If you track your sleep using a fitbit or other sleep wearable and see that you always get low REM sleep scores, then this article is for you.
Below I explain how you can increase your REM sleep.
This blog post is divided into four main sections:
Ready for the best sleep you've had in ages?
Keep your eyes open for one more second and you'll be rewarded!
There's no one such thing as "sleep". Different animals exhibit different sleep patterns.
And even within an animal, moreover, different types of sleep exist. Hence, sleep is not a "binary option" but more like a continuum. Let's explore that continuum by considering different sleep stages:
As an activity, sleeping can be opposed to waking. But there's only one real state of wakefulness (maybe two: meditation).
Additionally, you've probably heard about different sleep stages. If not, here are the basics:
Sleep, however, has 3 or 4 different stages - depending on how you count. These stages include (1; 2; 3):
As you can see in the image on my Oura Ring usage below, most of my REM sleep is also present later at night:
An Oura Ring tracks your sleep quality and other sleep-related parameters like temperature and heart rate at night so that you learn what variables affect your sleep.
So let's explore REM sleep in more detail:
You usually enter REM sleep after about 90 minutes of sleep, when you've cycled to NREM phases 1 - 3.
What's fascinating is that even though REM sleep has been studied for the last few decades, especially the last one, its role is still not completely scientifically understood (4; 5).
As you'll later learn, REM sleep is tied to brain performance, creativity, risk of certain diseases, mood, and many other health domains - but that understanding is still developing.
REM sleep stands for "Rapid Eye Movement" sleep - a period in which you can literally see your eyes moving even though your eyelids are closed.
(Hint: closely watch your partner when they're dreaming)
Although inconceivable, REM sleep was only discovered in 1953 (6; 7). For thousands of years of human civilization, these generations were unaware of the different sleep stages such as REM.
Many different animals experience REM sleep, so it's not exclusively a human phenomenon (8; 9; 10). It's thus reasonable to suspect that your cat and dog are also dreaming, even though the brain activation pattern might not be exactly the same.
During REM sleep, your Electroencephalography (EEG) - which measures brainwave activity - is actually very similar to that of a waking state.
Recall that REM sleep is the phase in which you're dreaming. The EEG commonality between wakefulness and dream states is thus not merely coincidental.
REM sleep is thus structurally different than sleep stages 2 and 3, in that it has both characteristics of wakefulness as well as sleep.
And yet, many people have not optimized this sleep stage. In fact, many people are losing out massively on their REM sleep...
Let's find out:
Are you one of these people who is regularly sleeping 5 or 6 hours a night?
In that case, you might be getting lots of deep sleep but you're cutting yourself short when it comes to the quantify of REM sleep you get.
Remember that REM sleep is heavily emphasized later in the night. Hence, if you get to bed at midnight, and your alarm clock wakes you up at 6 AM, you've just lost almost all of your REM sleep.
Sleep deprivation thus has massive effects on your REM sleep.
The use of alarm clocks leads to a similar problem (a topic I'll get back to in a sec.) With sleep deprivation or alarm clocks, you'll thus miss out on the full benefits of REM sleep.
Keep reading the next section and you'll sleep like a baby again:
This section contains 20 different strategies to improve your REM sleep. Some guidelines:
So let's start with the most important strategy:
Your circadian rhythm is the basis for all sleep improvement.
That circadian rhythm is a clock inside your body that is mainly synchronized by the 24-hour light cycle of the sun. The main clock of your body's circadian rhythm is maintained within the brain, specifically, an area called the "suprachiasmatic nucleus" (20; 21).
All the cells in your body, whether that's in your toes, in your organs, or on top of your head, subsequently also have their own peripheral clocks (22; 23).
Although oversimplifying, for proper functioning, these peripheral clocks need to follow the central clocks in your brain. And that central clock is mostly affected by the light input in your environment (24; 25).
Ideally, you want your body to be exposed to bright lights during the daytime--and an absence of light (i.e. darkness) at nighttime.
If not, and you do get exposed to bright lights during the nighttime and not sufficient bright light during the day, the circadian rhythm will be disrupted.
