Your Comprehensive Guide to REM Sleep: What is it and How to Improve It

Your Comprehensive Guide to REM Sleep: What is it and How to Improve It

REM sleep is where reality and imagination entwine in a dance of rapid eye movements and vibrant emotions. REM sleep literally sounds like the stuff of dreams. 

But there's some real science behind REM sleep, and after you read this article, you will understand precisely how vital REM sleep is and how to ensure you are getting yours.

What is REM sleep?

REM sleep, which stands for Rapid Eye Movement sleep, is one of the stages of sleep that make up the sleep cycle in humans and many other animals. It is characterized by rapid and random movement of the eyes, as well as increased brain activity resembling wakefulness. 

REM sleep is associated with vivid dreams and is crucial for healthy sleep.

During REM sleep, the brain is highly active; this is the stage where most of our dreaming occurs. 

Despite the brain's heightened activity during this stage, the muscles of the body are typically relaxed to a degree that can lead to temporary paralysis. This muscle atonia prevents us from acting out our dreams and potentially injuring ourselves during sleep (R).

The sleep cycle consists of several stages, including non-REM (NREM) and REM sleep, which repeat multiple times throughout the night. Each sleep cycle typically lasts around 90 to 120 minutes and includes several stages of NREM sleep followed by a period of REM sleep. The order of these stages usually goes from light NREM sleep to deep NREM sleep (also known as slow-wave sleep) and then into REM sleep. This cycle repeats multiple times during the night, with the time spent in REM sleep increasing as the night progresses (R).

Why is REM sleep important?

REM sleep, or Rapid Eye Movement sleep, is essential for several reasons:

Dreaming and Emotional Processing: Dreams during REM sleep are thought to play a role in emotional processing, helping us understand and process our feelings, memories, and experiences. They can also contribute to problem-solving and creativity (R).

Memory Consolidation: REM sleep is believed to be crucial for memory consolidation, which is the process of transferring information from short-term to long-term memory. This stage of sleep is thought to help organize and integrate new information, making it easier to retrieve later (R).

Learning and Cognitive Function: REM sleep plays a role in enhancing procedural memory (skills and habits) as well as declarative memory (facts and events). This means sufficient REM sleep can help improve learning and cognitive performance (R).

Brain Restoration: REM sleep increases blood flow to the brain which helps provide essential nutrients and remove waste products. This restoration process is vital for maintaining optimal brain function (R).

Emotional Regulation: Getting enough REM sleep is thought to help regulate mood and manage emotional responses to stress (R, R).

Brain Development (in Infants): REM sleep is believed to support the growth and maturation of the developing infant brain (R, R, R).

Physical Restoration: While REM sleep is primarily associated with brain function, it also plays a role in physical restoration. Some research suggests that REM sleep helps restore energy levels and repair the body (R R).

Paralysis for Safety: During REM sleep, the body experiences a state of muscle atonia, which means muscle activity is suppressed, resulting in temporary paralysis. This paralysis prevents us from physically acting out our dreams, which could be dangerous (R).

Hormonal Regulation: REM sleep is associated with changes in hormone levels, including those related to stress and appetite regulation. Disruptions in REM sleep patterns can lead to hormone imbalances (R).

Overall, REM sleep is a critical stage of the sleep cycle that contributes to various aspects of physical and mental well-being.

How much REM sleep do I need?

REM sleep typically constitutes about 20-25% of the total sleep time in adults. However, this percentage can vary among individuals. On average, adults might spend around 90-120 minutes in REM sleep over the course of a night's sleep (R).

Here's a breakdown of recommended sleep durations and the proportion of REM sleep within them for different age groups (R,R):

Infants (0-3 months): Infants spend around 50% of their sleep cycle in REM sleep and can sleep about 16-18 hours daily.

Babies (4-12 months): Babies typically sleep for about 12-16 hours a day with around 30-35% of total sleep time being in REM sleep

Toddlers (1-2 years): Toddlers generally sleep for about 11-14 hours a day with around 25% of their sleep in REM.

Preschoolers (3-5 years): Preschoolers usually sleep for about 10-13 hours a day, with 20-25% of this sleep time is in REM sleep.

School-age Children (6-13 years): School-age children generally need 9-11 hours of sleep per night with 20-25% of this is REM sleep.

Teenagers (14-17 years): Teenagers typically require around 8-10 hours of sleep per night with 20-25% in REM.

Adults (18-64 years): REM sleep constitutes about 20-25% of total sleep time for adults. Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night, with individual variation.

