What is REM sleep, and why does it matter?

When it comes to health and wellness, it’s easy to overlook the importance of sleep. We all know that we should be getting those eight hours of snooze time. But between working out, eating healthy, and social commitments, sometimes sleep gets put on the back burner. If you struggle to sleep, you are not alone. We live in a sleep-deprived society where 70% of adults in America are not getting enough sleep each month. Approximately 50 to 70 million Americans experience chronic sleep problems. There’s a reason why we need sleep, especially REM sleep. So, what is REM sleep? If we can better understand sleep and why we need it, we can look to improve it and feel the benefits. 

What is REM sleep?

A normal sleep cycle graph shows that you transition through two types of sleep: non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM). During these phases of sleep, your brain and body act differently. NREM occurs in three stages: 

  • Stage 1 - you close your eyes, but it’s still easy to wake up. 
  • Stage 2 - your heart rate slows, and body temperature drops as you move into a lighter sleep.
  • Stage 3 - you're in a deeper sleep stage, and it’s harder to wake up. 

So, what is light sleep? This tends to be during stages 1-2 of NREM sleep. It’s the time where it’s easiest to wake up from but is still crucial for feeling rested. Sleep stage percentages show that most children and adults spend almost 50% in stage 2, lighter sleep, 30% in other stages of sleep, and 20% in REM sleep.   

The sleep cycle lasts about 90 minutes. During this time, you go through the stages of NREM followed by REM sleep in the last part of the sleep cycle. In REM sleep, your eyes move rapidly from side to side, and brain activity is similar to that of awakeness. As you move through your sleep cycles, each REM stage is longer and longer. After one 90-minute sleep cycle, you start from the top with stage 1 NREM sleep. Often, you will feel more tired after 5.5 hours instead of 6 or 7.5 hours when you sleep in even 90-minute cycles. 

Why is REM sleep important? 

Why do you sleep? It’s a question that has baffled brilliant minds for years. The human body is intelligent, and we know sleep is an essential function for survival. So, why is REM sleep important? 

REM sleep is the time where you commit to memory the things you learn in the day. Over a century of research proves that sleep benefits the retention of memory. Research shows that REM sleep causes spikes of neural activity, which may play a key role in learning and remembering to perform physical tasks. 

You spend about a third of your life either asleep or attempting to do so. One of the reasons REM sleep is so crucial is that it stimulates parts of your brain essential to learning and retaining memories. REM sleep is thought to boost your procedural memory too, like remembering a sequence of actions. 

The relationship between memory and sleep is complex. If you’re not sleeping or don’t get enough sleep, you could decrease your learning ability by as much as 40%. It’s clear that poor sleep impacts memory. Studies show that being sleep-deprived puts you at risk of forming false memories. Even fragmented sleep can negatively impact memory, even if you get plenty of total hours of sleep. Often, new ideas and links between thoughts emerge during REM sleep. So, it has a role to play in creativity and problem-solving. 

How to get more REM sleep 

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that healthy adults need between seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Sometimes, no matter how much you want to fall asleep, it can feel impossible. Causes of REM sleep disruption can include: 

  • Inadequate total hours of sleep 
  • Caffeine 
  • Alcohol 
  • Sleep disorders

Improving REM sleep is all about enhancing the overall sleep experience. That means creating a sleep schedule and bedtime routine that helps you to relax. Set yourself up for a good night’s sleep. Natural insomnia treatments include taking a hot bath, herbal sleep tea, and light exposure. Be mindful of caffeine and alcohol, as they can interfere with your sleep. Give yourself a cut-off time so that you're ready to sleep when the time comes.  

It’s important to think about how stress and anxiety can impact your sleep. Regular exercise and finding outlets for stress can help reduce stress. Try the following tips to help ease stress and anxiety: 

  • CBD drops to reduce feelings of worry 
  • Anxiety blanket to help you feel grounded during sleep 
  • Meditation and yoga 
  • Journaling 
  • Aromatherapy 

To increase your REM sleep, you need to think about your sleep cycle as a whole. By understanding why sleep is important, you can begin to implement small changes to your day so that you can sleep better at night. Although it can feel practically impossible to get to sleep some nights, you can take proactive steps like these to enhance your sleep health.