Many know that adults are recommended to get seven to nine hours of sleep each night. What many may not know is that those hours are composed of several specialized stages of sleep, all of which perform different important functions.
Perhaps the most mysterious of these sleep stages is what is known as REM sleep. Let’s explore the significance of REM sleep, and discuss how you can experience it more consistently.
Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep first occurs around 90 minutes after we fall asleep and recurs in cycles throughout the night. During this cognitively restorative sleep stage, our brain activity picks up, nearing levels seen when we are awake, and we experience lucid, vivid, and emotional dreams.
REM sleep allows our minds to cleanse negative experiences and absorb fresh information. It provides time and space to analyze information and decipher patterns and problems. It acts as an emotional counterbalance, helping us stay calm and regulated in our lives.
The coolheaded ability to regulate our emotions each day - a key to what we call emotional IQ - depends on getting sufficient REM sleep night after night.
Dr. Matthew Walker,
Why We Sleep
Although we are unconscious during REM sleep, our bodies are hard at work - repairing, nourishing, and restoring. Our eyes flick from side to side, our hearts pump faster, and our diaphragms contract.
In REM sleep, our brain activity spikes, almost mirroring that of wakefulness, and we can experience the most vivid types of dreams. Amid the maelstrom, our brain stems send signals to relax our muscles so we don’t act out dreams.
Once, the REM sleep stage was called active sleep - and for good reason.
During REM sleep we receive a form of emotional first aid and a boost to creativity. It stitches information together so that we wake up with solutions to previously difficult problems that we were facing.
Learn more about sleep stages in Matthew Walker’s TED talk,
A walk through the stages of sleep
When we enter REM sleep, our bodies open up their limbic systems. Activity sparks in the hippocampal region and amygdala as the brain undergoes a sort of emotional cleansing, clearing out negative or disruptive thoughts.
Meanwhile, our brains organize their declarative memory - the factoids, Post-it notes, and Polaroids acquired over the course of a day.
As we progress to the latter half of the night, our brains switch from declarative to relational memory processing. They take these factoids and draw relationships between them. With fresh mental connections, problems that felt opaque and impossible the day before appear obvious the morning after.
While precious and valuable, REM sleep is difficult to safeguard. Since this sleep stage is more prevalent in the latter half of the night, staying up too late or getting up too early can cost us disproportionate amounts of REM sleep.
Consider someone who normally goes to sleep at 10 p.m. and wakes up at 6 a.m. If they choose to wake up earlier one morning - at, let’s say, 4 a.m. - they might lose only 25% of their total sleep time, but could easily lose half of their REM sleep.
When sleep is abundant, minds flourish. When it is deficient, they don't.
Dr. Matthew Walker,
Why We Sleep
The brain will do anything it can to claw back lost REM sleep, particularly if someone is struggling with the very things it supports - mental acuity, emotional regulation, memory formation. Those with sleep deprivation or a glut of anxiety or depression often move more rapidly into REM sleep. But this automatic compensation is a blunt tool.
The brain is amazingly plastic. It loves to repair itself and will do its best to stabilize things. But it cannot compensate back to normal. Someone with sleep deprivation will struggle to live their best life.
Param Dedhia, MD
Unless we create enough natural opportunity for REM sleep and optimize the efficiency of our sleep, we can’t harness the benefits of restorative sleep.
The simplest way to answer this question is to say that the average adult is recommended to achieve four to six sleep cycles per 24 hours.
A full sleep cycle lasts an average of 90 minutes. This means you want to get around (you guessed it) seven to nine hours of sleep each night.
Beyond a simple deficiency in REM sleep hours, sleep deprivation in general is a serious health risk which can contribute to a variety of harmful (and even potentially fatal) conditions. These may include mood disorders such as depression, cardiovascular conditions, depressed immune response, obesity, and diabetes.
Actual quality of sleep goes much further than just getting eight hours of rest. Sleep is contextual, personal, and dynamic. It is impacted by our environment, personal health, and life choices, and continues to change and evolve over time.
Improvements in the quality of both REM sleep and sleep as a whole rest on three fundamental pillars:
Sleep has a natural cadence and flow. By sleeping for long enough, you create enough opportunity for REM sleep.
Fragmented sleep is not restorative sleep. By achieving efficient, unbroken sleep, you ensure you reach later stages like REM.
All stages of sleep are important and all have a purpose. Creating the opportunity to cycle through most or all of all five vital sleep stages, including REM, allows you to achieve restorative sleep.
It’s important to note that the quality of our sleep is significantly influenced long before our heads hit the pillow. What we do during the day and how we prepare for sleep influences sleep experience and outcomes.
A few simple suggestions can vastly improve your likelihood of experiencing sufficient REM sleep on a more consistent basis:
It is recommended that individuals who struggle to sleep at night not work out close to bedtime, but beyond that, staying active during the day can improve your sleep prospects at night.
Many struggle to sleep because thoughts are troubling them. A meditative practice or a commitment to writing down to-do lists for the next day prior to bedtime can help an anxious mind to let go and embrace rest more readily.
You spend about one third of your life in bed, so you should make it a place where you enjoy spending a lot of time. Choose pillows, sheets, blankets, and a mattress that are comfortable, supportive, and pleasant to experience night after night. Make it a place you really want to be when bedtime arrives.
Treat your bedtime like an important appointment—because it is. Strive to establish a consistent sleep pattern with regular bedtimes and wake times. Habituation will make fully restful sleep much more probable.
These throw off sleep patterns and sabotage regular rest rhythms. Be especially careful to avoid napping too close to bedtime.
Phones and bedtime don’t mix. The use of screen devices around bedtime is demonstrably linked with sleep struggles. Just say no to screens around bedtime—and especially to screens in the sleep environment.
We invite you to experience positive sleep breakthroughs—complete with improved REM sleep—by taking advantage of Bryte’s Restorative Sleep Technology. Pairing the best in sleep comfort with the cutting edge of sleep science, Bryte has developed sleep solutions to help the world experience truly restorative sleep.
The future of sleep is here.