What Is REM Sleep and How Does It Improve Your Health?

by SleePare

By Sofia Axelrod | 5 Minute Read

If you have ever woken up tired after slumbering for hours, there’s a big chance you did not experience REM phase — more commonly known as deep sleep. Studies show dire consequences of skimping on getting proper deep sleep on overall health.

You’ll only understand why you need REM sleep, once you know how it impacts your bodily functions.

This article will help clarify the concept of REM and its multiple benefits. We will also explore how you can realize if you’re in critical need of catching up on some z’s and tips to improve your deep sleep phase.

Types of Sleep

The human body undergoes a sleep cycle with different stages, including NREM and REM. Interestingly, the sleep cycle in adults and babies is slightly different — mainly due to duration variations.

During NREM you don’t usually experience dreaming. It consists of three stages namely N1, N2, and N3. The first stage lasts for 5 to 10 minutes, the second for 10 to 25 minutes, and the last continues for 20 to 40 minutes.

REM is a phase which a person enters after 90 minutes of falling asleep. The first episode lasts for 10 minutes, and the next occurence becomes longer as the night goes on.

So, on average, how much REM sleep does a person need every day?

Generally, REM sleep accounts for more than 50% of the cycle in babies, whereas 20 to 25% of the adult sleep cycle.

Stages of Sleep

As mentioned earlier, when it comes to snoozing, you experience various stages — whether you’re enjoying a nap or a solid eight-hour rest. After passing through each phase, consequently, the brain may or may not reach REM.

Adult sleep cycle

Adults experience a total of five sleep stages from Stage 1 to REM. The first 90 to 110 minutes of slumber concludes one cycle. Each phase may last from 5 to 15 minutes and has a specific purpose for our body.

Lady in REM sleep. Completing the sleep cycle is also necessary for adults
Adult sleep cycle
  • Stage 1: The first stage is where you are drifting off to slumberland. You may open your eyelids or roll your eyes because you’re not yet asleep.
  • Stage 2: The second stage starts when your body prepares itself to fall asleep. As a result, your heartbeat slows down, and body temperature drops.
  • Stage 3 and 4: It’s also called Delta or slow-wave sleep. You are now on the brim of entering the REM stage. Technically, you are now asleep but not yet, deeply snoozing.
  • REM sleep: During the fifth stage you finally enter the REM phase. After sleeping and dreaming for around 10 minutes, you go back to Stage 1.

Infants sleep cycle

Infants too experience REM sleep (yes, hard to believe, since they are practically up all night). However, their sleep cycle is short since deep snooze occurs at a different stage.

Baby in REM sleep.
Baby’s sleep cycle
  • Stage 1: The first stage is when the baby begins to fall asleep.
  • Stage 2: The second stage is where light sleep starts; the infant’s legs or arms may twitch occasionally. The baby’s body is preparing itself for deep sleep.
  • Stage 3: The third stage is REM sleep or the rapid eye movement. Your little one is deeply asleep (thankfully) and off to dreamland!
  • Stage 4: The fourth stage is where the baby begins to leave the deep sleep stage and may wake up.

As you can see, the main difference between both the REM sleep stages is that infants fall asleep faster than adults. Lucky them!

Now let’s find out what exactly is REM sleep.

What is REM Sleep?

The term REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement and is the final stage of the sleep cycle. During this phase, your body systems — specifically breathing and brain, become more rapid and active, even though your muscles are relaxed. If you wake up during REM sleep, you’ll feel tired and achy.

As soon as you enter the first 90 minutes of snooze, that’s when you experience REM, and it reoccurs several times every night.

Did you know that REM is also known as “paradoxical sleep”?

That’s because even though you’re sound asleep (it’s difficult to wake up instantly), an Electroencephalogram (EEG) shows rapid activity peaks in the graph. In short, the activity is quite similar to when you’re actually awake.

Let’s take a brief look at how REM occurs.

REM Sleep Mechanism

The human brain is responsible for helping you fall into deep sleep. However, it is not a simple process. Once you understand the basics of REM, you’d become more aware of how you are resting every night.