Seniors (65+ years): REM sleep may decrease slightly with age, though it remains important. Seniors usually aim for 7-8 hours of sleep, but individual sleep patterns may vary.

These are general guidelines, and individual sleep needs can vary. Some people might function well with slightly more or slightly less REM sleep. The key is to listen to your body.

Why am I not getting more REM Sleep?

Several factors can contribute to insufficient REM sleep or feeling like you're not getting sufficient deep sleep. Here are some common reasons:

Sleep Deprivation: If you consistently sleep for shorter durations than your body needs, it can impact the distribution of sleep stages, including REM sleep (R).

Sleep Disorders: Certain sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and restless legs syndrome, can disrupt the normal sleep cycle and lead to insufficient REM sleep. These disorders might prevent you from entering REM sleep or cause frequent awakenings during REM sleep (R).

Stress and Anxiety: High stress and anxiety levels can affect sleep quality and REM sleep. Emotional distress can lead to fragmented sleep and an imbalance in sleep stages (R).

Alcohol and Drug Use: Alcohol and some drugs can interfere with the normal sleep cycle, including REM sleep. They might cause you to fall asleep quickly but disrupt your ability to progress through sleep stages properly (R).

Medications: Certain medications, such as antidepressants and antihypertensive drugs, can impact REM sleep. It's important to discuss your medications with a healthcare professional if you suspect they might be affecting your sleep (R, R).

Shift Work and Irregular Schedules: Disrupted sleep schedules, such as those associated with shift work or irregular sleep patterns, can interfere with the natural progression of sleep stages, including REM sleep (R).

Age: REM sleep patterns can change with age. Older adults might experience alterations in the distribution and amount of REM sleep (R, R, R).

Lifestyle Factors: Poor sleep hygiene practices, such as excessive caffeine consumption close to bedtime, irregular sleep routines, and using electronic devices before sleep, can negatively impact REM sleep (R).

Underlying Health Conditions: Certain medical conditions, such as sleep disorders, mood disorders, and neurological disorders, can affect REM sleep. Addressing the underlying condition often improves sleep quality (R, R).

Sleep Environment: An uncomfortable sleep environment, noise, light, and an improper mattress or pillow can disrupt sleep stages, including REM sleep (R, R).

How to increase and improve REM sleep

To improve your REM sleep and overall sleep quality (R):

Consistent Sleep Schedule: Maintain a regular sleep schedule by going to bed and waking up at the same times every day. This helps regulate your body's internal clock and improve the quality of your REM sleep.

Create a Relaxing Bedtime Routine: Establish calming pre-sleep rituals such as reading, gentle stretching, or practising relaxation techniques like deep breathing or meditation. These activities signal to your body that it's time to wind down.

Limit Screen Time: Avoid electronic devices such as smartphones, tablets, and computers at least an hour before bedtime. The blue light emitted by screens can interfere with your body's production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep (R).

Mind Your Diet: Avoid heavy or spicy meals close to bedtime, as they can lead to discomfort and disrupt sleep. Limit caffeine and alcohol intake, especially in the evening, as they can negatively impact REM sleep (R).

Exercise Regularly: Engage in regular physical activity, but aim to complete vigorous workouts earlier in the day. Exercise can improve sleep quality and help regulate sleep cycles (R, R).

Create a Comfortable Sleep Environment: Make sure your bedroom is conducive to sleep by maintaining a cool, dark, and quiet space. Consider using blackout curtains and white noise machines if needed.

Manage Stress: Practice stress-reducing techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation. High stress levels can interfere with REM sleep (R, R).

Limit Naps: While short daytime naps can be refreshing, long or late-afternoon naps can disrupt nighttime sleep patterns, including REM sleep (R).

Evaluate Medications: Consult your healthcare provider if you suspect that any medications you're taking might be affecting your sleep, including REM sleep (R).

Consult a Professional: If you constantly struggle with sleep or suspect a sleep disorder, seek guidance from a sleep specialist. They can provide personalized strategies and recommendations.

Remember that improving REM sleep is a gradual process. Implementing these changes consistently and giving your body time to adjust is essential. By prioritizing healthy sleep habits you support healthy aging and you can increase your chances of enjoying the benefits such as better memory, mood regulation, and improved cognitive function.

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Written By Natasha Jordan

BHSc Nutritional Medicine, International health - University Of Queensland

Diploma In Dermal Science - AACDS

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