Sleep Cycles – Make the most of your sleep and wake up refreshed

So you wake up in a rush, realizing you were supposed to get up 45 minutes earlier. The usual morning routine is no longer an option. You rush to the bathroom, taking a shower, brushing your teeth as fast as you can. You put on the clothes you hopefully prepared the night before. After some 10 minutes of getting ready and having nerve-wrecking ‘should’ve woken up earlier’ thoughts, you go to the car to head towards work. You realize that you are going to be late and reach for the phone, but the phone is not there. While you’re still mad you forgot it at home, you realize that the cat is not going to feed itself. Oh and take out the trash. And to bring to work that thing that you borrowed from your co-worker. And the list goes on. All of this unneeded stress sets us up for potential failures during the day.

Many of us have found ourselves in a similar situations. You can avoid these potential catastrophes with as much as a 30 second basic calculation before going to bed. But before we teach you that, let’s try and break down the sleep cycle for you.

Sleep Cycles and the process of repair

NREM (Non-Rapid-Eye-Movement) phase

You have done all of your night time rituals. You’ve brushed your teeth, put on your pajamas, put on the face mask. You get into bed and turn the lights out and as you slowly replay the previous, or plan the next day, you nod off to sleep. This is the first phase of the sleep cycle. Your body is slowly getting ready for the night ahead, releasing the needed hormones. During this stage you might still act out the movements and it’s very easy to wake from it. You might even vocalize some of the responses you are giving to people in your thoughts. After some 10 minutes, you will enter the second phase where external stimuli are slowly shut down getting your body ready for deep sleep. This phase will last anywhere from 10 to 25 minutes.

Finally, when you’re fully prepared your body will enter the deep sleep stage. During this stage almost all of the external stimuli are ignored, and your body starts repairing muscle and bone tissue. Nutrient absorption reaches it’s peak. This is the phase that you might call ‘good night’s sleep’. Usually when you wake up tired it’s because you had interruptions in the deep phase of your sleep cycle. Your body just didn’t have enough time to rest and relax. Usually lasts for 20-40 minutes, varying from person to person

These three stages compromise the NREM (Non-Rapid-Eye-Movement) phase of the sleep cycle. Your brain activity is progressively slowing down during these stages bringing you to a near-meditative state. 

Enter the REM

With the rest-and-repair part out of the way, your brain is ready for some activity. After the deep sleep stage, your body slowly returns to the second stage, usually marked with some activity, turning and general restless. Slowly bringing your brain to it’s active state, you start dreaming. During this phase your eyes move rapidly, possibly in the directions you are looking at within your dream. The limbs are paralyzed to disable you from acting out your dream movements. Usually this phase compromises 20 – 25% of total sleeping time for adults and as much as 50% for babies. Waking a person up at this phase usually results in the person reporting bizarre dreams.

The Cycles

NREM and REM sleep alternate throughout the night in a cyclical fashion, with the whole cycle repeating itself every 90-120 minutes. It largely depends on the age of the person as well as the activities undertaken during the day. The cyclical alternation is probably just optimizing the physical and mental repairs your body is undertaking during the night.

So how does this connect to me failing to wake up you might ask. Read on

Sleep hygiene

Every stage of the sleep cycle has a set of distinct psychological and physiological functions that need to be executed in order for you to feel fresh in the morning. Skipping or shortening any of the stages can have a huge effect on your performance the following day.

While there are many reasons why you sleep irregularly at night, waking up every couple of hours, most of these stem from not maintaining proper sleep hygiene in the bedroom. And I’m not referring on how often do you wash your pillows. When you go to bed try to turn off any external stimuli that might disturb you during your sleep. Lights, phones, laptops .. anything. Also try to have a separate room for sleeping from the room you usually spend your time when at home. Use your bed only for sleeping. Diet can also play a huge factor in how you spend your nights. Avoid caffeine and any other stimulants at least 3 hours before bedtime. Having a big meal before bed might also cause discomfort because of the intense digestion your body has to go through.

Adjusting to your sleep cycle

Waking a person up during the first phase of NREM sleep is easy, you snap back to lucidity in a matter of seconds. Waking someone up during the deep sleep however, can leave them disoriented and confused for a good couple of minutes. We mentioned before that the whole sleep cycle repeats itself every 90 to 120 minutes. The duration itself varies from person to person, since while the phases you go through (NREM and REM) alternate in a regular fashion, the stages comprising them do not. It might take you just a minute to fall asleep but then spend the full 40 minutes in deep sleep. The only way to get an idea how long your sleep cycle lasts is by experimenting.

The whole idea is that you calculate through how many sleep cycles will you go through during the night. Once you’ve figured out how many cycles will it take you, set an alarm to wake you up around the time REM sleep stops and before deep sleep begins. If you are able to hit the ~15 minute window you will wake up fresh and be ready for action almost instantly.

How to hit the window

If you are unsure on how to start, just calculate how many hours of sleep you have until the desired wake up time and divide it by 1.5. Let’s say you usually sleep for 9 hours. This would mean you go through 6 full sleep cycles every night. You wake up when your brain activity is at it’s highest and you practically jump out of bed. But what about the nights when you get only 7 hours of sleep? You only have time for six 90 minute cycles, if you get up an hour earlier that is. And that one extra hour of sleep is too precious to lose. Here is where the alarm clock comes in.

When you try and wake up during the deep sleep stage of NREM sleep, it will take your body some good 30 minutes to rebound from the sleep. Setting an alarm clock just half an hour before you actually need to wake up will works miracles for you. Doing this either prevents you from entering deep sleep again or if you are already there, signals the body that it needs to wake up. The 30 minutes of preparation are done while you are sleeping and thus still resting.

During recent years many apps have been developed to monitor your sleep patterns and use this to wake you up gently. Try some of them and you will be amazed.


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