That's where REM sleep enters the picture.
The circadian rhythm in your body determines when specifically the body switches over into REM sleep (26; 27; 28). During the early morning, when your body temperature is slowly rising, the amount of REM sleep you get massively increases.
And although no direct evidence for this thesis is found, hypothetically, a poorly functioning circadian rhythm disrupts the amount of quality REM sleep you get.
How do I know that's true?
Well, shift work has been proven horrible for your overall sleep cycle.
The more you sleep at different times throughout the night (or worse: throughout the day), the poorer both the quantity and quality of your sleep (29; 30; 31).
As a result, it's almost impossible for your REM sleep not to be disrupted.
Keep in mind that it's not just shift work that disrupts your circadian rhythm. If you've got varying bedtimes throughout the week, you'll also do (some) damage.
For instance, if you stay up late at Friday and Saturday night, and then go to bed early on Sunday (but cannot sleep), some damage is already done. Your circadian rhythm strives on stability--not chaos.
Make sure you're going to bed the same time every day. Your circadian rhythm loves steadiness...
Remember I just talked about the importance of darkness at night?
The reason is that your eye not only acts as a camera to see the world but is also connected to the "suprachiasmatic nucleus" in your brain. The eye thus has a signaling function in relation to the brain.
Simply put, blue light exposure at nighttime tells your brain it's time to wake up. Loss of REM sleep is the consequence (32; 33; 34).
Don't get me wrong...
Blue light is not wrong per definition: if you're outside in sunlight during the daytime, blue light is balanced by other parts of the light spectrum.
In modern technology such as television screens, computer monitors, artificial light bulbs, billboards, and other sources, however, blue light is the predominant light source. That blue light is damaging.
Additionally, because blue light tells your brain it's daytime exposure to that artificial blue light is increasingly damaging after sunset.
But when are most people most likely to use a television screen or get exposed to light bulbs?
And yet, the solution is very simple:
Wear Blue Blocker glasses - the stylish ones can even be worn outside the house nowadays:
Wear these blue-blocking glasses after sunset and your (REM) sleep will thank you! Additionally, if you'd like to learn more about this topic, read my guide on why blue light is making you tired and fat.
Next up, another strategy related to the previous two ones:
Recall that I told you to get some bright light exposure early in the day?
While no direct proof exists that bright light exposure improves REM sleep at night, you are more likely to go to bed early if you're exposed to bright light in the morning time (35).
Only a few studies actually show an increase in REM sleep from bright light exposure during the morning time (36).
And yet, improvements in REM sleep can reasonably be expected, in part because people with bright light exposure during the morning time go to bed earlier at night, cycle through their NREM sleep phases quicker, and have more sleep time left to spend in REM.
The bottom line is that you need at least 5 minutes of sunlight exposure to your eyes and skin in the morning for optimal health benefits.
For the health of your circadian rhythm, there's really no replacement possible for bright light exposure.
Read my blog on morning sunlight if you'd like to learn more, and the blog on using halogen bulbs to create an artificial sun if it's dark outside in the wintertime.
Most studies, whether they're focusing on animals or humans, show that light exposure at nighttime increases the amount of REM sleep you get (36; 37; 38; 39; 40)
What's interesting is that some studies also show increases in REM sleep in combination with more frequent awakenings and/or shallow sleep (37; 39; 40). The end result, even with REM increases, is thus not pretty because the quality goes down.
For overall sleep quality, it's thus still recommended to minimize the amount of light exposure at nighttime.
Well, street lighting, light coming from the house of your neighbors, and electronics in the bedroom are common light pollution sources.
The best way to avoid exposure to disable all electronics in your bedroom (or better, remove them), use blackout curtains, or get a high-quality sleep mask to block all light from entering your eyes at night.
The team from Boncharge (Formerly BluBlox) offers a great sleep mask option (and discount code ALEX saves you 15%).
The sleep mask is also the perfect solution to keep your sleep quality high whenever you're traveling. Whether you're trying to sleep on an airplane or in a light-lit hotel, a high-quality sleep mask prevents all light from penetrating your eyes at night time.
