You've Heard of REM Sleep, Here's Why It Actually Matters
It's called REM because of the rapid eye movement that occurs, but what else happens to our brains and bodies when we're in the REM phase of sleep? And why is so it important to the quality of our sleep?
Here are the basics (as best understood by someone who is definitely not a scientist): REM sleep is one of the two periods of our sleep cycle; the other is non-REM sleep. In healthy sleep, you start off in non-REM sleep and then go into REM sleep, and this cycle continues every 90 minutes throughout the night leading to the final phase of non-REM sleep, which is called deep sleep. The first occurrence of REM sleep goes for about 10 minutes and each subsequent occurrence gets increasingly longer as the night goes on.
While deep sleep is the period that leaves you feeling refreshed in the morning, REM sleep is actually more similar to a state of wakefulness. During REM sleep, our brain activity increases, our pulse gets quicker, and we have dreams.
If sleep is meant to be for quiet time, not all this mental excitement, then why does REM even matter? Shouldn't it be more hindrance than help? Well, REM sleep stimulates the parts of our brain that are crucial for learning and making memories. During REM sleep, our brain exercises the neural connections that are key to our development and wellbeing. It's been found that lack of REM sleep can affect our coping skills, give us migraines, make us more prone to anxiety and depression, and cause weight gain. A study by the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke saw that rats deprived of REM sleep saw their life spans shorten from a few years to just five weeks.
Safe to say, then, that REM sleep is pretty important. So, what can you do while you're awake and in control to make sure you're experiencing beneficial REM sleep at night? Here are three factors that can help:
1. Reduce or remove alcohol consumption
While a nice wine in the evenings or a few beers over dinner can help you get to sleep more easily, it'll probably end up decreasing the amount of REM sleep you have. Alcohol also interrupts our circadian rhythm (aka body clock), which can have a knock-on affect to other aspects of our health and wellness. Other substances that suppress REM sleep include marijuana, certain pain medications, and some antidepressants.
2. Give caffeine a strict cut-off time
That mid-afternoon coffee might get you through the last few hours of work, but it will also affect your ability to have restorative, REM-filled sleep at night. Keep caffeine for the AM only, and after midday pour yourself a caffeine-free tea instead. If you're a fan of caffeinated fizzy drinks, switch to sparkling mineral water with a fresh lemon instead. Eating an apple can also trick your brain into feeling caffeinated.
3. Develop a bedtime routine
Going to bed at the same time every night will give you a head start at having healthy, REM-filled sleep – it's the starting point for any good bedtime routine. Build on this by making it more of a ritual than a routine (one that for the most part doesn't include your phone or any other screens). It could look something like this: an hour before bed, light a candle or a stick of incense. Press play on a relaxing playlist (you may use your phone for this, but only this – say to yourself out loud "I will not open Instagram"). Tidy your bedroom. Gently, though. Don't vacuum or anything hectic like that, just clear floor space and neaten any clutter, and make your bed if you haven't already. Turn off any overhead lighting. Wash your face and massage a hydrating moisturiser or facial oil that contains pro-sleep ingredients. Stretch your limbs out or do a brief session of nighttime yoga. Get under the covers. Read a book for 15 minutes. Blow out the candle. Lights out. Also good before bed: a relaxing bath.
Healthy sleep is a vital component of a healthy, happy life, so if you're still struggling despite putting in the work, consult a trusted medical professional. You deserve it!