What REM Sleep Is, Why We Need It & The Stages Of Sleep Explained (Plus Tips On How To Finally Get The Rest You Desire!)

September 01, 2017 |


SleepA five letter word everyone loves, a five letter word everyone does daily, a five letter word not many people can explain in detail. When you start to really think about it, the science and details of sleep are somewhat of a mystery. One easy assumption people can make is that sleep is vital to our health and overall well-being because without enough of it we feel like crap and look like zombies. When you sleep your brain processes your daily experiences, and helps to release hormones regulating energy, mood, and mental acuity. To finish its work, the brain typically needs between 7 to 8 hours of sleep. When it gets less than that, your mood regulation, concentration, creativity, and productivity all take a huge hit. This explains why when we don’t have a good night sleep, everything feels off.

Deep sleep is crucial for physical renewal, hormonal regulation, and growth. Without deep sleep, you’re more likely to get sick, feel depressed, and gain an unhealthy amount of weight. According to the National Sleep Foundation’s 2008 Sleep in America poll, those who sleep less than 6 hours per night on workdays are significantly more likely to be obese than those who sleep 8 hours or more (41% vs. 28%). The Report of the National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research estimated that total sleep time for the US population has decreased by 20 percent over the past century. 20 percent! The consequences of sleep deprivation can be disastrous. The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 100,000 motor vehicle accidents annually are the consequence of driver drowsiness or fatigue. Shift work is estimated to affect 20% of the US workforce, with sleep deprivation of varying severity a resulting consequence.

New research from the University of Rochester provides the first direct evidence for why your brain cells need you to sleep and to sleep the right way. The study found that when you sleep your brain removes toxic proteins from its neurons that are by-products of neural activity when you’re awake. Unfortunately, your brain can remove them adequately only while you’re asleep. So if don’t get enough sleep, the toxic proteins remain in your brain cells, wreaking havoc by impairing your ability to think and react all day long. This slows your ability to process information and problem solve, can ruin your creative thinking skills and increase your stress levels massively.

Sleep deprivation is linked to a variety of serious health problems, including heart attack, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. When you don’t sleep enough, your body overproduces the stress hormone cortisol. While excess cortisol has a host of negative health effects that come from the havoc it wreaks on your immune system, it also makes you look older, because cortisol breaks down skin collagen, the protein that keeps skin smooth and elastic.

A major concern with not sleeping well or enough is weight gain. Yes, not sleeping enough can literally make you fat! Do you ever wake up after a sleepless night and all you can think about is eating? Sleep deprivation compromises your body’s ability to metabolize carbohydrates and control food intake. When you sleep less you eat more and have more difficulty burning the calories you consume. Sleep deprivation makes you hungrier by increasing the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin and makes it harder for you to get full by reducing levels of the satiety-inducing hormone leptin. People who sleep less than 6 hours a night are 30% more likely to become obese than those who sleep 7 to 9 hours a night. According to the National Sleep Foundation, more than half of Americans get less than the necessary 7 hours of sleep each night.

When we sleep, we usually go through several sleep cycles. Let’s take a look at these in details and what happens during them.

The Roles of Each Stage of Sleep

NREM (75% of night):

As we begin to fall asleep, we enter NREM sleep, which is composed of stages 1-4

N1 (formerly "stage 1")

  • Between being awake and falling asleep
  • Light sleep

N2 (formerly "stage 2")

  • Onset of sleep
  • Becoming disengaged from surroundings
  • Breathing and heart rate are regular
  • Body temperature drops

N3 (formerly "stages 3 and 4")

  • Deepest and most restorative sleep
  • Blood pressure drops
  • Muscles are relaxed
  • Blood supply to muscles increases
  • Tissue growth and repair occurs
  • Energy is restored
  • Breathing becomes slower
  • Hormones are released, such as: Growth hormone, essential for growth and development, including muscle development.

REM (25% of night):

First occurs about 90 minutes after falling asleep and recurs about every 90 minutes, getting longer later in the night

  • Provides energy to brain and body
  • Supports daytime performance
  • Brain is active and dreams occur
  • Eyes dart back and forth
  • Body becomes immobile and relaxed, as muscles are turned off

what is rem sleep

Out of all of the sleep stages, REM sleep is usually the most known sleep cycle to the mainstream world. What is REM sleep? REM sleep stands for rapid eye movement. REM sleep definition: It is the kind of sleep that occurs at intervals during the night and is characterized by rapid eye movements, more dreaming and bodily movement, and faster pulse and breathing. It makes up about 25% of your sleep cycle and first occurs about 60 to 90 minutes after you fall asleep. It’s the kind of sleep depicted by a person's eyes darting back and forth. REM sleep can be hard to achieve with people who have terminal insomnia, sleep apnea, and other sleep disorders that interfere with the natural progression of sleep. Also, certain medications and alcohol may have a decrease in REM sleep.