Brain parts involved in REM sleep

The following table displays various regions showing vigorous action during the REM phase.

RegionActivity during deep sleep
Brain stem
  • Releases sleep-inducing chemicals
  • Relaxes muscles to diminish activity during sleep
Thalamus Uses sensory info from our memory to form dreams
Pineal glandReleases sleep-inducing hormone
AmygdalaProcesses feelings during deep sleep
HypothalamusAdjusts circadian rhythm

As soon as the hypothalamus senses darkness approaching, it works with other brainstem regions such as pons, midbrain, and medulla oblongata to start the sleep-wake cycle. Alongside, the pineal gland releases a sleep hormone that makes you groggy.

After a while, thalamus and amygdala activate to retrieve memories and assess emotions to form dreams.

The brain’s chemical activity is fascinating as it begins the sleep-wake cycle. Let’s see which hormones or neurotransmitters are discharged during snooze.

Role of Neurotransmitters in REM

Neurotransmitters are chemicals released by the brain to carry messages from one point to another. These chemical substances are released before any action is performed in your body. Even during sleep, neurotransmitters play a vital role in processing thoughts, adjusting your sleep cycle, and helping you sleep better.

If you are curious about how your sleep is regulated, this brief overview of neurotransmitters will clear your mind.

NeurotransmitterContribution to Deep Sleep
Acetylcholine
  • Most important release during REM Sleep
  • High amounts are released while you are deep in slumber or about to wake up
  • Lack of ACh may contribute to sleep disruptions
Serotonin
  • Plays an important role in sleep and various cognitive functions
  • Released during REM to promote wakefulness
  • Low levels may cause sleep cycle disturbance
Dopamine
  • Related to REM sleep, movements, and wakefulness
  • Enhances motor activity during deep sleep
  • Lack causes Parkinson’s disease and many sleep/behavioral disorders
Histamine
  • Promote maximum activity when you are awake
  • Is not active during REM and NREM
  • Excess histamine in the system may cause sleeplessness
Norepinephrine
  • Inactive during REM
  • High levels permanently decrease deep sleep
Adenosine
  • Is not active during REM sleep
  • High concentration induces sleepiness and inhibits arousal
GABA (Gamma Aminobutyric Acid)
  • Activates at snooze time
  • Responsible for muscle paralysis during REM sleep

Dreams and Adult REM Sleep

As soon as you drift off to slumberland and reach the REM phase, you may or may not start dreaming.

Usually, a person dreams for around two hours a night. The process begins when pons releases chemicals to render your body paralyzed during deep sleep. This is good for you — because if your muscles are active, you might start acting out the dreams. It could be dangerous for you and the people around you.

Many people forget what they were dreaming about as soon as they wake up. But others may remember even if they are woken up mid-snooze.

Researchers agree that the last thoughts you have before going to bed, and the information your brain has retained over the years, can be used to create dreams.

Dreams occur in REM phase

REM Sleep in Babies

Deep sleep in infants differs in terms of cycle and stage durations from that of adults. Babies enjoy a much lighter slumber compared to us. Unlike adults, a baby’s sleep is scattered in episodes during the day.

For example, adults usually snooze for a solid eight hours. But the little ones wake up frequently while slumbering, so their cycle is divided during the day.

As most of the baby’s time is spent in active snooze rather than deep sleep, their cycle length is quite different from adults.

Newborns rest for 16 hours, which gradually shortens as they grow older. At two months, the cycle would last for 15 hours, and by the time they reach three months age, they’d need around 12 hours of sleep.

You might wonder how much deep sleep does a child need?

At least 50% of the baby’s sleep cycle should be REM. But in infants, it is commonly known as quiet sleep.

Shhh… it’s Quiet Sleep time!

Quiet sleep is basically an infant’s version of REM. During the late half of the cycle, babies fall into the quiet sleep time — the breathing slows down, there are no movements and no eyelid flutters.

This could mean two things. Either your little bundle of joy is about to wake up OR go back to active sleep.

But remember — it takes at least six months for babies to enjoy straight sleep like adults. Till then, you better be prepared for wakefulness episodes during the night!

