Getting enough rapid eye movement or REM sleep is important for maintaining both mental and physical health. REM sleep is a period of sleep characterized by increased brain activity and is associated with vivid dreaming, the storage of long-term memories, and processing emotions.
Most people experience REM sleep four or five times per night, accounting for about 20 to 25% of the time spent asleep. The first period of REM sleep occurs around 90 minutes after falling asleep, and may be as brief as 10 minutes or less. Periods of REM sleep get longer as the night goes on, so most REM sleep occurs during the last third of the night.
Getting more REM sleep involves making sure to get enough sleep in general, to ensure that you get the longer periods of REM sleep that happen later part of the night, and avoiding things that suppress or disrupt REM sleep. There are many things you can do to get the most out of REM sleep by helping maximize your sleep time and minimize REM sleep loss.
Stay on a Sleep Schedule
Because more REM sleep occurs during the end of a night of sleep, staying on a sleep schedule can ensure that you get adequate REM sleep. When planning your sleep schedule, keep in mind that most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep per day.
Going to bed and waking up every day at the same time, even on weekends, can strengthen your natural sleep-wake cycle. In addition to building a healthy habit, a consistent sleep schedule will strengthen your body’s physical drive to fall asleep at night and wake up in the morning.
To find the ideal bedtime, consider the time you need to awaken on a typical day. Then work backward to calculate what time you should get to bed so that you have enough time to get adequate sleep.
Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
Practicing good sleep hygiene means developing sleep habits that promote adequate and high quality sleep. Since most REM sleep happens towards the end of the night, getting enough sleep can maximize opportunities for REM sleep.
Improve your sleep hygiene by incorporating sleep-promoting behaviors into your daily routine.
- Avoid blue light in the evening: Research has demonstrated that blue light can make it harder to get to sleep at night. Devices such as phones, tablets, and televisions emit blue light.
- Take brief and early naps: Adults may benefit from short naps of no longer than 20 minutes. Napping after 3 p.m. can interfere with getting to sleep at night.
- Avoid nicotine: The use of nicotine during the evening interferes with sleep quality and the amount of time spent asleep. Nicotine is a drug which is found naturally in the tobacco plant, and is present in cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, nicotine replacement therapy products, and most devices used for vaping.
- Spend time outdoors: Spending time outside during the day can help improve night time sleep. It may be especially helpful to expose yourself to sunlight in the morning.
- Wind down in the evening: You may sleep better if you wind down before bed with a relaxing activity. Some people find it helpful to read, take a bath, or use relaxation techniques like yoga, meditation, or tai chi before bed.
Create an Optimal Bedroom for REM Sleep
Creating a comfortable sleep environment is an important part of giving yourself sufficient opportunities for REM sleep. There are steps you can take to make your bedroom an optimal place to get to sleep and stay asleep through the night.
- Keep it dark: Make sure your bedroom is dark or very dimly lit. Darkness is a cue to your body’s internal clock that it is time to sleep. Light, on the other hand, can make you more wakeful.
- Use pillows to get comfortable: The right pillows can help you find a comfortable sleep position. Some people find putting a pillow under or between their knees can help them get more comfortable so they can fall asleep faster and sleep longer.
- Don’t work in bed: It’s best to limit activities in the bed to sleep and sex. Working or doing other stressful activities in bed may establish bedtime associations with alertness instead of sleepiness.
- Make the bedroom a quiet place: Noise can distract you from sleep. If you can’t eliminate environmental noise in your bedroom, you might try to create white noise with a fan or white noise machine.
- Keep the room on the cool side: Most people sleep more comfortably if the bedroom is slightly on the cool side. Aim for a target temperature of around 65 to 68 degrees fahrenheit.
Get Regular Exercise
Research has shown that daily exercise helps improve the length of time you sleep, how quickly you fall asleep, and overall sleep quality. Exercise can also help optimize your sleep-wake cycle.
Research has been mixed as to how exercise impacts REM sleep. Some studies have found that regular exercise training increases REM sleep. Other studies have shown exercise may slightly decrease REM sleep by a few minutes.
It’s also important to time exercise appropriately. While moderate or low intensity exercise in the evening may help sleep quality, vigorous exercise has been shown to raise your core temperature and interfere with your sleep-wake cycle, which could lead to reduced REM sleep.
Avoid Certain Foods and Beverages Before Bed
What you eat and drink later in the day and during the evening can have a strong impact on your sleep patterns. Some common foods and drinks can directly impact REM sleep.
Alcohol and REM Sleep
People often think that having a drink can help them relax and get to sleep. While it’s true that alcohol can make you feel sleepy, its overall impact on sleep patterns is harmful. Alcohol results in waking up more during the night and sleep that is less refreshing.
Drinking alcohol also interferes with REM sleep. Alcohol causes increased time spent awake or in light sleep during the second half of the night, which is the time when more REM sleep normally occurs. This reduction in REM sleep may also be related to how alcohol affects your brain chemistry.