In REM sleep, the brain processes and synthesizes memories and emotions, activity that is crucial for learning and higher-level thought. So if you don’t have a lot of REM sleep at night, what can happen? Sleep is a complicated subject, even for researchers and conflicting information exists but problems may occur in cognition and pain sensitivity as well as in other areas. You may be more sensitive to pain, coping skills may diminish and even experience weight problems.

Typically, when people are awakened from REM sleep, they report that they had been dreaming, and it is usually extremely vivid and even bizarre dreams. Interestingly, during REM sleep muscles in the arms and legs are temporarily paralyzed. This is thought to be a neurological barrier that prevents us from "acting out" our dreams.

During REM, certain neurons in the brain stem, called REM sleep-on cells, become active. These cells are most likely what trigger this phase in the sleep cycle. Once triggered and in a state of REM, the body stops releasing neurotransmitters that are responsible for stimulating the motor neurons; this means that the muscles stop moving, essentially entering a state of temporary paralysis. Some people don't experience the paralysis, their muscles continue to move, even while they are in REM sleep. They may act out their dreams in violent or dramatic ways, this is a condition called REM behavior disorder or RBD. They physically move limbs or even get up and engage in activities associated with getting out of bed, walking and running. Some engage in sleep talking, shouting, screaming, and some people can even get violent.

RBD can get worse over time and can be linked to other medical problems. Seeing your doctor can help, you may be asked to complete a sleep diary which will monitor your progress before and after treatment. The main issue is that people with RBD are at risk for other sleep disorders. As a result, your doctor will likely have you take an overnight sleep study called a polysomnogram. It charts your brain waves, heart beat, and breathing as you sleep. It also records how your arms and legs move. This shows if there are other disorders that are related to your sleep problems. Examples of these disorders include sleep apnea and periodic limb movement disorder. Treatment of RBD varies, and medication may be used.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, RBD occurs in less than one percent of the population. RBD can appear at any age, but it most commonly occurs after age 50. It was once believed that this disorder mostly affected men, but new data suggests that it occurs in both men and women with similar frequency. An indication you may have RBD is after waking up, you’ll probably remember details from your dream. They will match behaviors you acted out while sleeping. For example, if you dream about being chased, you might jump out of your bed to run away and remember doing that. In most cases, your episodes of RBD will happen at least 90 minutes after you fall asleep. Other people will experience these episodes during the later portions of sleep. You may have as many as four episodes in a night or you can also experience less frequent episodes.

The following precautions are a great way to help decrease the consequences of someone with RBD:

  • Move objects away from the patient’s bedside. This includes night stands, lamps, or other objects that could cause injury.
  • Move the bed away from the window.
  • Place a large object such as a dresser in front of the window.
  • Maintain a normal total sleep time. Sleep deprivation will increase .
  • Avoid alcohol.

Creating smart and healthy sleeping habits is a great way to help combat sleep problems that may occur and to get on track to a good night’s rest, every night. Here are some ideas to inspire and help guide you to getting the sleep that your mind and body deserve!

1. Stick to a regular sleeping schedule, go to bed around the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning. This helps regulate the body clock and keep you on a natural rhythm.

2. Turn off electronics at least one hour before bed. Try not to stare at your phone screen, answer emails or watch TV. The bright light from these devices can hinder your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night.

3. Avoid napping if you know it makes it harder for you to fall asleep at night. Some people are able to nap and then fall asleep at night, but some aren’t. If you know that napping will interrupt your night’s sleep, it’s not worth it.

4. Get moving! Run, walk, take an exercise class, be active. People sleep significantly better and feel more alert during the day if they get at least 150 minutes of exercise a week.

5. Make your room sleep friendly. First things first, no bright lights! Also, a cool bedroom is key (between 60-68 degrees is ideal) and turn off any noise. Consider using blackout curtains, eye shades, ear plugs, "white noise" machines, humidifiers, fans and other devices.

6. Avoid caffeine too late in the day. Try and stay away atleast 8 hours before bed from coffee, tea or any caffeinated beverage.

7. Develop a ritual before bed. Read a book, meditate, pick something that helps to ease the transition with relaxation.

8. Don’t force sleep if it feels impossible! If you aren’t truly tired or able to sleep, don’t just lay there and resort to counting sheep, it will most likely frustrate you and get you nowhere. Do something to relax your mind and hopefully sooner than later you will be tired, and then try again when you are ready.

9. Eat smart. Don’t eat dinner too late and close to bed time and be mindful of what you eat. Try to make dinnertime earlier in the evening, and avoid heavy, rich foods within three hours of bed. Spicy or acidic foods can cause stomach trouble and heartburn.

10. Never stalk the clock. Don’t become overly obsessed with falling asleep at a specific time! This can make you feel nuts and not be able to doze off into dreamland. Choose peaceful thoughts about sleep instead of anxious ones.





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