Hence, blue-blocking glasses are not enough if your bedroom is filled with light. You'll want your bedroom to be as dark as possible...
Depending on how quickly you process caffeine, the substance is either harmful whenever you take it (with slow metabolization), or harmful when it's taken later in the afternoon (with fast metabolization).
I'm a slow metabolizer so in my case, coffee is harmful to my sleep quality almost whenever I take it.
The problem with caffeine is its very high "half-life" - the time your body takes down to process so that your blood levels are halved. Depening on the study you're quoting, that half-life is located between 2 and 12 hours (41; 42; 43).
If your body takes 12 hours for its caffeine levels to be cut in half, that means that 2 cups of coffee ingested at 10 AM translated to 1 cup of coffee before bedtime at 10 PM.
Caffeine can also dramatically shift the sleep you get at night. One example is shifting REM sleep to earlier in the night, and deep sleep to the later stages of your sleep (44).
Paradoxically, ingesting caffeine right before bedtime or a couple of hours before bedtime can increase REM sleep levels again, at the cost of deep sleep (45). Again, that increases is not necessarily helpful for your sleep quality.
Well, some studies show that the brainwaves during that REM sleep are negatively impacted (46). Even though you're getting more REM sleep, the quality of that REM sleep may be sub-par.
Other studies show that having caffeine present in the bloodstream at night increases your anxiety levels and can even lead to a panic attacks (47). The result is that you're waking up.
If you don't drink coffee, but take one of those fancy nootropics, be sure to go with a caffeine free version like Qualia Mind.
Bottom line: the solution is to be caffeine-free once you step into bed. Make sure to
The quickest way to ruin your sleep quality?
The answer is easy:
Drink some alcohol before bedtime!
Not only does it takes longer to fall asleep and is the amount of deep sleep you get massively reduced, and REM sleep is also horrifically affected (48; 49; 50; 51; 52).
Circumstances determine what effects alcohol will have.
If don't tolerate alcohol too well, then REM sleep is mostly reduced. If you're used to regularly drinking alcohol before sleep, however, as is the case with alcoholics, REM sleep rebounds and probably compensates for the long periods of low-quality sleep that have been experienced by that time.
Make no mistake: with no tolerance, just one glass of wine in the evening already has a negative effect. It may also take a lot more time for you to enter REM sleep if you've had a drink.
That phenomenon may explain why you can go out for a night of drinking with your friends, sleep for 12 hours, and not feel refreshed at all. The drinking, circadian rhythm disruption, and detoxification all lead to a disastrous combination.
Want to have a drink anyway?
Drink very moderately during the afternoon or early evening to ensure most of the alcohol is detoxified by your body once you hit the sack.
You're going to have most of your REM sleep in the late night and early morning.
If you regularly wake up to an alarm clock, your REM sleep is certainly going to be inhibited. The same is true for waking up during the early morning due to stress or other reasons (26; 27).
The best way to optimize sleep quality is still to sleep without an alarm clock because in that case you're allowing your body to sleep as long as it needs.
Disrupting sleep is extremely unnatural and counterproductive for improving your health, in fact.
Think about it: what if you re-opened a wound that has healed 80%? The end result of htat healing process would be sub-optimal. What if you artificially made your heart beat less powerfully? In that case, your health declines.
And yet, many people disrupt their sleep every single night (due to an alarm clock) and expect to still function as perfectly as when they didn't disrupt sleep.
Make sure that you're completely rested every single day or REM sleep is disproportionally affected.
Another simple guideline: exercise increases the amount of REM sleep you get at night (53; 54; 55; 56; 57; 58). Not getting any exercise (or better yet: movement) in is thus objectively harmful.
If you exercise too much, however, the amount of NREM goes up and REM go down. The increase in NREM probably signifies an increase in the need for recovery. Over-exercising and especially overtraining are thus detrimental to sleep quality.
The reason is that NREM is more focused on the physical recovery in response to exercise. In the short-term, exercise can therefore also lower your REM sleep amount.
