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Why Is REM Sleep Important?

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/ December 3, 2020
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A good night's sleep means more than just feeling refreshed when that alarm goes off. Quality sleep helps your body recover from the day, lowers your risk of a variety of diseases, and even boosts your immune system.

Each stage of sleep plays a vital role in creating a healthier, happier, and more well-rested you. We've already detailed everything you need to know about deep sleep, but why is REM sleep important? Below, we examine just that.

What does REM stand for?

The acronym REM stands for rapid eye movement. You may have looked over at your partner and noticed their closed eyelids moving rapidly from side to side (hence the name).

REM sleep lasts for about 25% of the night and cycles with NREM (non-rapid eye movement sleep). It typically starts after 90 minutes of uninterrupted sleep, and the first cycle lasts for around 10 minutes. From there, each subsequent REM sleep gets longer until the final period of one hour.

Importance of REM sleep

According to the American Sleep Association, your brain is more active during REM sleep than during other sleep stages.

REM sleep is the type of sleep associated with dreaming and vital neurological development, like retaining memories and information from the day. This is especially critical for babies. As you get older, less of your time is spent in the REM cycle of sleep.

One study reported by Psych Central found that REM sleep can affect the ability to develop and retain learning skills. “People taught a skill and then deprived of non-REM sleep could recall what they had learned after sleeping, while people deprived of REM sleep could not," according to the research.

Getting more REM sleep

There's no such thing as too much REM sleep. However, it's not the easiest goal to achieve. That said, there are a few things you can do to try to get more REM sleep.

  • Make time for exercise. According to the experts at SleepScore Labs, one way to improve your odds includes working out regularly. Per a study in Advances in Preventive Medicine, 12-weeks of exercise training led to increased time in REM sleep for adolescents. It makes sense—exercise is a great way to relieve sleep-disrupting stress. Try to do your workouts early in the day if you can because exercising too close to bed can make it harder to fall asleep.
  • Drink plenty of water. The SleepScore Labs team also says staying hydrated during the day can increase the amount of time your body spends in REM sleep. That's because dehydration can lead to snoring, nighttime leg cramps, and middle-of-the-night thirst, all of which disrupt sleep. Of course, you'll want to aim to get your H20 fill early in the day so you don't wake up in the middle of the night to pee.
  • Calm your stress. Stress is one of the most common reasons why people have trouble getting quality sleep. To increase your time in the REM stage—and improve your overall sleep—focus on relieving stress. You can do this by incorporating relaxing activities, like yoga and meditation, into your daily routine.
  • Stick to a routine. Finally, keeping to consistent sleep and rise times every day will go a long way toward making sure you get enough REM sleep. "Keeping your sleep schedule intact every day is critical to entering the necessary sleep stages regularly," say the SleepScore Labs experts. Aim for at least seven hours of sleep a night. "Over time, your body will acclimate to the schedule, you'll more easily enter light, deep, and REM stages in full, and you may even find waking up to be easier," according to SleepScore Labs.

Related: How much sleep do you really need?

Stages of sleep

Five stages of sleep need to happen for REM to occur. The first stage is light sleep. Your muscles start to wind down, and you drift in and out of sleep. It's also extremely easy to be woken up during this stage of sleep.

Stage two is light sleep 2.0. Yes, you can still be easily woken up, but your body prepares itself for the next stages of deeper sleep by slowing your heart rate and brain movements, dropping your body temperature, and stopping eye movement.

Stages three and four are the deep sleep stages. Slow delta brain waves dominate these stages, making it very difficult to be woken up. It's also the most critical part of your sleep, as this is when your body repairs tissue, releases growth hormones, and prepares your body and mind for the next day.

And the last stage, stage five, is REM sleep. Your brain activity increases during this final stage, leading to vivid dreams four to six times per night. During REM sleep, your muscles will stop moving, and your body will relax to prevent you from acting out any of your wild dreams.

What's the longest you can stay awake? Here, we look at the science of how long you can go without sleep.

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