That’s how long it will take you to learn why not getting enough REM sleep is a major cause of mental illness…
And how getting MORE high quality REM sleep can significantly increase your energy, mood, productivity, and overall levels of happiness?
Are you ready?
REM Sleep: The Key to a Better Life
When you sleep, your brain and body actually do a lot of important work.
There’s a lot of mental junk we
accumulate throughout the day and our brains need to process it to determine
what is worth keeping and what is unnecessary or even harmful. Sleep allows
your body and mind to enter a state of restoration.
During this restorative time, our
brains cycle through a series of stages, each with different physiological
mechanisms and characteristic brain waves.
Rapid eye movement or REM sleep is one
of the four (or five depending on who you ask) stages of sleep. During REM our heart rate and blood
pressure rises, our breathing becomes irregular, our eyes move around rapidly.
We also do the only thing that we (sometimes) remember when we wake up. We dream.
The Mental Magic of Sleep Cycles
REM and non-REM sleep play important roles in your overall health.
Understanding both is the first step
in getting mentally fit.
Non-REM sleep is broken up into three
stages, simply referred to as stage 1, stage 2, and stage 3, followed by REM
sleep. Each complete cycle lasts about 90
minutes in adults.
Stage 1: This
is the lightest stage of sleep, which occurs as we are dozing off. Our brain
activity slows down and our muscles relax. We will usually only spend a few
minutes in this easily arousable state, which is somewhat between sleep and wakefulness.
Stage 2: In
stage 2, we are fully asleep. This light sleep is what we spend the most time
in. We’re more difficult to wake up and our temperature decreases as our pulse
slows down. Brain activity becomes even slower and when viewed on EEG (a way of viewing the electrical activity in
the brain) certain signatures called sleep spindles are seen. These EEG
signatures are characterized by certain frequencies in our brain waves. It is
believed that the higher density of sleep spindles you have in this stage, the better the quality of your sleep.
Stage 3: Stage
3 is the deepest stage of sleep. Our bodies repair and restore themselves. Our
brain waves during this time are characterized by slow waves, aptly named for
their very low frequencies in EEG. It is very difficult to wake someone out of
stage 3 sleep. Stage 3 is sometimes separated into 2 different stages, 3 and 4,
where 4 is just a deeper sleep.
REM: During REM, our minds become active again as we begin to dream and our eyes dart around rapidly. EEG activity looks more like that of someone who is awake. A part of the brain called the amygdala is more active during this period. The amygdala is the emotional part of the brain and its activity during REM sleep may explain the emotions we feel during dreams. Luckily, our muscles become paralyzed during REM so that we cannot act out dreams, unless you are unfortunate enough to have a disorder called REM sleep behavior disorder. We can also awaken more easily in this stage, but if we do, it is likely to leave us feeling groggy instead of rested and refreshed.
But, there’s more…
- Throughout the
night, we cycle through these stages in this general order, occasionally
skipping stage 1 or 3.
- During our first
cycle of sleep, we will spend the least amount of time in REM and the most time
in stage 2.
- By morning, we
will be in our longest periods of REM.
- So, it follows
that if you are woken up too early, your longest REM stage is cut short and as
discussed earlier; if you are woken up at this time you probably aren’t going
to have a very energetic morning.
- Most adults need
a full 7-9 hours of sleep.
Sleep even changes with age.
Babies and young children spend significantly more time in REM sleep, likely due to their rapidly developing brains. They will also spend more time in restorative stage 3 sleep.
Older adults spend most of their night
in lighter sleep and wake up more
Sleep Pressure and Melatonin Release: Keeping
Your Body on Track
You know exactly what it feels like
when your body is pressuring you to go to bed.
That sluggish, heavy feeling that makes you want to crawl into your bed at the end of the day is referred to as sleep pressure.
release is another tool our bodies use to make us tired. Melatonin has become a
popular sleep aid in recent years.
And for good reason…
In healthy individuals, melatonin is released in response to darkness by the pineal gland.
So, when melatonin is released and
sleep pressure is high, we start to feel like our bodies and brains are
shutting down. If we continue in this state, sleep pressure continues to
increase and we become sleep deprived.