For the best results, it's therefore recommended to build a habit of exercising over the course of weeks and months. With that method you'll get quality REM sleep increases and maintain them...
To reiterate: more exercise is not better...
Read my blogs on how I exercise just 15 minutes per week with a minimally effective dose to get most of the benefits without ever overtraining. Make sure to always include some heavy weight lifting into your routine.
I'm not telling you to avoid prescription medication by any means...
Instead, I'm just trying to make you aware that certain prescription drugs can massively affect your REM sleep levels. Let's look at a few examples:
That list is in no way exhaustive - many other types of medication such as those for headache relief or common pain killers like aspirin can also inhibit REM sleep.
My point is that you should be aware of such effects, and read up on these compounds ideally before making them part of your daily routine.
Again, evidence in this area is mostly circumstantial.
Lots of scientific research actually shows that magnesium supplementation (until your levels are adequate) improves overall sleep quality (100; 101).
Additionally, many sleep diseases (pathologies) are also associated with magnesium deficiency (102). With magnesium deficiency, your REM sleep may completely disappear for instance.
Animal studies confirm the assessment that magnesium deficiency leads to poor sleep quality (103).
What's more, low levels of magnesium are also associated with conditions such as sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome - both devastate your sleep quality (104; 105; 106; 107; 108).
So while lots of circumstantial evidence exists that magnesium affects REM sleep, no direct proof can be given.
Nonetheless, you'd be crazy to avoid supplementing with magnesium because it's dirt-cheap and the health benefits are massive. I therefore highly recommend reading my guide on Why You Should Be Supplementing With Magnesium.
For pennies a day, your health will improve (if you're among the 80% of people who are magnesium deficient).
Anecdotally, many people also report having more intense and lucid dreams, which hints at REM sleep improvements.
Magnesium chloride: inexpensive but highly effective!
Yes, another mineral: zinc.
And yet, once again, mostly circumstantial evidence here. Sufficiently high zinc levels in your blood, for instance, are associated with higher sleep quality (109; 110; 111).
Unfortunately, the effects of zinc supplementation (or eating a diet that's rich in highly-absorbable zinc) on REM sleep specifically have not been researched in high-quality studies.
And yet, zinc is essential to create a brain signaling compound - or "neurotransmitter" - called "serotonin" (112; 113; 114). While opinions differ on serotonin, it's classically viewed as a compound that makes you feel as if "all is well".
Higher serotonin levels support your melatonin levels in turn and might decrease the likelihood of bad dreams, thereby indirectly supporting your REM sleep.
Of course, the jury is still out on that theory but it's more likely than not...
Make sure to include some oysters and beef in your diet - oysters and beef are the best zinc sources.
The topic of mold: back to the environment...
Sleeping in an old wet building that has suffered water damage? In that case, you're almost certainly decimating your sleep quality.
Toxic mold - which grows at building materials that have suffered water damage - is associated with lower overall sleep quality (115; 116).
Anecdotal evidence upholds the following: with mold exposure, you're much more prone to wake up in the middle of the night, have night sweats, an increase in nightmares (which often take you out of REM sleep), and have breathing issues (which impede sleep quality as well).
So while no smoking gun is present, you can be almost certain that sleeping in a moldy building destroys your REM sleep (quality).
Read my blog on The Crippling Effects Of Air Pollution On Human Health and possible solutions to learn more about toxic mold.
In most cases, mold is not a problem you can ignore - if you value your health.
Choline is a nutrient that's mostly found in eggs, liver, and soy lecithin (although the latter is probably not your best choice). Animal foods in general and greens are reasonable choline sources as well.
Your best bet to get your choline needs met is to make sure you consume liver or eggs throughout the week.
In animal studies, choline deficiency causes problems in REM sleep, and supplementation improves its functioning (117; 118). High-quality human research is sparse to non-existent.
Yet, tons of anecdotal evidence exists to assume that there's "something to" choline.
High-quality choline is one of the primary ingredients in Qualia Mind, for instance, which has significantly boosted my deep sleep and REM sleep percentages.
