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Light Sleep vs. Heavy Sleep

For some people, the slightest noise awakens them at night. For others, the wailing siren of a passing fire truck doesn't disturb their slumber. Just why, though, remains a bit of a mystery.

Although many people are self-proclaimed light sleepers or heavy sleepers, researchers have found that little is actually known about why people react differently to noises and other stimuli during sleep.

Genetics, lifestyle choices, and undiagnosed sleep disorders may all play a role. In addition, some studies suggest that differences in brainwave activity during sleep may also make someone a light or heavy sleeper.

But whether you're a light or heavy sleeper, one thing is certain: Both the quantity and the quality of sleep you get play an important role in your health.

Alternating Between the Stages of Light and Deep Sleep

During sleep, you alternate between cycles of REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non rapid eye movement) that repeat about every 90 minutes. You spend about 75 percent of the night in NREM sleep, which consists of three stages of increasing relaxation.

Stage one, or the phase between being awake and asleep, is considered light sleep. Deeper sleep begins in stage two, as your breathing and heart rate become regular and your body temperature drops.

Stage three is the deepest and most restorative stage of sleep, in which breathing slows, muscles relax, and tissue growth and repair occurs.

Next is REM sleep, which is when your eyes move rapidly from side to side while closed hence the name. This is the stage when most of our dreaming happens, and your brain wave activity, heart rate, and blood pressure increase to levels that are close to what we have when we're awake.

In general, young people spend more time in the deeper, heavier stages of sleep as they grow and develop. Older people spend less time in deep-sleep stages and are more likely to complain of being light sleepers.

But sleep experts say the difference between a light and heavy sleeper may be largely subjective. Someone who gets eight hours of sleep a night may not experience as much slow-wave, deep sleep as the person who gets six hours of sleep.

There may be some overlap between what people subjectively feel about the depth of their sleep and what we find in the lab when measuring the different sleep stages, says David Neubauer, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and associate director of the Johns Hopkins Sleep Disorders Center in Baltimore. But it's not necessarily the same thing.

Many health experts are calling attention to what they see as a public health crisis today: major sleep deficit. Between busy schedules at work and home, and devices that constantly connect us to email and social media and let us binge-watch our favorite shows we are more sleep deprived than ever.

This can wreak havoc on our physical, mental, and emotional health, says Rajkumar Dasgupta, MD, assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

Poor quality sleep has been associated with increased risk of developing an array of health problems, including diabetes, (2) cardiovascular disease, depression, (3) and even Alzheimer's disease. And research into the causes and effects of not dreaming enough, which happens when you don't enter the deep stage of REM sleep, has found that our dream deprivation is contributing to illness and depression.

A comprehensive review published in August 2017 in the journal Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, which was conducted by Rubin Naiman, PhD, a sleep and dream specialist at the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine in Tucson, found that there is growing evidence linking REM and dreaming to things like immune function, storing long-term memory, and mood.

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