How to Get More REM Sleep

In your quest for optimal well-being, you cannot overlook the transformative power of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, the stage of slumber associated with vivid dreams and essential cognitive processes. As we navigate the demands of our fast-paced lives, spending an adequate amount of time in REM sleep is critical for our overall health and cognitive function.

Blog Author Elena Health Coach at CARE
Elena Iagovitina

Health Coach

Published in Sleep
12 min read · Nov 27, 2023

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In this comprehensive guide, CARE will delve into the intricacies of REM sleep, explore its crucial role in your nightly rest, and equip you with practical strategies to enhance and extend this rejuvenating phase of your sleep cycle.

What Is REM Sleep?

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REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep is a phase of the sleep cycle characterized by vivid dreaming, heightened brain activity, and rapid eye movements. Fun fact: the American rock band R.E.M. was indeed named after this phase of sleeping. The REM sleeping phase plays a crucial role in your memory consolidation, emotional processing, and for your overall cognitive well-being. [1]

The proportion of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep within a full sleep cycle typically ranges from approximately 20 to 25 percent of your total sleep time. In a standard seven to nine-hour sleep duration, this translates to around 1.5 to 2 hours of REM sleep per night for adults.

Our sleep cycle is broadly categorized into two main types: Non-REM (NREM) and REM sleep. [1]

Before we embark on the journey of how to get better REM sleep, let's briefly explore the various stages that constitute a complete sleep cycle.

The Complete Sleep Cycle – NREM & REM

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A complete sleep cycle consists of four distinct stages, each with unique characteristics and functions. These stages are categorized into two main types: Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) sleep and Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. [1]

The sleep cycle typically repeats throughout the night, with an entire cycle lasting about 80 to 110 minutes. Usually, you go through four to six cycles per night and may wake up briefly between cycles. [2]

Here's an overview of a full sleep cycle:

NREM Stage 1 (N1)

  • Brief transition from wakefulness to sleep.
  • Lasts for a few minutes.
  • Light sleep, easily disrupted.
  • Muscle activity decreases, and eye movements are slow and may include occasional twitches. [3]

NREM Stage 2 (N2)

  • Slightly deeper sleep compared to N1.
  • Lasts around 20 minutes.
  • Eye movements stop, heart rate slows, and body temperature decreases.
  • Sleep spindles (bursts of rapid brain waves) and K-complexes (sudden, sharp waveforms) may occur. [3]

NREM Stage 3 (N3)

  • Also known as slow-wave sleep (SWS) or deep sleep.
  • Delta waves become prominent on EEG recordings.
  • Vital for physical restoration, growth, and repair.
  • Difficult to wake up during this stage.
  • Plays a crucial role in maintaining a healthy immune system. [3]

REM (Rapid Eye Movement) Sleep

  • Typically begins about 90 minutes after falling asleep.
  • Characterized by vivid dreaming, rapid eye movements, and increased brain activity.
  • Essential for cognitive functions, memory consolidation, and emotional processing.
  • Muscle activity is almost completely inhibited, preventing individuals from acting out their dreams.
  • Heart rate and breathing become irregular and may mimic waking patterns. [3]

After completing the REM stage, the cycle repeats, with subsequent cycles having longer REM periods as the night progresses. The duration of each stage will vary across people and age groups, but a full cycle is crucial for achieving enough sleep and supporting overall well-being and mental health. [1]

REM Sleep – Vivid Dreaming, Emotional Processing & Restoration

REM sleep is a fascinating and essential phase of the sleep cycle, representing a dynamic period of heightened brain activity and vivid dreaming while you sleep.

During REM sleep, your eyes move rapidly in various directions, and your brain activity surges to levels comparable to wakefulness despite your body's temporary state of paralysis. [1] This paradoxical combination of increased neural activity and muscle atonia distinguishes REM sleep from the other sleep stages.

Beyond its association with dreaming, getting enough REM sleep plays a crucial role in various cognitive functions, including memory consolidation, emotional processing, and learning. [1]

The switch between the different sleep stages, with REM being the pinnacle, contributes significantly to your overall sleep quality and your body's ability to rejuvenate and restore itself each night. It also impacts your circadian rhythm (our sleep-wake cycle). [4]

Understanding the nuances of REM sleep unveils its profound impact on your well-being and, furthermore, on your mental and emotional health. During REM sleep, your brain exhibits heightened activity in the limbic system, particularly the amygdala, which regulates emotions. This activation is essential for processing and regulating emotional experiences, contributing to emotional resilience. Additionally, the hippocampus, a key player in memory consolidation, is strongly engaged during REM sleep, facilitating the integration of new information and experiences into your long-term memory, which is vital for maintaining cognitive health and emotional well-being. [5]

As you can see, REM sleep is a cornerstone for leading a healthy life. The Harvard Medical School goes as far as saying that REM sleep deprivation is even associated with an earlier death. [6]

So, how can you increase your REM sleep, and how is it different from deep sleep?