If you do some online searches, you'll also find that choline is one of the primary ingredients used to increase (lucid) dreaming.
Choline is central to the functioning of the circadian rhythm, for instance (119; 120; 121). That choline is also central to the "acetycholine" neurotransmitter, which plays a role in goal-directed behavior as well as the initiation of REM sleep.
The sleep-enhancing effects of choline may thus explain why the compound in Qualia Mind helps you both focus and improves your sleep quality.
In general, users report more vivid as well as more frequent dreams with increased choline levels. That greater predominance of dreams is a direct hint that REM sleep percentages are improved.
The best time to take choline supplements--or better yet, eat choline-rich foods--is during the day, however. Choline, taken at nighttime, frequently decreases sleep quality.
Everyone should be taking a cannabis product because it's all the hype and there are only benefits, right?
Cannabis-based products may impede your REM sleep, especially THC (122; 123; 124; 125).
CBD, on the contrary, can have positive effects depending on your personal circumstances (126; 127; 128; 129).
If you're generally healthy, CBD will have less of an effect compared to when you're stressed out or anxious.
Depending on how your nervous system functions, CBD will also have different effects. If you're naturally a relaxed person, for instance, you'll experience fewer benefits from CBD (oil) than if you're more "amped-up".
Amped up people - who are what is called "sympathetically dominant" - are more prone to benefit from CBD.
I highly recommend CBDPure as a high-quality CBD oil supplement.
The sound (and noise) in your environment have a massive impact on your sleep quality.
Simply put, noise works at an (almost) unconscious level. The louder the sounds you're exposed to, the higher the risk that you're waking up in the middle of the night.
In short, awakenings, especially from sudden loud noises, fully disrupt your sleep pattern. "Noise pollution" is therefore associated with lower amounts and quality of REM sleep (130; 131; 132; 133).
In some studies, where participants are placed in rooms with sound isolation, the number of awakenings dramatically decreases, for instance.
Noise is especially worrying because it's so ever-present in modern cities and because it immediately triggers a "fight, flight, or freeze" response in you.
Think about noise this way: if someone scares you intentionally, you probably don't have direct control over your fear response. Noise is similar in its effect: your body simply responds.
Additionally, you'll also wake up earlier with more noise in your environment. Remember that waking up early mostly cuts your REM sleep short because REM sleep is predominant later in the night.
Solution? Wear earplugs or isolate the room you're sleeping in. Also make sure all doors and windows are airtight: any contact with the outside world increases noise levels in your bedroom.
For bonus points, avoid excessive noise during the day as well.
Moving on to another environmental domain:
Shocker: even the air you breathe affects your sleep quality at night.
Well, first of all, air pollution affects your capacity to breathe properly. Impaired breathing subsequently increases the risk of sleep conditions such as sleep apnea (134; 135; 136).
Once again, total sleep duration is also frequently shortened, meaning that REM sleep is most likely to be cut short.
Additionally, one study demonstrates that even children are affected by polluted air, in that they awaken more frequently during the night (137).
Read my blog about how air pollution is very much an underappreciated problem, and why you need a high-quality air purifier if the air you're breathing is not top-notch!
Measuring air pollutant levels: the key to success
Some of the advice I've given so far has been contradictory - I mean: technically, bright night at night should increases your REM sleep levels, right?
But of course, there's a big tradeoff when you keep the lights on because you'll decimate your deep sleep levels.
CBD also affects different people differently...
So what's the solution?
Measure how you uniquely respond to different stimuli in your environment and to your daily choices. The Oura Ring is the perfect tool for such measurements because the ring tracks your deep and REM sleep percentages at night.
All of the studies I've quoted only tell half of the story. Maybe you sleep better with some coffee during the early morning because it lifts your mood and builds dopamine.
You'll only know after testing...
Alternatively, your magnesium and/or zinc levels may already be sufficient and additional supplementation only decreases the amount of REM sleep you get at night.
The only way to know for sure which actions and circumstances are affecting your sleep is to measure, and an Oura Ring is the best way to do so. With that ring, you'll gain the data and leave the guesswork out of the equation.
