If you’re reading this, then it’s safe to say you’re one of many people who have trouble sleeping, are looking to fall asleep faster or are simply interested in learning more about the sleep cycle. Part of a crucial good night’s rest is plenty of REM, or rapid eye movement, sleep.
According to Sarah Silverman, a holistic sleep and behavioral sleep medicine specialist, “REM is one of four sleep stages that your brain cycles through during the night, usually about every 90-120 minutes for most adults. During REM, the brain and body go through a number of changes affecting body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate and blood oxygen level.”
REM sleep is beneficial for a host of important reasons, according to Dr. Peter Polos, a sleep medicine specialist in New Jersey.
“This stage is critical early in life for brain development when babies can have as much as 50% REM sleep,” Polos said. “As we mature, REM continues to benefit our metabolic system, learning, memory consolidation, creativity and emotional processing.”
In terms of memory, REM sleep is where a majority of dreams occur during the sleep cycle. “Dreams are thought to be one way that the brain consolidates memories from the day. You’re also more likely to remember things that you’ve learned if you prioritize sleep,” Silverman said. “REM is also known to play a big role in emotional processing as dreams are thought to be a way for your brain to process important events and memories.”
How much REM sleep is needed?
In general, the amount of REM sleep one needs varies based on the individual. “The amount of REM sleep we require (and are able to obtain) depends on a variety of factors, notably our age and if we’re experiencing any sleep-related issues, such as insomnia,” said Kristen Casey, a clinical psychologist and insomnia specialist.
Ultimately, the healthy amount of REM sleep truly depends on the person, their age and any underlying health concerns. Most adults will spend one-fourth of their total sleep time in REM sleep, so that’s roughly 120 minutes of time spent in REM sleep every night.
“REM is considered a restorative stage of sleep and serves many functions related to learning and memory. Decreased REM may result in a higher risk for memory issues (e.g., memory encoding, consolidation and retrieval) and/or processing information (e.g., thinking, learning, organizing skills),” Silverman said. “Too little REM may also impact your hunger hormones over time, which may increase appetite and lead to weight gain.”
Is there a way to increase your REM sleep?
Unfortunately, the answer is no, not directly. However, Polos said incorporating some basic practices into your sleep routine may help increase the percentage of REM sleep you may get.
“You should try to get at least seven hours of sleep,” Polos said. “Less sleep will decrease the amount of REM sleep as it occurs cyclically during the night. Additionally, avoiding alcohol and caffeine can help as alcohol is one of the most common substances known to suppress REM sleep.”
Silverman added that getting natural sunlight, moving your body on a regular basis, eating more nutrient-dense whole foods, managing your stress, and avoiding caffeine or other stimulants like nicotine late in the day may also help with this.
It’s important to keep in mind that there are some medical conditions that may impact how much REM sleep you’re able to achieve like sleep apnea and depression.
“There are people who experience REM-related behavior disorders, where they may act out their dreams by moving their bodies, or parasomnias, where they may sleepwalk or sleep talk,” Casey said. “These are not a bad thing, but they may impact our overall sleep health if untreated.”
With that said, you’ll want to get these checked out by a sleep doctor or specialist to see how underlying health conditions, medications and other sleep-related disorders may be affecting your sleep cycle. It’s also worth a chat if you’re just generally having a rough time getting rest. REM ― and all the other stages ― are critical for your well-being.