Rapid eye movement sleep (REM), one of four main sleep stages, is critical for brain health and emotional resilience. This period of sleep cycle usually takes place about 90 minutes after a person first falls asleep. It is marked by various physiological changes that include muscle relaxation, eye movement, faster respiration, and increased brain activity.
Many people often think that sleep is a passive state. However, the brain is very active during sleep and REM sleep plays an important role in brain development as well as other functions including mood, dreaming, and memory.
Where non-REM sleep reduces blood pressure and brain activity, REM increases both. During REM sleep, your eyes move around rapidly in a range of directions, but don’t send any visual information to your brain. That doesn’t happen during non-REM sleep. When you enter REM sleep, brain activity increases again, meaning sleep is not as deep. The activity levels are like when you’re awake. That’s why REM sleep is the stage where you’ll have intense dreams. The brain is active during REM sleep, in fact, that your body paralyzes itself to protect you from acting out dreams.
Why is REM so important?
While all sleep stages are important, REM sleep is key to processing and storing information, allowing you to retain memories and lock down what you’ve learnt during the day. Most of us require 90-110 minutes of REM sleep every night, but it can be an elusive sleep stage to reach sometimes.
Scientists and researchers have illustrated that REM sleep plays a particularly important role in a number of functions – including emotional health, memory and learning. Most dreams occur during REM sleep. REM sleep is essential for keeping your brain and body healthy and plays an important role in mood regulation.
Researchers have found that a restful night with good REM sleep could counteract the effects of unpleasant experiences and memories. Emotional experiences often trigger amygdala activation. It is well-known that amygdala plays a pivotal role in emotional regulation. This area of the brain is responsible for anxiety, stress, and fear.
Sufficient sleep, especially REM sleep, facilitates the brain’s processing of emotional information. While we sleep, the brain works to evaluate and remember thoughts and memories, and a lack of sleep is especially harmful to the consolidation of positive emotional content.
Learning while snoozing sounds like a dream come true, but it’s not all that far-fetched. The process of learning and remembering new information takes place in 3 stages:
- Acquisition – when you come across new information
- Consolidation – when processes in your brain help stabilise learned information
- Recall – when you access learned information after your brain has stored it
Acquisition and recall happen while you’re awake, whilst memory consolidation appears to happen during sleep – when the neural connections that help develop lasting memories become stronger. Sleep scientist Matthew Walker illustrates that REM creates a web of associations, “we make connections during REM sleep.” The brain processes information and consolidates memories during sleep. As a result, sleep deprivation can negatively affect a person’s working memory.
The areas of the brain that are “turned on” during REM sleep seem to help learning and memory. Sleep and memory share a complex relationship. Getting enough rest helps you process new information once you wake up and sleeping after learning can consolidate this information into memories, allowing you to store them in your brain.
What are the effects of diminished REM sleep?
Sleep deprivation as a whole can affect your body’s wellbeing, but a diminished REM sleep can cause psychological disturbances such as anxiety, irritability, and hallucinations. A reduction in REM sleep can also lead to difficulty concentrating. Those experiencing a restful night sleep have better memory retention and recall.
How to get more REM sleep
Adequate REM sleep is necessary for good health and proper functioning. Insomnia and chronic sleep deprivation can negatively impact your quality of life, but it doesn’t have to. There are things that you can do to make the most of your REM sleep each night. Amounts of REM sleep usually stabilise once a person starts receiving quality sleep on a regular basis. Try a couple this week and find out what works best for you.
- Develop a sleep schedule
Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. This reinforces your body’s sleep cycle (your internal clock) and primes your body for sleep and waking, helping to maximise the amount of time asleep. This can potentially increase the number of REM sleep phases a person experiences. Sticking to a consistent schedule may also help reduce daytime sleepiness.
- Experiment with essential oils
Studies have shown that the aroma of lavender can significantly improve sleep quality and reduce anxiety. Dreem Distillery bath and body products are all made with our Dreem Complex which infuses broad-spectrum CBD and essential oils for elevated evening relaxation.
- Get more daylight exposure
Try and spend the first 30-40 minutes outside each morning (even if it’s cloudy) and turn off all blue lights at least 2 hours before bedtime.
- Have your caffeine by 10am
Afternoon coffee can decrease the average sleep time by a whole hour. So, try to finish your last cup of coffee within 14 hours of bedtime. An afternoon alternative: decaf.
- Try sleeping in a cooler bedroom
Your body temperature decreases with deep sleep and can increase during REM sleep. A good way to preserve your REM sleep is to sleep in a cool room with enough covers.
- Sleep for a full 7-8 hours
Most REM sleep occurs in the last couple of hours of sleep. Aim for at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night as a habit in order to make the most out of the incredible benefits of REM sleep.