My Oura Ring score. Follow me on Instagram to get free unique updates about my lifestyle.
Finally, the supplements...
Some people cannot wait until they see a list of ingredients they can add to their daily routine to optimize performance.
I'm often wary of such attempts (if you don't yet master the fundamentals of health).
Vitamin B6, or pyridoxine, is frequently added to sleep quality stacks - and with good reason.
The compound may increase the availability of serotonin, and therefore melatonin, which subsequently affects sleep quality by producing very lucid dreams (139; 140).
In some studies, only recall of dreams improves, but not vividness or other variables.
Some suggestion exists that vitamin B6 influences REM sleep though, although no direct evidence exists yet.
Supplement? Take B-right from Jarrow. A well balanced diet should supply you with plenty of B6 as well, with foods such as milk, fish, eggs, (organ) meats, green vegetables, and sweet potatoes being top choices.
Another winner: the combination of theanine and GABA produces a significant increase in sleep duration and REM sleep (138).
Theanine is a compound extracted from tea, and GABA is a brain signaling compound (neurotransmitter).
GABA can also be bought in supplement form and affect your body's physiology. While there is discussion of whether ordinary GABA can enter the brain, what's clear is that the compound does have an effect on some people.
Get some theanine and GABA through Amazon.
Want something stronger? Try a prescription drug such as baclofen or the almost universally available compound called "phenibut" (146). These compounds have a much stronger effect but are addictive in nature - so use them wisely, for sleeping well with jetlag, for instance.
Great that you've been reading thus far: the all-important vitamin D
It's best to get vitamin D through sunlight exposure. When the sun is higher up the sky, with an angle above 45 degrees, its rays create vitamin D in your skin.
Make sure you're eating a nutritionally rich diet though, as otherwise, your body cannot adequately create the vitamin.
Why vitamin D?
Simple: without sufficient vitamin D levels, your sleep tends to be shorter (141; 142). And by now, I don't have to tell you what the effects of short sleep upon REM sleep will be: a disaster...
What's also interesting is that vitamin D is central to a well-functioning breathing capacity once again (143). Remember that poorer breathing results in poorer overall sleep quality.
Lower vitamin D levels may also be associated with increased risk for sleep disorders and daytime sleepiness (144; 145).
So in addition to getting sunlight during the early morning, it's best to also get some sunlight around noon - for upping your vitamin D. Expose as much skin as possible during that time without burning.
Know what's interesting?
People have been sharing techniques to increase "lucid dreaming" for a long time over the internet.
And some of these supplements almost certainly affect your REM sleep, even though they haven't been studied in great detail.
(Lucid dreaming is dreaming in which you become aware that you're dreaming, and can subsequently consciously "steer" your dreams into directions you want to.)
Let's consider a few of these supplements:
This compound is traditionally used for memory impairments - if you've got Alzheimer's disease, for instance, you may benefit from this compound.
And yet, many people take galantamine to increase the lucidity of their dreams. Galantamine's effects are quite strong and somewhat "crude", however, and I recommend you do some research before taking this compound.
Nonetheless, studies do show galantamine improves your ability for lucid dreaming (146; 147). Evidence also suggests that you enter REM sleep quicker with galantamine and that you stay in REM sleep longer.
Huperzine A is another choline-based compound, just like the regular food-based version I talked about earlier.
The research on huperzine A and REM sleep is sparse to non-existent, however. And yet, many people claim this compound improves their sleep quality, and specifically the lucidity of their dreams.
It's thus highly likely that huperzine A does stimulate improvements in REM sleep.
Mucuna is also called "velvet bean", and is a legume located in a few isolated places on this planet.
The compound, when taken during the day, increases your dopamine function, specifically because it contains the literal precursor to dopamine in your brain: L-Dopa.
During the subsequent night, sleep quality is frequently improved, according to anecdotal evidence. Many people also report better dream recall. There's thus good reason to expect this compound to improve REM sleep.
That's it: 20 different strategies to improve your REM sleep. In the next section, I'll look at the benefits of REM sleep:
For a long time, some people believed that REM sleep didn't really matter and that it was only deep sleep that's of great import.
