How often do you wake up feeling grouchy and thinking that the day is off to a bad start for some reason? Could it be because you didn’t get enough REM sleep during the night?
REM sleep is an essential part of the human sleep cycle. And during deep sleep, which comes immediately before REM sleep begins, the body restores itself so we can be fresh and productive the following day.
This article looks in detail at this remarkable sleep phase, explains what it does for our mind and body, and discusses some recent research findings.
What Is REM Sleep?
One thing we know is that all animals need sleep—in one form or another. For humans, there is a distinct four-part sleep cycle that we go through at night and sometimes during a long nap (see below).
Different animal species have their unique sleep patterns and behaviors, but all mammals, humans and otherwise, experience REM sleep as part of the sleep cycle.
The Sleep Cycle
What follows are the four stages of the human sleep cycle.
NREM (non-REM) Sleep
- Light sleep (5-10 minutes): At this stage, your eyes may be closed, but you wake easily.
- Transitioning to deep sleep: You remain in a light sleep at this stage, but your heart rate slows, and body temperature drops. You’re preparing for deep sleep.
- Deep sleep: This is when “you’re out like a light.” Your body repairs and regenerates tissue, growing new bone and muscle, and fortifying the immune system.
REM Sleep (stage four of the sleep cycle)
There is only one REM sleep stage during the sleep cycle, and this is when you’re “awake asleep”—dreaming, in other words. Your heart rate and breathing speed up, and your muscles twitch. Your brain is very active during this time.
REM sleep typically starts around 90 minutes after the sleep cycle begins. Each REM stage can last from ten minutes to an hour. The most extensive REM cycle is just before you wake up. The most recent dream might still be vivid when you waken.
Does the Body Go Into REM Sleep During a Nap?
The answer to this question depends on how long your nap is and how much of the sleep cycle it can cover.
Like many people in today’s busy society, you might enjoy a twenty to thirty-minute power nap during lunch hour. You won’t get any REM sleep during this brief interval, though.
What you will get, though, is the sleep that occurs during the second stage of the sleep cycle, before REM sleep begins. This is ideal for a power nap because it allows you to waken alert and refreshed, not groggy.
Since an hour-long nap provides enough time to move through a whole sleep cycle, this is a different experience from the power nap just discussed. You might not be so alert upon waking.
Can Sleep Disorders Interfere with REM Sleep?
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSR) is one sleep disorder that has been shown to have a serious impact on the incidence of cardiovascular disease, glucose metabolism, and cognitive function.
There is also REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD), a type of sleep disorder called parasomnia. Sleepwalking is one manifestation of this condition. Others include:
- Physical lashing out
- Punching and kicking
- Clear recall of dreams on waking
The Sleep Foundation provides accessible information on these and other sleep disorders.
What Role Does Bedding Play in REM Sleep and the Sleep Cycle?
Because room temperature is a key factor in a sound sleep, you should make sure your bedroom temperature is regulated to be neither too hot nor too cold for your comfort. You should consider your bed coverings as well as the thermostat here.
For example, natural fibers like bamboo, cotton, and linen are better for wicking away sweat than most synthetic fibers.
With pillows and mattresses, firmer is not necessarily better than softer. You should lie on different mattresses in the showroom for as long as possible and let your body tell you which is the most comfortable.
If you’re thinking about a new mattress and weighing the pros and cons, such as Nolah vs Nectar, give some thought to the role your mattress can play in encouraging REM sleep.
What Else Have Researchers Been Discovering About REM Sleep?
Intriguing and useful research findings on sleep and the importance of REM and deep sleep often appear in the media. Here is a couple from summer 2020:
More REM Sleep Makes People Less Fearful
This study found that people who spent more time in REM sleep had lower fear-related brain activity when receiving mild electric shocks the following day.
The findings further suggested that people with adequate REM sleep before frightening experiences could make them less prone to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Not Getting Enough REM Sleep Could Shorten Your Life
Another recent study found that getting less REM sleep might heighten your risk of death from any cause besides cancer.
Having read this rather distressing news, though, you will be heartened to know that “you can train your brain to achieve better sleep” and allow your body the time it needs for both REM and deep sleep.
Words to Live by
Here are a couple of worthwhile reminders about REM sleep and the sleep cycle. Try to keep them in mind:
- You have to be awake for at least a short while before falling asleep. In other words, being awake is part of falling asleep. So don’t panic if you don’t fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow.
- Not everyone needs eight full hours of sleep, and the amount required varies from person to person. So, again, don’t panic about over or under-sleeping. Follow your body’s signals on how long to sleep.
And now, it’s time for bed.
People can be so desperate to get a good night’s sleep that we might have lost touch with what getting a good night’s sleep even means. Getting proper REM sleep is essential. There are lots of headlines telling us we need precisely eight hours of sleep that just thinking about it can keep us awake!
Some of what we discussed in this article might provoke anxiety. Think of it this way instead: the ways people deal with anxiety are precisely what we need to relax to the point where we can start the sleep cycle quickly and easily.
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