The dreamiest sleep stage is also the most important for mental restoration.
You may be aware that the National Sleep Foundation recommends adults get seven to nine hours of sleep per night to maintain good health.
But while we tend to view sleep as one big, cohesive activity, during a typical period of slumber, the body actually cycles between four stages of sleep multiple times—N1, N2, N3, and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep—with each individual stage playing a massive role in helping us function at our best.
Here’s what you need to know about REM sleep and how it affects your body and brain.
What Is REM Sleep?
As its name implies, REM sleep is the sleep stage during which your eyes move rapidly from side to side behind closed eyelids. It’s believed to be the lightest—but most physiologically taxing—of the four sleep stages. It generally begins about 90 minutes into our slumber, with periods increasing and becoming deeper the longer you sleep.
Most dreaming occurs during REM sleep. Your heart rate and blood pressure nearly reach their waking levels and the muscles in your arms and legs become paralyzed in order to prevent you from physically acting out your dreams.
During REM sleep, the brain also consumes more oxygen than usual and its activity heavily increases.
What Are the 3 Non-REM Sleep Stages?
Non-REM sleep consists of three stages, which occur in succession before the first stage of REM sleep.
Non-REM Stage 1 (N1): This first stage after falling asleep lasts for less than 10 minutes as our brains and bodies shift from a state of wakefulness to sleep. During this stage, we’re easily disturbed from our sleep and may experience muscle twitching.
Non-REM Stage 2 (N2): About half of our nightly sleep is spent in stage two. During this stage, our heart rate slows down and we lose awareness of what is happening around us. During this stage, we also experience a phenomenon called “sleep spindles,” which help consolidate our memories.
Non-REM Stage 3 (N3): Known as “slow-wave sleep”, this stage is characterized by the deep sleep that has us feeling refreshed in the morning. It’s the deepest sleep of the sleep stages and generally begins about 40 minutes after falling asleep.
How Much REM Sleep Do You Need?
Because REM sleep is the mentally restorative stage of our sleep, it’s essential for keeping your brain in shape and converting short-term memories into long-term ones.
What does a healthy amount of REM sleep look like? For most adults, it looks like approximately 20 to 25 percent of the total time we spend asleep. If you rest for seven to eight hours per night, the total comes to about 90 minutes of REM sleep on a nightly basis.
Although adults require 20 to 25 percent of their time asleep to be spent in REM sleep, for newborns the recommended time is 50 percent. This amount continues to decrease with age.
How to Find Out How Much REM Sleep You’re Getting?
Activity trackers and smartwatches made by companies such as Fitbit, Amazon, Garmin, and WHOOP track sleep stages, including light, deep, and REM sleep. The devices monitor inputs like motion, body temperature, and heart rate to estimate the time the wearer spends in each particular stage of sleep.
Downloadable apps associated with these devices can also show the time of night you were in each stage and how much total time is spent in each stage throughout the night. Often, they display this in a way that is helpful for visualizing the nightly sleep cycle.
What If You Don’t Get Enough REM Sleep?
Not getting enough REM sleep can have a negative impact on your brain’s ability to create new memories. It can also cause migraines.
Since the bulk of REM sleep comes closer to morning, toward the end of your sleep, a lack of REM sleep could be synonymous with sleep deprivation—a condition that can bring negative consequences of its own.
Sleep deprivation, traditionally classified as getting fewer than seven hours of sleep per night, has been associated with a multitude of health problems, including an increased risk for:
In addition, sleep deprivation can also lower your immune system’s defenses.
How to Increase Your REM Sleep and Dream More?
While there isn’t a specific way to get more REM sleep, changing your sleeping behaviors as a whole can help increase the quality and quantity of your REM sleep.
One way to improve your sleeping habits is to work toward achieving sleep consistency, otherwise known as going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time on a regular basis.
Avoiding alcohol before bed is also recommended, as having it in your system makes your body work extra hard to process it, keeping you in a light sleep state instead of effortlessly moving through the stages.
10 Additional Tips to Improve Your Sleep Habits
Because the amount of REM sleep you get is somewhat dependent on how many hours of sleep you get as a whole, here are 10 additional tips for improving your sleep habits.
These tips will ensure that you’re resting your body and your mind sufficiently and gliding effortlessly through each sleep stage:
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