Let's explore why ensuring you get a good chunk of REM sleep during the night is highly recommended, and why science suggests you should optimize the amount of REM sleep you get:
What's fascinating is that the health effects of REM sleep are not completely understood yet.
In fact, some people with health conditions in which REM sleep is completely absent don't suffer any (apparent) negative health consequences (11; 12).
Taking some types of medication, for instance, such as antidepressants can also lower the amount of REM sleep you get at night -- or completely remove REM sleep from the equation (13; 14; 15).
Alcoholism can also cause abnormalities in REM sleep, as well as conditions affecting the nervous system (16; 17; 18; 19).
So let's explore why REM sleep matters:
Missing out on sleep for a while?
One of the main advantages of REM sleep is that it aids emotional processing (69; 70; 71; 72; 73).
In fact, sleep - specifically REM sleep is frequently described as "overnight therapy".
So the poorer your sleep, the more emotionally reactive you will be during the day. In certain disorders, such as "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder", sleep is greatly disturbed and your ability to gain overnight therapy is impeded.
As a result, brain areas such as the "amygdala" - the emotional center in the brain - gains more activation. The "CEO" of your brain, the prefrontal cortex located in your forehead, is less well able to do its job as well.
Over time, that dynamic can lead to a vicious cycle: you're hypervigilant and emotional, therefore unable to sleep well, and therefore unable to process emotions properly.
As a result, mood and anxiety problems frequently intertwine with sleep issues. The poorer your sleep, the greater the risk for generalized anxiety or phobias. You'll also be a more angry person, unable to control your temper.
The poorer your REM sleep is, the higher your risk for heart and blood vessel diseases. With impaired REM sleep, you're at greater risk for higher blood pressure and stroke, for instance (74; 75; 76).
In animal studies, these effects can be closely controlled for and can be clearly shown (77). In humans too, sleep deprivation studies lead to an increase in blood pressure - although such studies are no longer considered ethical to perform (78).
Your heart rate also increases after a night of insufficient sleep.
(Read my guide on the topic if you'd like to learn more about the negative health effects of sleep deprivation).
Additionally, during REM sleep you're at much greater risk for developing impaired breathing patterns such as "Obstructive Sleep Apnea" (79; 80; 81; 82; 83). Impaired breathing further increases your risk for heart and blood vessel problems.
Hence, one reason why many people die of heart disease during the early morning is precisely this change in sleeping patterns around that time.
Deep sleep seems to be most important in helping you remember what you've learned (84; 85; 86).
And yet, REM sleep plays an important role as well. During REM sleep, for instance, new connections are made in what you've already learned (87; 88).
For instance, you may have studied very long on an engineering problem in university and crammed lots of data into your brain. REM sleep subsequently allows you to gain new insights into that data and see patterns that you hadn't seen before. Out of nowhere, a solution to a problem might thus "pop up" during REM sleep!
Additionally, REM sleep may be necessary to really solidify the memories in your brain that have been stored into your long-term memory by deep sleep (89). REM sleep also seems to rescue memories whose consolidation was interfered with (90).
In essence, both deep sleep and REM sleep is necessary for optimal learning and memory function.
Asking which is more important is foolish in that instance. As an analogy, you'd also rather not choose between breathing in healthy air or living in a noise-free environment. For optimal health, you want to breathe healthy air and live in a noise-free environment.
There's also evidence that REM sleep re-organizes data stored in memories - which leads me to the next domain (93):
Remember when you woke up having thought up the solution to an important problem?
In that case, you were almost certainly spending time in REM sleep (91; 92; 93). In studies, REM specifically:
"enhanced the formation of associative networks and the integration of unassociated information" (93).
Creativity frequently involves making new use of existing resources. Simply put, if you look at the same data with different colored glasses, you probably see something different as well.
That conversion you had 2 months ago might seem completely unrelated to the problem you're trying to solve today, but after a big chunk of REM sleep, the solution may strike you instantly like lightning.
