Everyone sleeps, but outside of acknowledging the importance of sleep in regards to catching up on rest and recharging the body’s energy supply, sleep has not been extensively studied by researchers until the discovery of REM sleep in the twentieth century. A relatively recent development in medical history, the discovery of REM sleep immediately led to researchers and medical experts theorizing about sleep as a whole and how it may be a complex and active process.
Since learning of the existence of REM sleep, science has dived deep into research regarding the topic and its impact on sleep quality and cognition. As it turns out, the REM stage of the sleep cycle is crucial to several mental functions such as dreaming, memory, and emotional processing. Even healthy brain development depends on the consistency of quality REM sleep.
With so many factors riding on REM sleep, it’s definitely worth keeping in check. Let’s look over REM sleep as a whole and how you can improve the REM stage of your sleep cycles in a few simple steps. Some of the topics we will explore include:
- Why REM sleep is an important subset of your health
- How to improve your sleep cycle overall and get better REM sleep
- Medicine that can help with sleep issues
What’s the Big Deal with REM Sleep?
There’s no question that sleep is an integral part of sustaining good mental and physical health, but the actual science behind sleep has only recently come to light in the public eye. Though it remains a relatively new field of science, researchers have learned a lot about the sleeping process as a whole, including the importance of REM sleep.
Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is considered to be the most active stage of sleep, typically associated with dreaming, though dreams can occur during other stages as well. During REM, the eyes move rapidly beneath closed eyelids and brain activity consists of small, fast theta waves, which are similar to the ones that occur when you are awake. A majority of the muscles in your body are paralyzed during REM sleep to prevent movement caused by dreaming, though minor muscle twitches can occur.
Since REM sleep is the fourth stage of the sleep cycle, periods of REM take place at intervals of about ninety minutes throughout the duration of the night, and they gradually lengthen as time goes by. Physical changes during REM sleep include an increase in heart rate and quickened, uneven breathing.
An initial stage of REM sleep starts off around ten minutes long and can end up lasting an entire hour. For the typical adult who gets even hours of sleep a night, REM sleep will make up around 20% to 25% of total time asleep.
Why REM Sleep Is Important
It turns out that in addition to humans, many animals also experience REM sleep, including other mammals, reptiles, birds, and aquatic invertebrates. Experts have found evidence that REM sleep is tied to maintaining neural connections for future learning and works to consolidate waking memories. Folks who sleep long enough to enter the REM sleep stage also displayed improved signs of working memory, a cognitive system crucial for reasoning, decision-making, and behavior.
The REM sleep stage is associated with brain development, and it is likely that the muscle twitches experienced during this stage may influence motor learning skills. When newborn babies sleep, their sleep period is thought to consist of 50% REM sleep, which supports the claim that the REM sleep stage is vital for a developing brain.
REM sleep is postulated to facilitate emotional processing and creativity, and it also has been shown to help people recover from stressful events. People who get an increase in REM sleep following a traumatic event may even have reduced chances of developing post-traumatic stress disorder later on. In addition to the mental effects, REM sleep has a physical impact on the body’s health, protecting against diseases like obesity.
How You Can Maintain Better REM Sleep
In order to achieve better REM sleep, you’re going to have to look at your sleeping habits as a whole. REM sleep occurs during the second half of each sleep cycle, which means relying on naps and short sleep durations will not give your brain enough time to complete REM sleep.
If you wish to improve your REM sleep, then it starts by developing and maintaining healthy habits and sleeping patterns that offer you quantity and quality. A full night of uninterrupted rest, about seven to nine hours, gives you enough time to experience a series of sleep cycles, which means more REM sleep in total.
Work Out a Sleep Schedule and Follow It
The chaos of everyday life can make getting consistent sleep nothing more than a pipe dream, especially when you have to balance conflicting work schedules and demanding responsibilities like parenting. However, improving REM sleep means getting better sleep overall, and the best way to do that is to develop a sleep schedule that works for you.
You can do this by waking up and going to bed at the same time every day. Your body follows a natural circadian rhythm and disrupting that rhythm with oversleeping or getting too little sleep can be confusing for the body. These irregular sleep-wake patterns negatively interfere with REM sleep and can affect the mental processes associated with the stage.
