REM Sleep: Why It Matters & How To Get More Of It
So what exactly is REM sleep?
“Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is a unique stage of sleep that happens a few times while we’re sleeping. It’s called REM because our eyes move back and forth quickly during this stage of sleep, almost like we’re watching something in our dreams. During REM sleep, our brains are very active and working hard to process information learned during the day – think of it as your brain sorting through everything it went through that day, deciding what to remember and what to forget. REM sleep happens about 90 minutes after falling asleep and that’s when you tend to have vivid dreams. As you sleep, the body cycles through non-REM and REM sleep. The first REM period lasts around ten minutes, and each REM stage that follows gets longer and longer. You have between four to six REM stages per night.” – Jim Kwik, brain coach at The Health Optimisation Summit
Why is REM sleep important?
“REM sleep is critical for our brain and body to function at their best. During this stage of sleep, the brain is very active and works hard to process and consolidate memories. Getting enough REM sleep is important for improving our memory, as well as our learning, creativity and problem-solving abilities. It’s also been linked to better mental health, including reduced stress and anxiety levels.” – Jim
“During REM sleep, the brain’s visual, motor, emotional and memory-related regions are highly active – almost identical to when we are awake. Studies show the dreams we experience during the REM stage can help us heal emotionally, allowing our memories to connect in new ways. This is why you may experience more bizarre narratives in your dreams during this stage of sleep.” – Theresa Schnorbach, sleep scientist at Emma
What are the key signs your REM sleep is out of balance?
“As REM sleep is linked to memory and cognitive function, one of the biggest indicators that you’re not meeting your REM sleep quota is how emotionally resilient you are. When we sleep poorly, we aren’t able to process our emotions, and this means we struggle to control our more extreme ones. It’s common for those suffering from sleep deprivation to feel weepy, or very angry about the smallest things, waiting for someone to trigger them. We also struggle to concentrate, make sensible decisions, be alert and productive.” – James Wilson, sleep expert at Issviva
If you use a sleep tracker, what kind of pattern should you be looking for?
“When tracking REM sleep with a device like an Oura ring or Whoop band, you should aim to see a pattern of multiple REM cycles throughout the night. Generally, the first REM cycle will occur about 90 minutes after you fall asleep, and subsequent cycles will become longer as the night goes on. It’s normal to spend around 20-25% of your sleep time in REM sleep.” – Jim
“If you are suffering from sleep issues, a sleep tracker can be a helpful way to collect data that can then be used to find patterns that might be contributing to sleep problems. However, maintain some critical distance and take the data with a pinch of salt. An app or tracker can only tell you so much. For a truly accurate understanding of your sleep stages, you’d need to undergo a clinical sleep study, monitoring things like brain waves, heart rate and blood oxygen.” – Theresa
How can you optimise your REM sleep?
Prioritise Quality Sleep
“When it comes to optimising sleep, the aim is to have a full night of uninterrupted sleep. This will give your brain the opportunity to reset overnight and leave you feeling refreshed. One of the first steps you can take is to stick to a sleep schedule. By adhering to a routine, your body will learn when sleep is due and prepare itself accordingly by producing the hormones that aid sleep.” – Theresa
Cut Back On Screen Time
“The main lifestyle factor affecting REM sleep is screen time – scrolling on phones and being glued to our laptop. We just don’t know how to stop, how to rest, and feel we always need to be doing something. As a result, this makes it harder for us to relax and achieve REM sleep, meaning we wake up tired and groggy. Buy an old-school alarm clock and avoid using your phone in the bedroom. Electronic devices keep the mind active and, if you’re looking at social media or news outlets, keep the mind in a fearful state.” – Nerina Ramlakhan, physiologist & sleep therapist
Understand Your Body Clock
“To work out what time you should go to bed, think about how you sleep when you don’t set an alarm. Do you stay in bed later, or still get up at the same time? We all have a sleep type, with larks (early types) at one end, and owls (late types) at the other. We all sit on this line somewhere, with most of us in the middle, with a slight preference one way or the other. Don’t get up too early to exercise, either. If you set your alarm for 5am to exercise and find that after ten days you still need an alarm to wake, this means this schedule isn’t working for you and that you’re missing out on vital REM by doing so.” – James
Deal With Your Emotions
“We dream during REM sleep to process and heal emotions, so if we deal with our feelings during the day, we may find our REM sleep is less ‘noisy’ and therefore optimal. Journalling and therapy can help. It can also help to take regular breaks throughout the day – step outside for five minutes in between tasks to pause and reset, or lie down for 15 minutes and close your eyes on a WFH day. You don’t need to fall asleep to achieve rest.” – Nerina
“Exposure to daylight keeps the rhythms of your body clock in sync. It boosts your nocturnal melatonin production, which signals to the body it’s time to sleep. Similarly, it increases the morning production of cortisol, which helps you feel refreshed. A quick stroll first thing in the morning is a great way to set your body clock.” – Theresa
Be Careful With Caffeine
“Caffeine has a half-life of five hours, which means it takes a while to get it completely out of your system. Caffeine can stop you getting into deep sleep, and subsequently affects REM. Caffeine is effectively a stimulant that has similar effects to adrenaline. Ideally, don’t drink caffeine after 2pm and never use caffeinated drinks as a substitute for meals.” – Nerina
“Alcohol has been shown to impact REM sleep – the chemicals produced by our body that metabolise alcohol suppress REM sleep.” – James
Set The Right Temperature
“The week before your period, and during the week itself, your temperature can fluctuate, which can be incredibly disruptive to your REM sleep. If you share a bed, have separate duvets, or consider using a bamboo sheet, especially in the warmer months.” – James
Look For The Warning Signs
“If your REM sleep is not managed or optimised, you could develop a REM disorder – typical signs are nightmares, night terrors and kicking or punching in your sleep, as well as action-filled and violent dreams, such as being chased. When your body gets less than seven hours of sleep, your concentration, decision making skills and productivity all take a hit, and this can manifest as nightmares. If this sounds familiar, get on top of your sleep to future-proof your health.”- Nerina
For more information visit Issviva.com, DrNerina.com & Emma-Sleep.co.uk. Jim Kwik will be headlining at this year’s Health Optimisation Summit on 17-18th June at the Business Design Centre – for more information or to book tickets visit Summit.HealthOptimisation.com.
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