Sleep is crucial to a healthy and happy life. However, not all sleep is equal. If you’re in the 70% of sleep-deprived adults, then getting more sleep overall will likely be beneficial. However, what you really need to aim for is more rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. This is a somewhat unique stage of sleep that many other animals never achieve. For human wellness, though, it’s essential. What is REM sleep, why is it important, and how can you boost yours?
The Rapid Eye Movement of Mammals
Rapid eye movement (REM) isn’t a trait all animals share. It’s mostly reserved for those species who need a deeper level of sleep, which, for the most part, means mammals. Some birds and reptiles also achieve this deep state of sleep, but it's more commonly seen among our mammalian cousins. Even elephants, those majestic and complex creatures, don’t achieve REM sleep daily. That’s because they only need two hours of sleep a night to function.
In general, the longer an animal sleeps, the more likely they are to enter REM sleep. Lions sleep an enviable 16 hours per day, while even our canine friends need up to 14. Primates are similar to humans in their sleep habits, with chimpanzees opting for an average of 9.7 hours a day. Gorillas need 12. These lengthy sleep periods leave plenty of time for mammals to enter their much-needed REM stage of sleep.
But what is REM sleep? Well, as the name implies, it’s a period of sleep where the eyes are rapidly darting in different directions under closed eyelids. You’ve probably seen your pet dog’s eyes doing this when they’re all curled up on the sofa and fast asleep. During the night, your body cycles between REM and non-REM sleep. For the first 30 minutes or so after dropping off, you’re in light sleep in which your heart rate begins to slow, and your body temperature drops. During this time, you can be easily awoken.
When Does REM Sleep Occur?
Around 90 minutes after you first dozed off, your body will enter REM. This first period of REM sleep lasts approximately 10 minutes; then, each subsequent period becomes longer. Your final REM sleep period could last up to an hour. In general, you’ll have between three and five REM cycles each night. For adults, this equates to around 25% of your total sleep time. Babies, meanwhile, can spend 50% of the night in REM.
Despite being in a deep sleep, your brain is actually at its most active during this time. Plenty is happening during REM sleep, and you’re at the point where your most vivid dreams will occur. It can be hard to wake up during this phase, but if you do, you’ll likely be confused for a few moments. You’ll have been so immersed in your dream world that suddenly transporting back to reality can be disorientating.
During this time, your heart rate goes up, and your internal body may appear very active. Fortunately, your legs will be temporarily paralysed to ensure you don’t start acting out your dreams. Towards the end of a healthy sleep cycle, you’ll begin to gently come out of REM and back into a light sleep before waking up.
Why is REM Sleep Important?
Sleep is an extraordinary and essential part of the day. There are three main reasons that scientists believe we need sleep. First, it’s a time when we consolidate information and strengthen memories. Second, it’s when the body repairs itself, which is why deep sleep is often prioritised after a period of sleep deprivation. Finally, it helps to conserve energy so that you have the boost you need to succeed during the day.
It seems that most of these benefits are derived during the REM stages of sleep. The more deeply you’re able to sleep during the night, the more you’ll receive the core benefits of sleep. It particularly seems to be the period when memories are sorted, helping your brain retain the information you learned during the day. That’s how REM sleep can make you smarter.
REM is also the period when dreams happen. The function of dreaming isn’t clear, but most agree that this mysterious quirk of being human is important for living a meaningful life. It seems that dreams help us process painful emotions and may play a role in creativity and problem-solving. The less you allow yourself to achieve REM sleep, the harder it will be to accrue these benefits.
How to Achieve Better REM Sleep
Now that you know what REM sleep is and why it’s so important, you’re probably wondering how to get more of it. This might seem difficult since you have no control over what’s happening when you’re asleep. However, there are plenty of habits you can form during the day which impacts the duration and quality of your REM sleep cycle.
One of the most significant factors is caffeine. We all know that drinking coffee and energy drinks before bedtime is a bad idea. It makes it harder to fall asleep, cutting down the number of hours you’re able to achieve. However, did you know that it doesn’t affect all sleep stages equally? No, it tends to cut into your REM sleep more than any other, leaving you with more hours of light sleep. Alcohol has the same effect.
Conversely, a hard workout seems to increase the amount of REM sleep you can achieve each night. Exercising before bed helps your body prioritise the deeper stages of sleep. However, remember to avoid rigorous exercise within the hour before bed since this can raise your energy levels and make it difficult to sleep.
When you don’t have time to hit the gym, you can consider using natural sleep aids like Neubria Drift. These induce a state of calm, helping you sleep more quickly, so you have ample time to go through all the necessary cycles of REM sleep.
So, what is REM sleep? It’s an incredible privilege that human beings are lucky to have access to. Of all the benefits we receive from sleeping, much occurs during the REM sleep stage. Therefore, it’s a good idea to try and spend more of your sleeping life in REM. To do this, consider cutting out caffeine and alcohol close to bedtime, working out more often, and taking natural supplements to increase the quantity and quality of your sleep.