With sleep apnea, you intermittently stop breathing for short periods during sleep. These pauses in breathing trigger a reflex in your body to startle you awake just enough to take a breath. Many don’t notice these arousals because consciousness is not fully gained. But sleep will become fragmented—potentially resulting in fatigue and a host of other health issues. Here, we discuss the effects of sleep apnea on the stages of sleep and how sleep apnea may be robbing you of deep sleep.
What is Deep Sleep?
Sleep occurs in stages. These stages are differentiated by whether rapid eye movement (REM) is present or not. There are three non-REM stages and one REM stage of sleep. When you sleep, you progress through the non-REM stages to the REM stage over 1-2 hours. This cycle then repeats 3-4 times a night.
Here are some features of each stage of sleep, according to University of Michigan Health:
- Stage N1: This starts right after you fall asleep and usually lasts for only 10 minutes.
- Stage N2: The muscles relax, and slow-wave brain activity (known as delta waves) may begin. This stage typically lasts 30-60 minutes.
- Stage N3: This is called “deep sleep,” and delta waves increase. Your body may move, although you will be very difficult to awaken. This stage lasts for 20-40 minutes.
- REM: This is when you dream. The eyes start to flutter, breathing becomes irregular, and the muscles become immobilized.
Deep sleep is essential for the restoration of the brain and body. Here are some of the most important benefits of getting enough deep sleep, according to the American Sleep Association:
- Consolidation of new memories
- Restoration of the body and brain
- Proper secretion of growth hormones
- Refreshing sleep that enhances mental performance
Adequate REM sleep is crucial for optimal brain functioning. “REM is believed to be critical to learning and memory consolidation, and it helps restore the natural chemical balance in your brain,” Paul Schalch Lepe, MD, FACS, and clinical professor of otolaryngology and sleep medicine with UC San Diego Health, tells WebMD Connect to Care.
Can Sleep Apnea Affect Deep Sleep?
The most common form of sleep apnea is “obstructive,” in which certain tissues of the mouth or throat collapse during sleep and block the airway. Although sleep apnea can occur during any stage of sleep, it usually occurs during the deepest stages of sleep, when the tissues of the upper airway are the most relaxed. Sleep apnea events, called arousals, can happen hundreds of times a night, resulting in significant fragmentation of deep sleep, according to NYU Langone Health.
The fragmentation of deep sleep from sleep apnea eventually leads to chronic sleep deprivation. Here are some potential health consequences of chronic sleep deprivation, according to the American Sleep Association:
- Impaired memory
- Mood swings
- Cardiac issues
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