What happens when you aren’t getting good REM sleep?
What are we missing out on if we constantly get woken up before reaching REM and just spend most of our sleeping time in the non-REM stages?
A lot, it turns out.
There’s plenty of evidence showing how important REM is for keeping us healthy.
- A recent study involving a whopping 1,199 sleep surveys and 32 subjects who underwent a polysomnographic sleep study, showed that people with restless REM sleep had trouble resolving stress and processing emotions, which contributes to insomnia.
- According to the American Headache Society, REM sleep deprivation causes migraines by increasing expression of certain proteins linked to pain.
- Abnormalities of REM sleep have been linked to Major Depressive Disorder (MDD).
- REM sleep is known to stimulate areas of the brain involved in learning and memory retention and without it learning and memory retention is affected.
- Research shows that getting normal REM sleep can protect against fear induced trauma and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- During REM sleep, our brains stop secretion of norepinephrine, a chemical related to chronic stress.
- If we miss out on REM for a sustained amount of time, we go into something called REM rebound. REM rebound is essentially a way for us to catch up on any lost REM sleep. Unfortunately, it is associated with vivid, nightmarish dreams and grogginess upon waking.
- Research also showed liver inflammation and cell death in REM deprived rats.
It’s pretty clear that without the proper amount and duration of REM sleep cycles, our bodies start to go a little haywire.
Okay, so what can we do to avoid all
of these terrifying problems?
How to Track
and Improve REM Sleep
Now let’s talk about what you can do…
In order to get the benefit of proper REM, you first have to understand your sleep
Most of the time we don’t even remember our dreams and dreams are the only way we know we got REM sleep at all. So, how can we know how much REM or how many cycles of it we got without going through a full clinical sleep study?
Well, luckily, we are in the age of
personal health devices. There are now a plethora of biological devices on the
market that can help us with this problem. Many of these devices are used to
monitor our sleeping habits and some can even measure our brainwaves.
The DREEM 2 and Oura Ring are
a couple of these devices that stand out.
The DREEM 2 is a headband that reads
your brainwaves while you sleep. This device first determines how much sleep
you’re getting and makes an assessment of the quality of your sleep based on EEG.
This is essentially like doing a somewhat toned down version of a sleep study.
Unlike a sleep study, though, the
DREEM connects to an app you can use on your phone and to view your data, like
your heart rate, respiration rate, and how much sleep you got. You can even
view your own brain waves in real time, although you probably won’t know what
you’re looking at.
After a few nights of sleeping with
the DREEM on, you get recommendations on how to improve your sleep, like
setting bedtimes and wake up times based on your natural sleep cycles. This is
great because you won’t end up waking up in the middle of a REM cycle and feeling awful.
The DREEM is a pretty impressive
wearable, but it’s not perfect. DREEM is designed to be as comfortable as
possible, but it is still a little bulky, particularly if you are a side
sleeper, as it is a bit thicker on the sides. Also, not everyone can afford the
$500 price tag.
The Oura Ring is a rather sleek
wearable that tracks your sleep, activity, and your stress levels.
Since it doesn’t go anywhere near your
head, it can’t use EEG to track your sleep, but instead uses your heart rate,
pulse strength, movement, and temperature to determine whether you are awake,
in light sleep, deep sleep, or REM.
Like DREEM, the data collected from
Oura is sent to an app for your viewing pleasure, where you can see how much
sleep you got and better understand the quality of your sleep.
A study comparing polysomnography to the Oura data showed some decent agreement on variables like total sleep time and sleep latency (the time it takes you to fall asleep). However, the study showed that Oura tended to overestimate the amount of REM people were getting. This is probably due to not using traditional sleep EEG markers.
So, the price of the sleek look and
comfort of a simple ring on your finger comes at the cost of some discrepancy
in sleep cycle measurements. That being said, it is still probably a decent
estimate and could be useful.
And speaking of price, the Oura Ring
can cost you anywhere from $300-$1000. Most styles are $300-$400, but you can
get a diamond studded (yes, diamonds
in your activity tracker) for an extra $600 if you’re feeling extravagant.