Even light alcohol use can negatively impact your sleep patterns, although the impact of chronic alcohol use causes an even greater decrease in REM sleep.
Foods and REM Sleep
Certain food choices may make it harder to get enough sleep, which can reduce the time spent in REM sleep. Making certain choices about what foods you consume later in the day may be helpful.
- Eat lightly in the hours before sleep: Large or heavy meals in the evening may interfere with sleep. Research has shown that eating within three hours of bedtime is linked to more nighttime awakenings.
- Avoid caffeine: Since caffeine is a stimulant, it can interfere with sleep. Caffeine is found in foods containing chocolate, as well as beverages such as coffee, tea, and soda.
- Be careful about spicy foods: Foods containing strong spices may disturb sleep for some people. Spicy food can trigger heartburn, which is associated with insomnia.
Drugs that Affect REM Sleep
A variety of substances can affect REM sleep, both substances that are prescribed by a doctor and those used recreationally. Avoiding these substances when possible may help people reduce REM sleep loss.
Recreational Drugs and REM Sleep
Several recreational drugs can affect sleep quantity, sleep quality, and various aspects of REM sleep.
- Cocaine: Cocaine is a stimulant and, as such, it can make it harder to fall asleep. This can reduce overall sleep time, as well as the length of REM sleep.
- Marijuana: While using marijuana or other cannabis products may help people fall asleep and get more deep sleep, it reduces the amount of time spent in REM sleep. When people stop using cannabis, they may experience a REM rebound effect, where more time than usual is spent in REM sleep.
- Opioids: Both legally prescribed opioid pain medications and opioid drugs of abuse can interfere with REM sleep.
- Methamphetamine: The use of methamphetamine both decreases the need for sleep and disrupts normal sleep patterns. While research conducted with humans using methamphetamine is limited, research performed on monkeys showed reduced time spent in REM sleep even with relatively small doses.
Medications and REM Sleep
A number of medications can reduce the amount of time people spend in REM sleep. This may happen because the medication suppresses REM sleep or because it delays the onset of REM sleep.
- Antidepressants: Most antidepressants suppress REM sleep, increasing the amount of time before REM sleep begins, as well as reducing the overall percentage of time spent in REM sleep. Despite this, most patients using antidepressants do not show symptoms of REM sleep deprivation. This may be because people with untreated depression often spend more time in REM sleep than people without this condition.
- Anti-seizure drugs: Drugs used to prevent seizures can affect sleep patterns in different ways. While their effects on deep sleep vary from drug to drug, most types of anti-seizure medications reduce REM sleep.
- Sedative and hypnotic medications: Drugs used to treat anxiety and insomnia may slightly reduce REM sleep when used at high doses.
- Pain medications: Over-the-counter pain medications like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and acetaminophen do not affect REM sleep. Opioid pain medication may decrease REM sleep at higher doses.
- Stimulants: Stimulant drugs may be given to treat sleep disorders like narcolepsy, so changes in sleep patterns may be a desired effect. Stimulants may reduce REM sleep, as well as reduce deep sleep and increase the amount of time spent awake.
- Steroids: Some steroid drugs used to reduce inflammation, treat lung disease, and control autoimmune disorders, can reduce REM sleep. Most people do not appear to have sleep changes from using inhalers that contain steroid drugs.
- Drugs for heart disease or high blood pressure: Some cardiac drugs may suppress REM sleep. These include beta blockers, as well as alpha agonists, a common class of drugs used to treat high blood pressure and other disorders.
It is essential that you discuss any concerns about medication with your health care provider. While many of these substances can negatively impact REM sleep, often the benefits of a prescribed drug outweighs concerns about how it impacts REM sleep. Sometimes, the drug’s effect on sleep cycles may even be a desired part of treatment.
Why Getting Enough REM Sleep Is Important
While the unique characteristics of REM sleep – rapid eye movements, active brain waves, and lack of muscle movement – are well documented, its purpose remains an ongoing area of research. Many experts believe that our brains organize our memories during REM sleep, strengthening the important ones and getting rid of the ones that don’t need to be kept.
Research has also linked REM sleep to learning, emotional processing, and memory retention. Some research has suggested that when people don’t get enough REM sleep, they perform worse on learned tasks. Additional research has suggested that people who are deprived of REM sleep may be more sensitive to pain.
However, other research has shown that not all people whose REM sleep is suppressed experience ill effects. For instance, people whose REM sleep has been suppressed by an antidepressant typically do not experience symptoms like memory impairment.
When to Talk to Your Doctor
If you are worried that you are not getting enough REM sleep, it may be helpful to talk to a doctor or other health care provider. It may be helpful to discuss habits and conditions that may interfere with REM sleep, including:
- Daytime habits
- Sleep hygiene
- Sleep disorders
- Recreational drug and alcohol use