What Is REM Sleep and How To Get More Of It
On average, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep makes up 20 to 25% of each sleep episode. Although all four sleep stages play a role in keeping you healthy and rested, REM is especially important for your well-being. In addition to being the stage in which you dream, it also plays a role in developing the brain and processing emotions and memories.
Keep reading to learn what REM sleep is, why it’s important, and how to get more of it.
What is REM sleep and why is it important?
Rapid eye movement (REM) is one of the four stages of sleep that your brain cycles through every time you are asleep. It is the fourth and final stage of a sleep cycle, following three non-REM stages (NREM sleep). Depending on how long you sleep, you may experience REM five or six times every night.
Typically, it takes 90 to 120 minutes to cycle through all four sleep stages once. The first REM cycle of a sleep episode is the shortest, and with each cycle, it gets progressively longer. Thus, you get the most REM sleep in the second half of the night.
During REM sleep, your brain activity is nearly as high as it is while you are awake. Your eyes move rapidly (hence the name) and your heart rate increases. Your dreams may be more vivid during this stage, which is why many people know of REM as dream sleep. However, rapid eye movement sleep isn’t just about vivid dreams—it’s critical to many functions in your brain and body, including:
- Processing emotions
- Memory consolidation
- Erasing partial or unnecessary information
- Brain development
- Preparing the body to wake up
Failure to get enough minutes of REM sleep may seem like no big deal, but it can be quite detrimental to cognitive health and lead to sleep deprivation. Common signs include:
- Poor memory
- Difficulty focusing or learning new skills
- Feeling excessively tired the next day
Over time, sleep deprivation can cause serious health problems, including depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and a lowered immune system. Moreover, the decline in your cognitive health may affect your life in unexpected ways, such as poor work performance or difficulty doing activities you once found easy.
How much REM sleep do you need?
There’s no doubt about it—REM sleep is vital for your health. So, how much do you need to stay healthy and feel your best? While there’s some debate about the number of hours of sleep adults should get, most health experts agree that seven to nine hours is ideal.
Of your total sleep time, 20 to 25% should be REM sleep, meaning approximately 1.5 hours per night is the minimum amount of REM sleep you should experience (if you sleep seven hours).
What can affect REM sleep?
Several different factors can affect how much REM sleep a person gets, especially sleep disorders or mental health issues. These include:
- Sleep apnea
- REM sleep behavior disorder
If you’re struggling to get enough REM sleep due to one of these factors, be sure to speak to your healthcare provider.
How to get more REM sleep
The REM sleep cycle is vital and has an important role in your health and wellness. Here are some ways to maximize the amount you get and achieve the best sleep possible.
Maintain a proper sleep schedule
As simple as it sounds, establishing a regular sleep schedule can do wonders for regulating your circadian rhythm.
Pick a sleep time that works for you, and be consistent! You’ll find that you start feeling tired and it will be easier to fall asleep if you make it a habit.
Speak to a professional about sleep disorders
If you experience restless or light sleep, it may be a good idea to track your sleep patterns with a smartwatch. Doing so can be very telling and alert you of disruptions to your sleep cycle. These may be caused by a health condition, so it’s best to visit your doctor. If you have a sleep disorder, they’ll be able to treat it promptly, allowing you to get more REM sleep.
Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco
Certain substances can affect the quality of sleep you get at night, including alcohol. Moderate to high amounts of alcohol may make you sleepy, but they can delay when you first enter REM sleep. As a result, you spend less time in REM sleep during the night.
Caffeine and tobacco may also interfere with normal progression through the sleep stages, especially if these are consumed in the evening or close to your desired sleep period. So, if you want to get more REM sleep, avoid them before bedtime.
Have sleep hygiene techniques
Your sleep habits and bedtime routine can make a huge difference in your overall sleep quality. Although there are a lot of ways to promote healthy sleep, you don’t have to do much to improve your sleep health.
- Exercise regularly – You don’t have to run a marathon to experience the benefits of exercise—even 20 minutes of activity can help! However, schedule your workouts earlier in the day because physical activity raises your body temperature, making it hard to sleep. Give yourself at least two hours to cool down before you turn in for the night.
- Create an environment conducive to sleep – Your sleep environment should be a place where you feel relaxed and ready to fall asleep. That means keeping it clean, quiet, and dark. If you find it difficult to sleep in complete silence, a white noise machine may be comforting without creating disruptions.
- Stick to a bedtime routine – In addition to creating a bedtime, you should establish a routine leading up to it. It may include relaxing activities and self-care, such as reading a book, meditation, or taking a bath.
- Turn off screens – The blue light from digital devices can delay the production of melatonin, so it’s best to avoid them an hour or two before bed. If you must use devices, be sure to put them in night mode, which dulls the intensity and color of the screen.
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Rapid eye movement sleep is important for memory health, brain function, and emotional regulation. You should aim to sleep at least seven hours every night in order to get enough REM sleep.
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