The 4 Stages of Sleep, Broken Down
Want to know what’s happening during the third of your life that you spend unconscious? Turns out, you’re actually pretty busy during those 6-9 hours a night! Here’s the deal: sleep is broken up into stages, and the stages of sleep are characterized by things called brain waves. For those of you that are unfamiliar, brain waves are electrical patterns in the brain, and there are 5 brainwave patterns that all have different frequencies:
1) Delta brain waves have the lowest frequency and occur when you’re sleeping deeply (think mouth-open, loud-snoring, drool-producing sleep). They look like long, wavy lines on an electroencephalogram, a test that measures brain waves.
2) Theta brain waves are slightly higher up on the frequency scale and appear slightly more spiky on a brain wave test. They tend to occur in sleep, but can also occur during meditation. They’re also associated with deep emotion and creative thought.
3) Alpha brain waves happen before and during sleep, and during deep calm. They can also be accessed in meditation.
4) Beta brain waves are associated with cognitive thought and alertness. Our brain produces beta brain waves all day while we’re at work, driving, or speaking to someone.
5) Gamma brain waves, with the highest frequency, are super special. They show up when we take in new information and during states of extreme happiness. Experienced meditators have been shown to produce gamma brain waves during deep meditation. These brainwaves look like sharp, short spikes all crammed together.
After your head hits the pillow, your brainwaves take you through the 4 stages of sleep. The stages follow the exact pattern you might expect—until you get to the last stage, when things get weird. No spoilers here—you’ll have to read through to the end to find out what happens at the very last stage of sleep!
Stage 1: Drifting Off
Ever find yourself nodding off, the soft tendrils of sleep curling around you, pleasant thoughts lulling you into deeper and deeper relaxation—only to be shaken awake by the jarring sensation of having fallen off the sidewalk? Super scary, right? Those are called “hypnagogic jerks” and they happen in stage 1, during which you experience the lightest sleep. During this stage, it’s easy to be woken up as the brain’s beta waves slowly morph into alpha, and then theta waves.
Stage 2: Sinking Deeper
During stage 2 of sleep, the temperature of your body lowers, as does the frequency of your brainwaves. You’re moving into deeper and deeper relaxation. Stage 2 is home to what are called “sleep spindles”—seemingly random bursts of brainwave activity. Paradoxically, the purpose of these energetic bursts may actually be to inhibit brain activity to keep you asleep so you can move on to stage 3.
Stage 3: Deep Sleep
This is the restorative, delta wave-laden stage of sleep. Once here, your brain waves are the slowest of the slow, and your body is busy fortifying your immune system, building tissue, and preparing your body for the next day. Interestingly, if you’re prone to sleepwalking or sleeptalking, it’ll probably happen during this stage.
Stage 4: REM Sleep
Why do we dream? The question has plagued scientists and armchair philosophers alike for centuries. The evolutionary purpose of dreaming hasn’t yet been pinpointed, but it’s plain to see that something crazy happens during the “rapid eye movement” stage of sleep. This is the stage in which we dream, and about which countless scientific papers have been written.
Here’s why: throughout the first three stages, our brains have been slowly sinking from beta to alpha, alpha to theta, theta to delta waves. Now, all of a sudden, when REM sleep begins, our brains shoot up to beta and gamma brainwaves! Our bodies are paralyzed, but our minds are just about as active as when we are awake. It’s counter to everything we think we know about sleep, and it begs so many more questions than it answers. It’s all part of the mysteries of sleep!
Once the REM stage is complete, the process restarts. We move back into stage 1 of sleep, and we begin the slow descent again. The average adult experiences about 5 90-minute sleep cycles per night during 6 to 9 hours of sleep. Ideally, you’ll wake up either during stage 1 or during REM sleep. (BONUS: if you wake up during REM, you’re more likely to remember your dreams!)
No matter what stage you wake up, however, the amount of sleep you get is crucial for your health. If you’re on the lower end of the hour count and you’re having trouble getting started on stage 1, try our breakthrough product Liquid I.V. Sleep - one stick in 8 ounces of water can help you ease into sleep faster. If you have an alarm set for a specific time, you can even use LIV to time it so that you wake upright as you’re leaving REM sleep! Let us know how it works in the comments below. Sleep well, LIV fam! 💤