If you’ve heard anything about REM sleep, you probably know it means the same thing as “dream sleep.” While it is possible to dream without being in REM sleep, the REM sleep stage is when most of us experience that strange fantasyland experience called “dreaming.” The term REM means “rapid eye movement” – a typical characteristic of this sleep stage.
What exactly is REM sleep? Why is it important to have enough of it? And how to get more REM Sleep.
Definition of REM Sleep
If you watch someone sleeping, you’ll notice the telltale signs that they’re in REM sleep. Their eyelids flutter, and the eyes (if you can see them) dart about as if the person is awake and active. At the same time, their body is generally completely still, except for a few random twitches.
Deep inside your brain, the brainwaves in a REM cycle also look just as active as if you were awake. It is nearly impossible to tell the difference between the dreaming brain and the awake one. Why would your brain need to have times when you are asleep, but your brain isn’t? What is the purpose of this crazy phenomenon?
How Does It Differ From Other Stages of Sleep?
When you sleep, your brain goes through several stages. The exact number of stages in sleep varies by convention, but most smartphone apps that track sleep divide it into three major categories: 1) Light sleep, 2) deep sleep, and 3) REM sleep. REM sleep is easy to identify because it’s the only sleep stage where the eyes flutter and the only stage where the brain waves show high levels of electrical “thinking” activity.
Benefits of Getting More REM Sleep
Sleep experts say that we would die if we didn’t get any deep sleep but that we would technically survive without being able to dream. On the other hand, dreaming during REM sleep periods is essential for optimal mental health. When you dream, your brain processes emotional memories and helps you cope with daily stressors. You do not need to remember your dreams to benefit from them.
Improved Memory and Cognitive Function
Researchers say that much of memory is consolidated in deep and not REM sleep. Memory consolidation means you take what you learned during the day and file it in long-term memory. If you want to memorize a list, for example, getting enough deep sleep will help you do this more easily. REM sleep helps you remember muscle coordination, so you’d want to have REM sleep when training for a sport.
Because REM sleep helps with emotions and their associated memories, it can help improve your ability to think under stress. Stress generally makes it harder to function or remember anything with any clarity.
Reduced Stress and Anxiety Levels
If you’ve noticed, most dreams are illogical and often seem randomly generated out of nowhere. Yet, they offer you a rare opportunity to experience stressors with reduced emotional responses than you would if they were real-life events. The more you dream, the better you can handle daily stressors. Nightmares are always upsetting; however, when you awaken, you get instant proof that you can survive them, too.
Increased Energy Levels During the Day
REM sleep time helps clear out stressors building in your brain, so you may feel more energized in the morning. Because REM sleep rarely happens until you’ve slept for several hours, more of this sleep stage usually means you have slept enough total hours during the night. Naturally, you would feel better and more energetic in the morning because you slept longer and got better sleep.
How to Get More REM Sleep
If you want to get more REM sleep to enhance your mental health or to help you process muscle memories and coordination better, there are some tricks you can use to be better at squeezing in a few more dreams each night.
Establish a Regular Sleep Schedule
Remember that REM sleep cannot happen until you have gotten a few hours into your sleep at night. You dream much more in the early morning hours than you will in the first few hours after lying down to sleep. This isn’t a problem unless you trim off your sleep hours and go to bed late on some nights and early on others. Your brain will sacrifice REM sleep if you don’t get enough total sleep hours.
Plan on getting a minimum of 7 hours of sleep per night. Begin by noting the time you must awaken (or normally awaken anyway) and back up from there to give you an estimate of when you should be sleeping the night before. Add some time for getting comfortable and make this your “bedtime.” Adults need a routine bedtime just as much as children; such routines train the brain to sleep on cue.
Avoid Stimulants Before Bedtime
Stimulants include caffeine, nicotine, and even THC found in marijuana. Caffeine is found in coffee, chocolate, colas, and energy drinks. Teas also have a limited amount of caffeine, depending on the brand and type of tea. Avoid these high-energy substances before bedtime and drink an herbal tea instead. Alcohol is not a stimulant but does nothing to promote REM sleep.
Exercise Regularly During the Day
Regular exercise teaches your body to use energy stores effectively during the daytime. It won’t tire you out but helps establish routines of metabolism at the right time of day, so you naturally sleep better at night. Avoid exercising too close to bedtime if the activity is likely to increase your body temperature. However, yoga and Tai Chi are just fine to do before bedtime.
Create a Relaxing Bedtime Routine
Bedtime comes easier when your brain is on board for the activity of sleeping. Make sure you have a quiet room to sleep in that is dark, not too hot, and contains comfortable bedding. You will sleep best if the room temperature is about 65-68 degrees Fahrenheit and your bedding isn’t too stifling or confining. You want to feel cozy when you sleep, but not if it means sweating later.
Q1. What are the benefits of getting more REM sleep?
REM sleep or dream sleep helps with emotional processing during sleep. You will be less stressed, anxious, and fearful if you can get enough REM sleep because it helps you “succeed” at stressful events during sleep and because you experience them with reduced emotional effects. Muscle memory is also processed during REM sleep, so extra dreaming can translate to being more adept at sports.
Q2. How can I get more REM sleep?
Your best chance of getting more REM sleep is to simply get enough total sleep time. REM sleep happens about every 90 minutes at night; however, this characteristic pattern begins each night slowly. As long as you optimize your sleep hygiene to get enough hours of solid sleep, dreams will often come more easily, even if you don’t remember them.
- Peever, J., & Fuller, P. M. (2016). Neuroscience: A Distributed Neural Network Controls REM Sleep. Current biology: CB, 26(1), R34–R35. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.11.011.
- Gabriela G. Werner, Manuel Schabus, Jens Blechert & Frank H. Wilhelm (2021) Differential Effects of REM Sleep on Emotional Processing: Initial Evidence for Increased Short-term Emotional Responses and Reduced Long-term Intrusive Memories, Behavioral Sleep Medicine, 19:1, 83-98, DOI: 10.1080/15402002.2020.1713134. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15402002.2020.1713134#:~:text=Conclusions%3A%20Results%20suggest%20that%20REM,memories%20in%20the%20long%2Dterm.