Rem Sleep vs. Deep Sleep

Understanding the distinctions between REM sleep and deep sleep is integral to comprehending the complexities of your sleep cycle. REM sleep, characterized by rapid eye movement and heightened brain activity, is associated with vivid dreaming, memory consolidation, and emotional processing.

In contrast, deep sleep, also known as slow-wave sleep (SWS) or N3, is marked by slow, synchronized brain waves and plays a role in physical restoration, including muscle growth and repair.

We have summarized the most distinct differences between deep sleep and REM sleep for you:

Eye Movement:
REM Sleep: Rapid and random eye movements
Deep Sleep: Minimal to no eye movement

Brain Activity:
REM Sleep: Heightened, comparable to wakefulness
Deep Sleep: Slow, synchronized delta waves

Dreaming:
REM Sleep: Vivid dreaming, emotional processing
Deep Sleep: Limited or no dreaming, primarily physical restoration

Physiological Impact:
REM Sleep: Cognitive functions, memory consolidation
Deep Sleep: Physical restoration, immune system support

Understanding these differences underscores the unique contributions each stage makes to your overall sleep quality and your body's maintenance and repair processes.

Why Is the REM Sleep Stage Important?

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Understanding the significance of the REM sleep stage takes us into the depths of our subconscious. Think of it as more than just a part of the sleep cycle; it's more like an organized mental cleanup. In this stage, your brain is at work—organizing memories, dealing with emotions, and even finding creative solutions. Therefore, REM sleep is not just about dreaming; it's about your mind doing some essential behind-the-scenes work to keep your mental health in order. It is scientifically proven that REM sleep takes part in the processing of salient and emotional waking-life experiences, strongly contributing to emotional memory consolidation. [7]

A lack of REM sleep can lead to memory and learning impairments, compromising cognitive performance. Furthermore, sleep deprivation increases cortisol levels, causes increased blood pressure, decreases glucose tolerance, and increases the activity of the body’s fight-or-flight system, all of which are linked to increased risk of diabetes, heart attacks, and strokes. Moreover, emotional regulation may be affected, increasing the risk of mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. As if this would not be enough, a lack of REM sleep can impair creativity and problem-solving abilities, impacting overall cognitive function. [7]

We conclude REM sleep isn't just restful but an integral part of how your mind processes experiences, shaping your mental resilience and creativity in waking life. [7]

Therefore, maximizing REM sleep is beneficial for your overall health and well-being. [7]

How Do You Get More REM Sleep?

In the pursuit of optimizing your REM sleep, we have to delve into different methodological strategies rooted in established sleep science. By elucidating these practices, we will showcase effective approaches for enhancing the depth and duration of your REM sleep.

By incorporating some of these sleep habits into your bedtime routine, you can build a healthy sleep foundation that can help you maximize your REM sleep.

Enforce a Bedtime Routine

It's not about being a sleep robot, but a bit of consistency does wonders for your sleep quality and, consequently, your REM sleep. Try hitting the hay and waking up at roughly the same time daily. Your body loves rhythm and routine, and this helps it slide into REM sleep more smoothly, like a well-practiced dance move. [8]

Make Your Sleep Spot Top-Notch

No need for fancy sleep gadgets; just tweak your sleep space. Keep it dark, cool, and cozy – think of it as setting the stage for your quality sleep performance.

Ease into Bedtime – Practice Sleep Hygiene

We're not suggesting a nightly meditation ritual, but winding down before bed is crucial. Whether it's reading a chapter of a book, taking a warm shower, having a nightly skincare ritual, or just chilling out, give your brain a signal that it's time to shift into the REM zone. PS: Netflix & Chill is not relaxing for your brain.

Watch What You Eat and Drink

Eating a heavy meal right before bed might not be the best idea. And don't go chugging caffeine or partying with alcohol too close to bedtime – they can be the uninvited guests crashing your REM sleep party. [9]

Move That Body – Exercise a Few Hours Before Bed

You don't need to become a gym rat, but a bit of exercise can help you catch more REM sleep. Aim to wrap up your workout a few hours before you hit the hay so your body has time to cool down. [10]

White-Noise Machine – Does Wonders For City People

A white noise machine can contribute to increased REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep by creating a consistent and soothing background sound that helps mask disruptive noises. This comes in especially handy if you live in a noisy environment or a big city. The auditory consistency promotes a more stable sleep environment, reducing the likelihood of waking up during crucial REM stages and enhancing your overall sleep quality. It is not just a fun gadget but has been scientifically proven to work. [11]

Remember, this isn't about transforming into a sleep perfectionist; it's about making a few tweaks to welcome more REM sleep into your life. It's like giving your nightly routine a friendly high-five, nudging it in the direction of better sleep quality.

Now that you know what you can do to improve your REM sleep, we shall not forget to let you know about how disruptions of REM sleep occur.

What Can Disrupt Your REM Sleep?

