REM sleep, or rapid eye movement sleep, is that part of deep sleep where you’re “dead to the world,” so to speak. If you don’t get quality sleep overall, that can have detrimental effects on your health. But if you don’t get good REM sleep, that can be especially problematic for both your brain and body.
Here’s some information on why REM sleep is so important for your brain and for overall good health, and a few things you can do to help ensure the quality of your slumber.
What is REM Sleep?
Research is just starting to scratch the surface as to how REM sleep affects the brain. Most of the scientific work so far has focused on the benefits of other sleep phases. For example, slow-wave sleep appears to not only help make sure your blood is circulating properly, it also helps keep your blood glucose levels safe. But there is a growing amount of evidence showing that REM sleep is just as critical to your health.1
REM sleep takes up about a quarter of your rest each night. It usually takes place anywhere from 70 to 90 minutes after you fall asleep, right after a sleep phase known as non-REM sleep (NREM), or slow-wave sleep.2
REM sleep can (and normally does) occur several times each night. This is the part of deep sleep that helps energize both your brain and body. It’s also where you do the majority of your dreaming. Researchers believe that REM sleep plays a role in helping your brain learn, store memories, and make sure your moods stay balanced.3,4
Different areas of the brain communicate with areas of the body during the night, contributing to REM sleep. These signals go to the cerebral cortex, responsible for information organization, thinking, and learning. Signals also typically go to the spinal cord, leading to temporary paralysis during this stage of sleep. If something disrupts the signal, and paralysis doesn’t occur, you could “act out” while dreaming. For example, you could conceivably leap out of bed while dreaming that you’re trying to escape from some sort of danger.5
Evidence of the Health Effects of REM Sleep
When someone suffers from sleep deprivation – specifically REM sleep – cognitive issues may result. For example, research shows that if you’re not getting enough deep sleep, you’ll be less likely to remember something you learned before you went to bed.6 A lack of REM sleep has also been linked to migraine headaches and other health problems.7
Researchers performed a study in order to determine the effect REM sleep deprivation has on the way a person responds to a stressful event. They applied mild electric shocks to participants while they slept and studied how their brains reacted. According to the results, the people who spent more time in REM sleep showed a lower level of brain activity related to fear than those who spent less time in deep sleep. The researchers believe that if a person is getting enough REM sleep, they might be less susceptible to suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after experiencing a fearful event.8
Studies indicate that REM sleep plays a role in how accurately we read others’ emotions.
One study involved a group of people who experienced REM sleep during a nap. The other group did not reach this deep sleep stage. The researchers found that the REM sleepers did a better job of judging facial expressions after their nap.9
Alcohol and REM Sleep
Many people have a “nightcap,” or an alcoholic drink, before they turn in for the night. Doing this might help you get to sleep faster, but it could wreck the quality of both your REM sleep and overall sleep.
Researchers looked at several studies that included more than 500 people. The volunteers participated in sleep studies involving alcohol and as part of the study, consumed anywhere from one or two alcoholic beverages to four or more. According to researchers, it appears that alcohol might increase the duration of slow-wave sleep at the start of the night. However, the participants tended to have more disrupted sleep patterns during the second half of the night.10
Improving the Quality of Your Sleep
There are many things you can do to improve your REM sleep. This, in turn, will help make sure your brain gets the rest it needs at night. Here are a few tips:
Stick with your bedtime routine –
If you follow the same routine every night, that could help increase the number of REM cycles you experience.11
Eliminate distractions –
Try to make sure you sleep in a cool room, and remove as many sources of light as possible. Also, turn off your cell phone and other noise-emitting devices.
Take care of any medical conditions you may have –
Sleep apnea and other medical conditions can affect your sleep quality by causing you to wake up several times during the night. Talk to a doctor to address those issues, so you can once again rest easy.
Watch your food and drink intake –
Again, drinking alcohol to excess can have a major impact on your sleep quality. But you should also be careful when it comes to food. Never have a large meal within two hours of going to bed. If you’re stuffed, that could keep you up at night. Caffeine can take a long time to wear off and also disturb your sleep.
Stay active –
Participating in regular physical activity can help improve your quality of sleep. Just don’t schedule any workouts before you go to bed.
Limit your napping –
If you tend to nap for more than 30 minutes during the day, that could interfere with the quality of your nighttime sleep.
One Last Thought
Getting good quality sleep is one of the most important things you can do for your health. It benefits not only your body, but your brain as well. REM sleep is especially critical, as it has a substantial impact on your mental well-being.
Follow some of these tips for getting a better night’s rest: exercise regularly, don’t eat large meals right before bed, limit your naps, and stick to a regular pre-bedtime routine. Doing so may help improve all phases of your sleep, including REM sleep.
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