and how we dream as well as the many functions of our stages of sleep.

Comments (0)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *