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REM Sleep: Why & How to Get More of It

Hayley Dawes
30 March 2023

We all know that sleep is crucial for our health and wellbeing, but experts agree it’s the quality of your sleep that matters more than the quantity. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is one of the 4 stages (along with wake, light, and deep sleep) we move between throughout the night, and while all sleep is important, REM plays a key role in our memory, emotions, and healthy brain development. However, it can be a struggle with certain lifestyle habits throwing our REM off balance.

If you’re trying to get more REM sleep to get more energy, improve your mental health, or boost your productivity – meeting your overall sleep need and living in sync with your circadian rhythm are the 2 most important things to focus on.

What is REM sleep?

Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is a unique stage of sleep that happens a few times while we are sleeping. It is called REM because our eyes move back and forth quickly during this stage of sleep. The REM stage is when you get your “mentally restorative” sleep, and it is when the brain converts short-term memories from the day into long-term ones.

REM sleep happens about 90 minutes after falling asleep – when you often have more vivid dreams. During REM sleep, our brains are actively working to process information learned during the day. As you sleep, the body cycles through 4 stages of non-REM and REM sleep. “The first REM period lasts around 10 minutes, and each one that follows gets longer and longer,” explains Jim Kwik, brain coach at The Health Optimisation Summit.

Why is it important?

REM sleep is crucial for our brain and body to function at its best. Throughout this stage of sleep, the brain is extremely active and works to process and consolidate memories. Getting enough REM sleep helps to improve our memory, learning, creativity, and problem-solving skills. It can also help improve our mental health and reduce stress and anxiety.

“During REM sleep, the brain’s visual, motor, emotional and memory-related regions are highly active – almost identical to when we are awake.” – Theresa Schnorback, sleep scientist at Emma.

It is also important to remember that all sleep stages are important for your overall wellness. Deep sleep, for example, strengthens your immune system, and stage 2 sleep is associated with overnight motor skill improvement.

Are there signs to know if your REM sleep is out of balance?

James Wilson, sleep expert at Issviva highlights, “One of the biggest indicators that you’re not meeting your REM sleep quota is how emotionally resilient you are. When we sleep poorly, we are not able to process our emotions, and this means we struggle to control our more extreme ones. We also struggle to concentrate, make sensible decisions, be alert and productive.”

What kind of pattern should you look for when using a sleep tracker?

When tracking REM sleep with a sleep tracker device like an Oura Ring, you should aim to see a pattern of multiple REM cycles throughout the night. It is normal to spend around 20-25% of your sleep time in REM sleep.

If you suffer from sleep issues, a sleep tracker can be a helpful way to collect data, in order to find patterns that might be contributing to your sleep problems. But, your body is very good at self-optimising and spending the right amount of time in each sleep stage; you just have to give it the chance by focusing on getting enough sleep overall through good sleep hygiene.

How to optimise your REM Sleep

Sufficient REM sleep is necessary for good health and proper functioning. Chronic sleep deprivation can negatively impact your quality of life – but it doesn’t have to. There are ways to get better sleep:

  1. Prioritise quality sleep

The aim is to have a full night of uninterrupted sleep. This will give your brain the opportunity to reset overnight and leaving you feeling rested and refreshed. Try to stick to a sleep schedule, with going to bed at similar times every day. With this consistency, your body will learn when it is time to sleep and prepare itself accordingly by producing the hormones that aid sleep.

  1. Cut back on screen time

Scrolling on phones and being glue to our laptops is the main factor affecting REM sleep, meaning we wake up tired and groggy. Avoid using your phone in the bedroom, as electronic devices keep the mind active.

  1. Understand your body clock

We all have a sleep type – the early types at one end, and late owls at the other. Most of us sit in the middle, with a slight preference one way or the other.

  1. Deal with your emotions

If we deal with our feelings during the day, we may find our REM sleep is more optimal. Journaling can be very helpful to deal with emotions. It is also helpful to take regular breaks throughout the day, stepping outside for 5 minutes to pause.

  1. Get outside

Exposure to natural light keeps our circadian rhythms of your body clock in sync. It boosts melatonin production, which is the hormone that signals your body when it’s time to sleep.

  1. Be careful with caffeine

Caffeine takes a while to get completely out of your system and can stop you getting into deep sleep. Ideally, don’t drink caffeine after 2pm.

  1. Avoid alcohol

Alcohol impacts our REM sleep, as the chemicals produced by our body that metabolise alcohol suppress REM sleep. You take longer to reach the REM stage and you get less of it overall.

  1. Set the right temperature

Your body’s temperature decreases during sleep, and a cool, but not cold, room will help you settle into and maintain sleep throughout the night.

  1. Look for the warning signs

Typical signs are nightmares, night terrors and kicking in your sleep, as well as action-filled and violent dreams. When your body gets less than 7 hours of sleep, your concentration, decision making skills and productivity all take a hit.