What Happens to Your Body When You Sleep? (Science-Based)

Learn what happens while you sleep and what would happen if you stopped sleeping. Sleep is a crucial process that repairs muscle tissue, eliminates toxins from the brain, and helps restore the body. Find out the benefits of getting enough sleep vs the weird effects that sleep deprivation has on your brain and body.

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During just one night of sleep, your body will replace billions of cells, it’ll repair broken down muscle tissue, release many different hormones, and your brain will process all the new information you’ve gathered during the day. Anywhere from 1/4 to 1/3 of your entire life will be spent sleeping, so you can bet that it’s a pretty important and impressive process that effects everything from your energy levels, to how fast you age, and your body’s ability to build muscle and burn fat. So we’re going to examine the scientific research to find out exactly what happens to your body while you’re sleeping and how you can improve your sleep to fully take advantage of your body’s natural rechargeable battery.

When taking a closer look the first thing you’ll realize is that sleep is actually not a steady-state process where your body is in the same state the entire time. Instead, during a normal night of sleep, you progress through four or five sleep cycles that last about 70 minutes to 2 hours each. Each of those sleep cycles also contains four individual sleep stages. The first three stages are composed of non-rapid eye movement, also known as NREM, meanwhile, the fourth stage is composed of rapid eye movement also known as (REM).

To give you an example in a graph, here’s what a night of sleep looks like when you go through five cycles that last about 90 minutes each… (*) As you can see, during the first cycle, you spend most of your time in non-REM stage 3, but the further you get into your night’s sleep, the less time you’ll spend in non-REM stage 3 and instead you’ll spend more time in REM sleep. As you go through all the stages different things will happen to your body during each stage.

The first stage of the sleep cycle is a transition period between wakefulness and sleep. During this short period of relatively light sleep, which lasts several minutes, your heartbeat, breathing, and eye movements all slow down, and your muscles relax with only occasional twitches. (1) Your brain on the other hand will still be fairly active and it’ll produce high amplitude theta waves, which are slow brainwaves occurring mostly in the frontal lobe of the brain. (2) Even though your brain will remain active the brain waves will begin to slow from the normal daytime wakefulness pattern. Now it’s relatively easy to wake someone up while they’re in stage 1 sleep. In fact, people often report that they never fell asleep at all if they’re woken up while still in stage 1 sleep. You might’ve experienced this while lightly falling in and out of sleep while watching a tv show before you shut off the tv and actually move forward in the sleeping cycling and go to sleep.

So once you shut that tv off and drift deeper into sleep you move into stage 2 sleep, where the body goes into a state of deeper relaxation. Now keep in mind this is still considered light sleep compared to later stages. But your heartbeat and breathing rate will slow down further, your muscles will become even more relaxed, your eye movements will stop, and your body temperature will drop. (3) Due to all of these adjustments, your body’s total energy expenditure will start to drop. This is largely due to your muscles being much less active but also caused by other bodily processes that slow down. During this stage your brain will also begin to produce bursts of rapid, rhythmic brain wave activity, which are known as sleep spindles. Sleep spindles are believed to be crucial for memory consolidation. This is an activity where your brain gathers, processes, and filters new memories you acquired during the previous day. (4) This is also one reason getting enough sleep is crucial as a student. If you sleep well, your brain will be able to retain what you studied much better. The same can be said for almost anything new that you’re trying to learn and retain, sleep is crucial to solidify that information in your head.

As you move further into the sleep cycle you’ll enter stage 3 which is also known as deep sleep. You spend the most time in deep sleep during the first half of the night, where each cycle of stage 3 lasts for about 20 to 40 minutes. But as you continue sleeping, the stage 3s get shorter, and you’ll spend more and more time in REM sleep instead. If you’ve ever tried to wake someone up but the person wasn’t very responsive to your attempt, that person was likely in stage 3 of the sleep cycle. During this stage muscle tension, heart rate, and breathing rate decreases even further as the body continues to relax…..


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