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REM Sleep: Definition, Psychology & Benefits | Sleep Reset

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What Is REM Sleep?

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Sleeping isn’t as simple as dozing off and waking up well rested. Your body and mind go through four stages during sleep, with the final—and perhaps strangest—being rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. It’s the only stage that is considered REM, with the first three stages of sleep all being non-REM, or NREM.

As you sleep, your eyes move erratically beneath your eyelids when you enter the REM phase. This is where REM sleep gets its name. You may also be familiar with REM sleep because of its strong link to the dreaming part of sleep.

Though the purpose of dreaming isn’t easily explained, it’s clear that REM sleep is important and that it contributes to our overall health. In this article, we’ll dive deeper into what REM sleep is, why it’s important, and how you can get enough of it.

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Stage 4 of Your Sleep Cycle

Your sleep cycle goes through four stages, with REM sleep being the final stage. The stages typically happen in the following sequence.

  • Stage 1: Stage 1 is when you’re falling asleep. It’s the lightest stage of sleep and is easy to wake from. This is when your breathing and heart rate begin to slow. This is an NREM stage of sleep.
  • Stage 2: Stage 2 is considered light sleep. During light sleep, your body enters a further state of relaxation and your brain activity begins to change. Stage 2 is still fairly easy to wake from and is an NREM stage of sleep.
  • Stage 3: Stage 3 is considered deep sleep. This is when your body does a lot of needed maintenance and repairs. Your heart rate, breathing, and brain activity are at their slowest in deep sleep. You grow and repair muscle, regenerate tissue, strengthen bones and your immune system, and more. Brain waves are long and slow in this phase, as your brain flushes out waste. Deep sleep is NREM and is the hardest stage to wake from. You may feel groggy or disoriented if your deep sleep is interrupted. 
  • Stage 4: Stage 4 is theREM sleep stage. During the REM stage, you may experience dreams. REM sleep causes your brain activity to reach a state similar to waking. Your muscles are immobilized to prevent activity in response to dreams. Your heart rate and breathing also pick back up.

Typically, you’ll enter the REM stage of sleep around 90 minutes after you fall asleep. As you go through sleep cycles, each stage of REM will get longer. The first period is usually around 10 minutes long, with each respective stage increasing in length as the night goes on. The amount of REM sleep you get can also be affected by your age, with babies getting the most REM sleep and older adults getting the least. 

Usually, you want to experience the full sleep cycle four or five times throughout the night, meaning you’ll likely enter REM around that many times if you get an ideal night of sleep.

Why Is REM Sleep Important?

All of the reasons for REM sleep aren’t completely clear, but it appears to help with mood and memory retention. When you’re sleep deprived and missing out on REM sleep, you can also experience physical and mental symptoms as a result. 

Here are some of the issues you may have if you don’t get enough REM sleep:

  • Decreased mood regulation: A lack of REM sleep can make it difficult to cope with emotional stimuli and affect your ability to regulate mood, causing you to be more irritable.
  • Migraine risk: Those who miss out on too much REM sleep may experience an increased risk for headaches and migraines in the days after your sleep-deprived cycle.
  • Obesity risk: When you’re deprived of REM sleep, you may be at an increased risk for weight gain and obesity.

As you can see, REM sleep is a crucial part of your sleep cycle. Now that we know some of the risk factors of lack of REM sleep, let’s talk about some of the benefits REM sleep provides.

What Are the Benefits of REM Sleep?

There are a variety of benefits to gain if you’re getting consistent, quality REM sleep every night. The following are some of the main benefits of REM sleep that have been observed.

  • Increased learning abilities and memory consolidation: When you’re sleeping, your brain is able to consolidate your memories and work on processing information. This can make it easier for you to learn in the future and help you retain long-term memories. Conversely, a lack of REM sleep can have negative effects on your memory.
  • Development of the central nervous system: Babies get a lot more REM sleep than kids, teens, and adults. There may be a good reason for this. REM sleep could play an essential role in brain development and helping infants structure their central nervous system. 
  • Processing of emotions: Dreams are believed to help in emotional processing, and REM is when dreams are most vivid and most likely to occur.
  • Preparation for waking states: When you’re in deep sleep, it can be difficult to wake up. In REM sleep, your brain activity is similar to a waking state, and it may be a way for your body or mind to prepare itself to wake up and exit the sleep cycle.

As with any sleep stage, REM is crucial for the mind and body. It’s a stage of sleep that shouldn’t be neglected.

What Happens During REM Sleep?

When you enter REM sleep, your body and mind activity changes dramatically compared to the other sleep stages. 

Here are some of the things that happen during REM sleep:

  • Breathing speeds up.
  • The heart rate increases to near-waking level.
  • Blood pressure increases.
  • Brain activity increases to near-waking levels.
  • The body temperature fluctuates.
  • The eyes move rapidly beneath the eyelids.
  • Some muscles are immobilized to prevent jerking and movements while dreaming.
  • The brain takes in more oxygen.
  • Sexual arousal can occur.
  • Vivid dreams can occur.

Compared to other sleep stages, REM is a more active part of sleep. Light sleep and deep sleep involve your body cooling and slowing down, while REM boosts your body back to almost a full waking state while still repairing your mind and body.

Understanding Dreams

Dreams are still somewhat of a scientific mystery. There are theories as to why we dream, and there are some explanations that help us understand why dreams happen. 

