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What is Sleep Architecture?

May 10, 2017


Sleep Architecture Explained

As humans, we spend about a third of our lives asleep. That sounds like a lot! But without sleep, we wouldn’t be able to function properly. It recharges our batteries, quite literally. While we sleep our cells repair and regenerate, our brain can sieve through what happened during the day and filter out what information it needs to retain and what can be filed away in the vault and our bodies can rest. Getting enough sleep is a vital part of being healthy. Sleep deprivation not only affects us psychologically but physiologically too. Without adequate sleep, our bodies don’t function properly.

Our sleep patterns are based on the Circadian Rhythm, which is your sleep-wake cycle. It is your 24-hour internal clock that regulates when you feel awake and when you feel sleepy. Controlled by a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, simply put, the circadian rhythm works in conjunction with natural light and darkness: when it is dark outside a message is sent to the brain notifying it that it’s time for sleep and conversely when it gets light the brain is alerted that it’s time to get up and face the day ahead. This will vary from person to person – some of us are night owls while others thrive in the wee hours of the morning.

When we think about going to sleep most of us imagine that we turn off the lights, doze off and then fall into a deep sleep only to wake up the next morning with an alarm clock going to alert us that it’s time to get up. This does happen, but there is so much more at play while we are asleep. We don’t JUST fall asleep and that’s it. On the contrary, we have sleep cycles in which we experience the different stages of sleep, and these cycles are collectively known as sleep architecture. A good night’s sleep is defined as having a minimum of four sleep cycles a night. During these cycles you will experience two different types of sleeping:

  • NonREM – this consists of three stages: 1, 2 and 3
  • REM – named because of the physiological display of rapid eye movement

So, what happens during these stages of sleep that make up a cycle?

Stage 1 or N1 sleep: This is a transitional stage of sleep. The place where we drift between awake and asleep as the brain relaxes into the cycle. While it does occur at the beginning of the sleep pattern, it also re-occurs and makes up 5% of total sleep during the night. It is during this stage that we can be easily woken by a noise or light.

Stage 2 or N2 sleep: This is where we spend most of our time sleeping – about 50% of the night. The brain moves into a more relaxed state, meaning that it take more intense stimuli to wake it up. During this stage, as we drift out of consciousness, our breathing and heart rate even out and our body’s core temperature drops to save energy.

Stage 3 or N3 sleep: Sleep scientists refer to this stage as slow wave sleep, commonly referred to as deep sleep. It is at this stage that we are really and truly unconscious, and our bodies begin to regenerate releasing the human growth hormone that repairs, heals and discards of cellular waste. The older we are the less time is spent in this stage – most adults experience about 25% of stage 3 sleep during a night.

REM or Rapid Eye Movement – this is dream time, quite literally. During REM our brain waves shift from low frequency to a much more active one and it is here that we dream. This is a vital part of the sleep cycle as it is where the brain amalgamates all that it has been exposed to so we learn and remember. Ideally, about 25% of our nightly sleep should be spent in REM sleep. During this stage, our bodies are totally paralysed from the neck down, and the theory is that this is our brain’s way of protecting us from any physical action during our dreams.

Sleep is a very individual process – some sleep through the night, others wake often; some struggle to fall asleep, some struggle to wake up; there are narcoleptics and insomniacs; night owls and morning people. Whatever category you fall into, it is important to understand the stages of sleep to ensure that you are getting enough. Like food and water, sleep plays a VITAL role in order for us to function healthily.


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