January 2018 {Guest Post}: What Happens to Your Brain as You Fall Asleep (and What Might Prevent It)

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Written by Alicia Sanchez

The brain is a complex organ that science is still trying to fully understand. While many aspects of the brain remain a mystery, there are some things like what happens to your brain when you fall asleep that we have a pretty good idea of what’s going on. It all starts with the stages of sleep.

Making Your Way Through All Four Stages

The sleep cycle is broken down into four stages. The amount of time you spend in each stage varies, but every one is important for getting the rest you need.

Stage 1

You know this stage well. It’s light sleep where you drift in and out of sleep. Eye movement starts to slow, and muscles begin to relax. Though sudden muscle contractions or light noises can be enough to startle you awake.You can still come to full consciousness with little trouble in this stage.

Stage 2

In stage 2, your body temperature starts to drop as brain waves slow down even more. The heart rate begins to slow too. However, you’re still considered in a light sleep stage at this point.

Stage 3

This stage is critical because it’s the first stage of deep sleep where brain waves slow significantly. Sleepwalking, night terrors, and talking in your sleep often occur in this stage.

Stage 4

Finally, there’s stage 4 where you enter REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. At this point, the brain and eye activity mimic those found in the daytime. The eyes move rapidly from one side to the other, and if you are woken up in this stage, you’ll probably be disoriented for a while.


What Might Get in the Way of a Good Night’s Sleep

As important as we all know sleep is getting a full seven to eight hours of sleep can be difficult for many people. There are a lot of conditions and environmental factors that can prevent you from falling asleep.

Environmental factors play a significant role in the quality of sleep you get. Loud noises and audible disruptions can easily bump you out of the early stages of sleep.  You can fight this by turning on white noise or listening to music. Soft, gentle music can help drown out distractions. Music can even help those with insomnia and other sleep disorders to fall and stay asleep longer.

Stress is another factor that often keeps people awake at night. For those who suffer from stress-related insomnia, yoga or guided meditation can be helpful. Both can be performed from the comfort of your own bed. They especially help tense muscles to relax which in turn calms the mind.

The physical environment you sleep in plays an important role as well. Most people sleep best in a room with a temperature between 65-72 degrees. You may want to experiment to find what temperature works for you because some people sleep better at temperatures in the low 60’s.

Turn off the TV, laptop, and other screens at least an hour before bed. Their bright lights send the brain false signals that it needs to stay awake. With all these factors in mind, one of the most important things you can do is be consistent. Go to bed at the same time every night. When you do, you help your body regulate its own sleep cycle and set yourself up for a good night’s sleep.

Alicia Sanchez is a researcher for the sleep science hub Tuck.com with a specialty in health and wellness. A Nashville native, Alicia finds the sound of summer storms so soothing that she still sleeps with recorded rain on her white noise machine.

Tuck Sleep Foundation is a community devoted to improving sleep hygiene, health and wellness through the creation and dissemination of comprehensive, unbiased, free web-based resources. Tuck has been featured on NPR, Lifehacker, Radiolab and is referenced by many colleges/universities and sleep organizations across the web.


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