While none of these theories are proven without a doubt, here are some of the reasons we may dream:

  • Dreams are a way for your body and brain to consolidate memories and process information that was taken in during the day.
  • Dreams are a subconscious representation of things we want.
  • Dreams are a way for our brains to deal with overwhelming or complex thoughts that may be hard to process in a waking state.
  • Dreams help us develop our emotional and cognitive capabilities.
  • Dreams help us reconcile the past and present and potentially prepare us for future emotional and informational processing.

Dreams can vary wildly, or they can have common themes. There is a wide range of common dream themes that many people have, showing that dreams may be some form of subconscious emotional processing. Since dreams aren’t very easy to observe and study, it may be a while before we can determine their exact purpose.

Anxiety and Nightmares

While some dreams can be pleasant or simply confusing, others can be scary and anxiety inducing. These types of dreams are commonly referred to as nightmares and cause stress, fear, and anxiety in the dreamer. 

These are some reasons you may be experiencing nightmares:

  • Stress
  • Fear about something
  • A traumatic event
  • Side effects from medications or drugs
  • Illness
  • Mood disorders
  • Sleep disorders
  • Processing difficult emotions

Nightmares can cause anxiety around the sleep process, so it’s a good idea to try to identify the source or cause of your nightmares so you can reduce the likelihood that they occur.

REM Sleep vs. Deep Sleep

Although the REM stage is the final stage of sleep, it isn’t the deepest stage of sleep. Deep sleep is the third stage in the cycle and is an NREM stage—meaning there is no rapid eye movement—and the two stages have very different purposes and benefits.

During the deep sleep stage, your body is working on repairing and regrowing tissue, building your bones and muscles, and strengthening your immune system. Your body and brain activity processes are also at their slowest and most relaxed state.

Compare this to REM sleep, when your body and mind are particularly active. You can also wake from REM sleep fairly easily, whereas deep sleep is when waking is most difficult.

REM sleep and deep sleep do share a commonality. As you age, you get less of both. Children get more deep sleep and REM sleep, and the percentage of both decreases when you become an adult.

What Is Rapid Eye Movement Sleep Behavior Disorder?

Typically, your limbs are immobilized when you’re in the midst of REM sleep. However, some individuals may suffer from REM sleep behavior disorder, which is when your muscle paralysis isn’t activated during the REM stage. This can cause you to yell, kick, or move your limbs while dreaming. The cause of rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder (RBD) is malfunctioning nerve pathways

The following factors may increase your risk for RBD:

  • RBD is more common in males.
  • RBD is more common in adults over 50.
  • RBD can happen as a side effect of drug/alcohol withdrawal.
  • RBD can be a side effect of antidepressants.
  • RBD can be a symptom of neurodegenerative conditions or sleep disorders.

RBD can be treated with medication and with lifestyle changes to make the sleeping environment safer.

How to Improve REM Sleep

If you’re deprived of REM sleep, it’s a good idea to change your sleep habits and prioritize your sleep hygiene to get better quality sleep. 

These are some tips to help improve REM sleep:

  • Prioritize sleep: To get the proper amount of REM sleep, you need to go through roughly four to five full sleep cycles throughout the night. Each cycle can take about 90 minutes, meaning you should be aiming to get at least 6 to 9 hours of sleep per night. If you’re sleeping less than this, you may not be getting the REM sleep you need.
  • Watch your alcohol intake: There’s nothing wrong with having a drink at the end of the day, but try to cut off consumption 4 hours before bedtime. If you drink too close to when you go to bed, you may fall asleep faster, but it can interrupt your sleep cycle, delaying your REM phases.
  • Limit caffeine: Caffeine can also interrupt your sleep cycle. It can take caffeine up to 7 hours to leave your system, so try to finish your caffeine consumption for the day in mid-morning or early afternoon.
  • Treat sleep disorders: If you have a sleep disorder, it can affect your sleep cycle. It’s important to make the necessary lifestyle changes to address your sleep disorder.
  • Avoid large meals near bedtime: Digestion takes a lot of energy, so eating too close to bedtime could make it more difficult to fall asleep and delay your REM phases.
  • Exercise: Exercising consistently can help you fall asleep more quickly at night and get full sleep cycles. Just make sure you don’t exercise too close to bedtime, as the excess energy can keep you awake longer.
  • Create a comfortable sleep environment: A cool, dark, and quiet sleep environment will make it easier for you to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night. Environmental interruptions can disrupt the sleep cycle and cause you to miss out on REM phases. 

If you’re having trouble with your sleep, Sleep Reset can help.

Start Sleeping Better Today!

All of your sleep stages are important, so you want to make sure you’re getting all of the quality sleep you need for a healthy mind and body. But you don’t have to do it on your own. Sleep Reset can help! Sleep Reset gives you a science-backed program using sleep coaching and proven sleep methods to get your sleep on track, so you can fall asleep and stay asleep. You get a personal sleep coach who is dedicated to helping you get better sleep every night. Sleep Reset is all natural and doesn’t use pills or supplements, so there are no side effects to worry about.

Sleep Reset will provide you with a personalized plan that works for your lifestyle, along with sleep tracking and your personal coach. 

Take our sleep assessment today to find out how Sleep Reset can help your sleep!