Techniques you can start today to improve REM sleep and feel your best
It should be pretty clear now that is
in everyone’s best interest to get a good night’s sleep, and particularly to
get proper REM sleep in order to avoid depression, anxiety related to stress
and fear, and even headaches.
If you want to be a properly functioning human being and be at your best, you need to get good sleep and enough REM sleep. Fortunately, there are a lot of ways to do exactly that.
First, let’s talk about some simple habits that can help get your sleep cycles on track. These simple tricks are sometimes referred to as sleep hygiene. These healthy habits will help you get tired at a reasonable time and actually stay asleep.
Sleep Hygiene Techniques
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Some people may not like to hear this, but setting a routine can really help your body maintain its circadian clock. Research shows that people with regular sleep schedules have increased alertness throughout the day over people with irregular schedules on the same amount of sleep.
- Lights out. When you go to bed, turn the lights out and stop looking at your phone or computer. Light signals your brain to stay awake. It’s also good to dim the lights about 2 hours before you go to bed to ensure proper melatonin release.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol at night. Avoiding caffeine in the evening should be pretty obvious, as it is a well known stimulant. Having your morning coffee and afternoon tea isn’t really a problem, just avoid it in the evening for better sleep. The effects of alcohol on sleep are lesser known, especially since it can make you feel sleepy. However, while alcohol can make you fall asleep, it can cause issues with your overall sleep. Multiple research studies have shown that alcohol can cause a significant decrease in total REM sleep and a significant delay in the first cycle of REM.
- Get moving. You are probably familiar with that worn out feeling after a long physically active day. Exercising during the day can help reduce stress and make it easier to fall asleep at night. Just avoid exercising right before bed. You need some time to wind down after the rush that you get from exercise.
- Meditate. Meditation may not exactly fall under the category of sleep hygiene, but it is a simple lifestyle tweak that can provide great benefits. It can help calm your anxious mind and reduce the stresses of the day to help you relax and fall asleep more easily. Studies have shown that meditation can enhance stage 3 and REM sleep in practitioners of all ages.
- Melatonin. If you have trouble falling asleep or getting tired, try taking over the counter melatonin (please talk to your doctor before taking any new medications though).
Powerful Light and Sound Adjustments to Trick
your Brain into Being Tired
Light and sound definitely has an impact on our sleep.
Blue light tends to keep us alert and awake, while warm lighting like red or yellow light tends to mellow us out. And, of course, certain abrasive sounds can keep you up all night, while others have a calming effect.
We may not have suggestions on how to deal with your noisy neighbors, but here some suggestions for creating a sleep inducing environment.
- Blue blocker glasses. Light is composed of different colors, each with different wavelengths. At the low end of the spectrum is red light and at the high end, is blue light. We are bombarded with blue light when we look at the artificial light coming from our computer and phone screens. While blue light can help keep us alert during the day, it can also keep us up at night by reducing melatonin release. Blue blocker glasses can help block this light when we need to get sleepy.
- Blue light reducing applications. If you don’t want to wear glasses, there are also apps you can install on your devices, like F.lux, to reduce the amount of blue light you’re exposed to.
- White/pink noise machines. White or pink noise (pink noise has a “flatter” tone than white noise) can help to mask environmental background noises. Pink noise in particular, has been associated with enhanced slow wave sleep. You can find plenty of apps with different types of white and pink noise. But if you want a good quality of sound and don’t want to mess with your phone while sleeping (as suggested above), a dedicated noise machine can be helpful.
So, let’s recap.
- REM sleep can be
a powerful tool to keep you in tip top mental shape.
- Proper REM sleep
helps to keep us sharp, free of migraines, and it wards away anxiety and
depression by helping us to process emotions and reducing the amount of norepinephrine in our brain.
- While it is difficult to know if we are getting the
optimal amount of time in REM, there are devices that can help us track and
improve our sleep.
- Even without devices, there are some simple tricks to
keeping yourself on schedule and keeping stress at bay.
Now you are equipped with the powerful tools to improve your sleep, reduce anxiety and depression, and feel great.
Good luck and goodnight!