No wonder your brain is so creative during those REM sleep dreams!
What's funny is that if you awake during a dream, you're more likely to solve a complex and creative problem (94). Of course, awakenings are much more likely during REM sleep than during deep sleep.
REM sleep, all by itself, is also associated with improvements in abstract reasoning (94).
The creativity-boosting effects can easily be tested with naps. Naps are often predominant in REM sleep and are therefore a great test for scientifically observing increases in creativity (95). No shocker: after a nap, creativity does indeed increase.
(I do not recommend napping whenever you feel like it - for a good explanation on when to nap, how, and for the correct period of time, check my book on improving sleep quality.)
Many psychiatric conditions and mental health issues are associated with sleep disturbance (96; 97; 98; 99).
So in a sense, it's not so weird that these conditions become ever more widespread in a time when light pollution is an increasing problem in society.
Neurodegenerative disease--called degeneration of the nervous system in plain English--is similar.
That fact alone should tell you that sleep is vital for both your brain and the overall nervous system.
With impaired REM sleep, you're at greater risk for schizophrenia, anxiety, autism, and emotional issues (97). Mania, depression, psychosis, and even dementia are examples (99).
If you want to stay emotionally healthy, it's imperative to retain healthy sleep.
Hence, the greater the emotional stress you're under, the more important sleep becomes in the overall picture.
It's also likely that due to the connection with psychiatric disorders, REM sleep is much more important for your nervous system health and function than currently understood.
In the future, a connection between myelin and REM may become more clear. Myelin is a compound that increases the conductivity of nerves and has already been associated with REM sleep function (148; 149).
This list of 5 REM sleep benefits will thus probably be expanded to 10-20 in the coming years! For that reason, the next section is really important:
No need to stop improving your sleep quality with the information I've just given you...
In fact, many options are available to further optimize your sleep quality.
First of all, I'd highly recommend reading all of my 100% free blog posts on sleep, such as:
Those readings should keep you busy for a while!
And if you want to take your sleep quality to the next level, consider my book on deep sleep. That book is 130+ pages long, with 65 tips to improve the amount of deep sleep you get each night, and contains 700+ scientific references to back up any claim.
Seriously, for half the price of a good steak at a supermarket you'll get the most amazing sleep ever.
There's even a money-back guarantee so you've literally got nothing to lose.
Want maximum sleep optimization? In that case, consider my $127 sleep optimization course that considers every single area in your life that affects sleep quality over a 3 week period:
Remember those days when you were on vacation and slept 9 hours a night without a worry in the world?
Remember how happy you were, and how awake you felt, and how well your brain performed?
Well, you can have that feeling every single night for the rest of your life. You simply need to commit to improving your sleep and taking the correct actions, and the results will come.
If you've been reading my blog, I hope you're observing that many of the strategies that help you improve your deep sleep have a positive effect on REM sleep as well.
And that's great...
Because unlike the mentality in the 1990s and early 2000s, of "I'll sleep when I'm dead", you'll actually want to optimize your sleep quality.
In fact, there's no optimal health without optimal sleep.
Your sleep quality is just as foundational to your health as the food you eat. I therefore highly recommend you try some of the strategies laid out in this blog post so that you can become a better, healthier, and more productive person...
So let's get real...
Who doesn't want better emotional control, greater creativity, improved memory function, and decrease their overall risk of disease?
Don't get me wrong though...
The research on REM sleep is still very rudimentary today. In the coming decades, you'll probably learn that many other areas of your health are affected by the amount and quality of REM sleep you get.
Examples could include your risk for Alzheimer's, your athletic performance, and perhaps even your love relationships.
The fact that nature has preserved sleep over the course of millions of years of evolution should tell you that's it's of fundamental importance. So get some REM sleep and kick more ass tomorrow!
This is a post by Bart Wolbers. Bart finished degrees in Physical Therapy (B), Philosophy (BA and MA), Philosophy of Science and Technology (MS - Cum Laude), and Clinical Health Science (MS), and is currently the chief science writer at Alexfergus.com.
Join Over 30,000+ Subscribers!