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Sleep disruptions have substantial adverse short- and long-term health consequences. [12]

Various disruptors can interfere with the crucial phases of your sleep cycle. Stress emerges as a formidable disruptor, capable of unsettling the delicate equilibrium necessary for a seamless transition into REM sleep.

Another big disruptor of your sleep is the pervasive glow of screens, emitting blue light. Blue light poses a modern challenge by impeding melatonin production, thus delaying the onset of REM. Blue light messes with your circadian rhythm and should be avoided before going to bed. Moreover, make sure not to look at your phone if you wake up in the middle of the night since this can delay your falling back to sleep. [13]

Late-night snacking, especially on heavy or caffeinated fare, can introduce digestive challenges that divert the body's focus away from the uninterrupted progression into REM sleep. [14]

Beyond external influences, certain medications, including some antidepressants, may act as internal disruptors, altering sleep cycles and potentially limiting the time spent in REM.

Unraveling potential disruptors of your REM sleep is essential in the quest for optimizing your sleep quality, as understanding and mitigating these influences pave the way for a more restful and restorative REM sleep.

We have summarized the most frequent disruptors of REM sleep for you in the below list for your convenience:

  • Stress: Chronic stress and anxiety can interfere with the smooth transition into REM sleep, disrupting the natural sleep cycle.

  • Blue Light Exposure: The blue light emitted by electronic devices like smartphones and computers can suppress melatonin production, delaying the onset of REM sleep and a good night’s sleep in general. [13]

  • Late-Night Snacking: Consuming heavy or caffeinated snacks close to bedtime may lead to digestive discomfort, diverting the body's attention away from REM sleep. [14]

  • Alcohol and Substance Use: Excessive alcohol consumption and certain substances can interfere with REM sleep, reducing the overall quality of rest. [9]

  • Certain Medications: Some medications, including certain antidepressants, can alter sleep cycles and potentially limit the time spent in REM sleep.

  • Sleep Disorders: Conditions such as sleep apnea or insomnia can disrupt the natural progression through sleep stages, affecting REM sleep.

  • Irregular Sleep Schedule: Inconsistent bedtime and wake-up times can throw off the body's internal clock, impacting the regular occurrence of REM sleep. [8]

  • Environmental Factors: Noisy or uncomfortable sleep environments can lead to frequent awakenings, disrupting the continuity of REM sleep.

  • Medical Conditions: Underlying medical issues, such as hormonal imbalances or neurological disorders, can impact REM sleep.

  • Caffeine Intake: Consuming caffeine, especially later in the day, can interfere with sleep quality, impacting REM sleep.

  • Nicotine: Nicotine is a stimulant that can disrupt sleep cycles, potentially impacting the duration and quality of REM sleep.

How Much REM Sleep Do You Need?

The reality is that the ideal amount of REM sleep varies from person to person, adding an extra layer of complexity to the sleep cycle. On average, adults might spend about 20-25% of their sleep cycle in REM [1]. This translates to around 1.5 to 2 hours of REM sleep per night if you sleep between seven and nine hours.

As unique as our dreams are, the ideal amount of REM can vary based on factors like age, lifestyle, and overall health.

So, rather than obsessing over hitting a specific percentage of REM sleep, perhaps the focus should shift to the quality of your overall sleep and ensuring it gets the spotlight it deserves to allow for restoration and emotional processing.

Consider REM sleep the VIP section of your sleep cycle, where dreams unfold, memories are etched, and the mind rejuvenates for the adventures of the waking world. As we continue to unravel the mysteries of sleep, one thing remains clear—embracing your REM sleep and caring for your sleep quality is an essential part of the journey to a more healthy and well-rested you.

With your CARE membership, you can discuss your quality of sleep with a healthcare professional. During your health check-ups, we can see how your sleep might impact different biomarkers in your blood, which we can see by analyzing your blood sample comprehensively. Poor sleep, for example, is associated with increased inflammatory processes in the body, which we can recognize by elevated levels of C-reactive protein in your blood. [15]

CARE would be delighted to accompany you on your journey of becoming the healthiest version of yourself, and we wish you sweet dreams!

List of References

Blog Author Elena Health Coach at CARE

Elena Iagovitina

Health Coach at CARE Zurich

About the author

Elena is an enthusiastic Health Coach and blog writer at CARE, with a passion for holistic medicine and health. Previously, Elena worked for almost five years as a coach leading retreats, workshops, and seminars. These included mind-body therapy: breath work, meditation, and massage; as well as energy force therapy: reiki, and qi gong; and third expressive therapy: movement, writing and support groups. Elena shares exciting articles on the blog, on the topic of where the alternative and traditional medicine intersect with Western Medicine. Elena is also the driving force behind the CARE community. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, traveling to remote locations and dancing. You might also see her on the lake of Zurich as a coast guard. Join her on her journey to learn more about health and discover the world of preventive medicine! Visit all articles written by Elena!