Do babies dream?

YES.

Interestingly, scientists have revealed that babies start dreaming when they are still in their mommy’s womb!

Unfortunately, they are still trying to figure out exactly what babies are dreaming about. Let’s just say, unicorns and tasty cupcakes!

What does it mean when babies smile mid-sleep?

Have you ever seen a baby smile while snoozing (and you just wanted to wake them up and tell you what it was all about)?

Many mothers believe it has something to do with neonatal gas. However, experts discovered it is just a spontaneous REM-related occurrence and is related to increased drowsiness.

In other words, a sleepy smiling baby means you have a few more relaxing minutes left to enjoy!

1. Improves memory

How to Improve Deep Sleep?

Okay. So now that you know why REM sleep is important for you, you’ve been forcing yourself to sleep for a solid eight hours every night.

But still, you’re unable to get anywhere near the last phase

If this sounds familiar, don’t worry. Following are some useful tips to improve your REM sleepexperience naturally by reducing late-night interruptions.

  • Plan a daily workout session. How can you get to REM phase faster? By adopting routines that make you tired and sweaty, such as swimming, walking, or running. Experts suggest you either perform exercises early morning or three hours before bedtime.
  • Perform stress-releasing activities. Practices like yoga, journaling, or music therapy help you stick to a bedtime ritual for de-stressing. It’s a harmless way of venting out your daily frustrations and putting that energy to good use.
  • Be mindful of what you drink. Avoid caffeinated or alcoholic beverages before going to bed as it stimulates your brain and prevents deep sleep experience. It’s best to keep yourself well hydrated.
  • Stick to a proper sleep schedule. Not having a strict sleep routine also hinders REM slumber. Try to go to bed and wake up every day at the same time, so your body has a proper circadian rhythm. It helps release hormones for sleepiness or wakefulness at the right schedule.
  • Avoid electronic devices at night. Using devices before sleep delays the body’s natural clock. The artificial blue screen light suppresses the release of melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone, making it difficult for you to fall asleep.
  • Get a comfortable mattress. If you’re restless during the night and experience frequent disturbance, your sleep surface may be the reason why. Try a mattress in a showroom before purchase to find the ideal product to suit your sleep style.
  • Check room temperature. Professionals recommend resting in a cool room as it helps you drift off to slumber easily. According to Sleep.org, the ideal room temperature is between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Avoid taking antidepressant drugs. Don’t be dependant on drugs as it might hinder reaching the deep sleep stage and cause disturbance during rest. Always ask your physician or doctor before taking any REM sleep supplements.
  • Try smart devices to improve sleep. Many people use smartphone apps and sleep trackers to monitor the quality of sleep. They provide insights into whether or not you’re getting enough slumber at night. You get daily reports and can also adjust firmness, room temperature and lighting, in some cases.

How to Know If You’re REM Deficit?

REM deficit is dangerous for health

Loss of REM sleep impacts your health big time. That’s right! Sleep deprivation not only leads to sleepiness, but it can also wreak havoc to your health. One of the most common health issues that you may experience due to losing out on sleep is REM Sleep Behavior Disorder.

When you suffer from REM Sleep Behavior Disorder, you unconsciously act out your dreams in a violent manner which may not only be dangerous to you but to your bed partner as well.

Be wary of the following symptoms, so you know when to catch up on your z’s.

  • You suddenly start experiencing daytime sleepiness, affecting your routine productivity.
  • You experience unexplainable mood swings and are cranky most of the time.
  • You have headaches almost every other day.
  • You find it difficult to focus on your work or studies and feel constantly lethargic.
  • You start hallucinating, forgetting important info like dates, addresses, names, or experience paranoia.
  • You develop a habit of binge-eating late in the night.
  • You become prone to infections and viruses, which could be because of poor immunity.

In conclusion, getting an appropriate amount of deep slumber every night is crucial for your overall well-being. The better rested you are, the more properly you’ll perform at work and would enjoy a happier life.

Hopefully, this in-depth blog exploring the various benefits of REM sleep helped you understand exactly why you should never compromise your snooze quality.

References