Have you ever resolved to sleep earlier and yet woken up the next morning still feeling tired? You’re probably not the only one. What many people do not realize is getting a good night’s rest is more than just the number of hours — the quality of sleep matters too.
When you’re sleeping, your brain actually moves through a few different stages — five in total — and the most important one is rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. It is this state that is mostly responsible for how rested we feel in the mornings.
A good night’s sleep is the best medicine for almost every problem – coping with stress, a break from the problems in your life, prevention of dark eye circles, and even to recover from illnesses — and it is essential if you want to feel well-rested and refreshed in the mornings, ready to tackle anything that comes your way.
So if REM sleep is responsible for making us sleep better and can contribute to a better lifestyle, it makes it important for us to understand more about it — what does it do exactly, and how else can it help us?
What Is REM Sleep?
As mentioned above, your body cycles through five different stages during sleep — this is known as your sleep cycle. The first four stages are classified as non-REM (NREM) sleep, and the fifth and most important stage is REM sleep. Your sleep cycle repeats itself naturally, so you will fall into REM sleep a few times in a single night.
Typically, REM sleep occurs about 90 minutes after you fall asleep, and in one night, it can make up about 25 per cent of your sleep cycle. People usually begin their sleep cycles with stages one to four of NREM sleep, followed by a short period of REM sleep. As the cycles repeat themselves throughout the night, the length of REM sleep will increase — the first REM cycle will last about 10 minutes, and the final one can last up to an hour.
When you reach REM sleep, your body begins to exhibit certain physiological changes. These include quickened breathing and heart rate, an increase in brain activity, eye movement, and full muscle relaxation. Because your brain starts to become more active, REM sleep is also the period in your sleep cycle where dreams start to happen. It is also when other regions of your brain experience decreased activity, such as your rational thoughts, which might explain why most of your dreams tend to be nonsensical and illogical.
Why Is REM Sleep Important?
Studies have shown that REM sleep has multiple benefits, mostly brain-related. Most significant among them is how the region of your brain that is used for learning can experience stimulation and enhancement. This is particularly helpful for babies and toddlers and can really assist in the mental development of children at a young age. In adults, this can still be beneficial but to a lesser degree.
Research has also suggested that people who are sleep-deprived or are unable to achieve REM sleep are more likely to have a poorer memory. In a particular research study, participants were shown an object with distinctive features before being sent to sleep. Half of these participants were woken up before REM sleep was achieved, while the other half were allowed a full night’s worth of REM sleep. They were then asked to describe the object with as much detail as they could remember — the half that had entered REM sleep was found to have a better memory and were able to describe with more detail.
The increased brain activity that happens during REM sleep is key to mental and overall well-being and health. REM and stage 4 NREM sleep are also known to heal the body — repairing and regenerating tissue cells, strengthening bones and muscles, and even boosting your immune system.
What Can You Do To Get Better Sleep
Now that you better understand the importance of REM sleep and why you need it, you should try to change certain habits that can help you to get in a good night’s worth of sleep.
For starters, you need to ensure your circadian rhythm — your body’s internal clock — is set right. Your circadian rhythm is responsible for keeping you awake and alert during the day and helps you to feel tired and sleepy during the night. When that rhythm is disrupted, it can lead to sleepless nights because you don’t feel tired when you are supposed to.
The most prominent culprits who disrupt the rhythm are your electronic devices. The LED screens on your TV, computer, smartphones – these screens emit blue light, which has various effects on your eyes. Blue light makes us feel more alert, and during the day we get blue light from the sun. That is how our circadian rhythm tunes itself every day, so when you start exposing yourself to blue light at night too, the rhythm is going to get disrupted and lead to you feeling more awake and alert at night. Turn off your devices at least an hour before bedtime, and you’ll be able to sleep better.
Medium to high levels of alcohol ingestion can reduce REM sleep cycles, and even small amounts will delay the time it takes to fall into your first REM cycle. So, before you drink, make sure you think.