Avoid Substances like Caffeine, Alcohol, and Tobacco
Substances that act as stimulants, such as caffeine and tobacco, can delay the onset of sleep and interfere with normal progression through the sleep stages, though it becomes much more of a risk when these substances are taken later in the day. Consuming alcoholic beverages in the evening can also disrupt REM sleep cycles and cause you to spend less time in the REM stage of sleep. For your health, it’s best to reduce your intake of substances that can interfere with your sleeping habits and to avoid them entirely in the evening.
Consider Medication Interference
Just as there is medicine that can help you fall asleep, there are other medications that can obstruct your ability to get and maintain a good night’s sleep. Certain antidepressants and antipsychotics may suppress the amount of REM sleep you get each night, but going off of the medication can solve the problem.
While many benefits associated with certain medications may make them seem worth it, your health depends on quality sleep. If a lack of REM sleep is causing issues in other areas of your life, consider talking with your doctor about alternative options or lowering your dosage.
Manage Sleep Disorders and Mental Health
Certain psychiatric conditions and sleeping disorders can affect sleep patterns and cause alterations in REM sleep. Major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder are just two of many conditions that have been shown to disturb REM sleep and negatively affect sleep quality as a whole. When a serious psychiatric condition is the main catalyst behind the sleeping issues, then the best path forward is through direct treatment of the condition. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) should also be considered to help normalize sleep patterns.
Develop Good Sleep Hygiene Techniques
One of the most proactive steps you can take to ensure you get quality sleep and, by default, more time in the REM stage of sleep is by developing good sleep hygiene habits. There is no concrete way to promote REM sleep without improving your sleep routine as a whole, so aim for a consistent, restful sleep schedule and REM sleep will stabilize as a result.
There are many sleep hygiene habits that can be beneficial to your overall quality of sleep. From daily behaviors to establishing a consistent sleep-wake pattern, sleep hygiene takes many forms. Some examples of these habits include:
- Working out a bedtime routine with calming activities to help you wind down
- Limiting or prohibiting late-night use of electronics in the bedroom
- Prioritizing sleep and sticking to a set bedtime
- Maintaining a bedroom environment that is cool, dark, and comfortable
- Participating in physical activity during the daytime
- Restricting in-bed activities to associate bed with sleep
Medication and Professional Intervention
Missing out on deep sleep and REM sleep can create issues that carryover to your waking life. From mood problems and the inability to focus to poor motor skills and memory retention, a lack of sleep can have detrimental effects on your quality of life. Chronic sleep deprivation can even lead to more serious health problems, such as high blood pressure, issues with heart health, and psychosis.
If a lack of sleep is negatively affecting your life, never hesitate in reaching out to your doctor or a healthcare professional to seek treatment. Consider keeping a sleep diary and documenting the nights leading up to your visit to provide the doctor with an accurate account of your sleeping issues. Depending on your symptoms and medical history, your provider will suggest a number of appropriate treatment options going forward, including medication.
Of course, it’s important to understand the potential underlying cause of your lack of sleep. It could be due to an undiagnosed medical condition or a full-blown sleep disorder, and your doctor can assess your symptoms further by performing physical exams or running sleep tests.
While not to be taken as a replacement for medication prescribed by a doctor, supplements can offer relief when it comes to sleep disturbances. Supplements can be taken in conjunction with medication, but remember to consult a doctor before you start taking any supplements to make sure they are safe and will not interfere with medications you may be taking.
It should be noted that the use of supplements alone won’t solve all of your sleeping problems like magic. If you want the supplements to work, then you’ll have to put effort into developing and maintaining good sleep hygiene habits. Combining supplements with good sleep hygiene will result in the best impacts on your sleep.
Some supplements that can be used to benefit sleep quality include:
- Ginkgo biloba
- Valerian root
When you prioritize sleep quality and adopt good sleep hygiene behaviors into your regular schedule, you benefit both your physical and mental health. With improved sleep quality comes a natural increase in REM sleep, stabilizing your sleep cycles so that you can get all the rest you need.
Heed this advice and transform the standard of your sleep quality in no time!