Why is REM sleep so important? Sleep is a complex process that’s important for the physical performance and cognitive function of humans. One specific phase, the REM cycle, is especially necessary.
Humans spend about a quarter of each night in the REM stage of sleep. But why is REM sleep important? This cycle has puzzled scientists for decades, but people are finally beginning to understand why this sleep phase is so distinct from the other phases of sleep.
By better understanding the complex mind and body processes that occur while you’re asleep, you can better understand how to maximize REM sleep. That could mean changing your sleep habits, routine or surroundings to make sure your body is restoring properly and effectively.
What is REM sleep?
The acronym REM stands for rapid eye movement because your eyes move quickly in different directions while your eyes are shut. This feature of REM sleep doesn’t occur during any other phase of sleep because the brain is extremely active during the rapid eye movement phase.
REM sleep is also called paradoxical sleep because the brain is debatably even more active during this period than during wakefulness. REM sleep is the deepest, most restorative phase of rest. Depending on the individual, it can vary how much deep sleep is optimal, which can determine how much time you spend in the REM phase of sleep.
When does REM sleep occur?
REM sleep is one of the two main sleep stages. Both stages, REM sleep and non-REM sleep, are associated with specific neural activity and unique brain waves. The brain alternates between non-REM and REM sleep throughout a typical night, with each phase of REM sleep becoming increasingly longer and deeper.
What are the different stages of sleep?
The body moves through five stages of sleep, four in the non-REM sleep stage and the fifth stage entering REM sleep. Sleep stages one through four are characterized by your heartbeat and breathing beginning to slow. Your body is beginning to restore damaged tissues and muscles, boosting immune function and producing energy for the next day. The fifth sleep stage is REM sleep, approximately 90 minutes after falling asleep. Most dreaming occurs during this phase and your eye movement and brain activity resemble wakefulness.
What happens during REM sleep?
Mental Aspects of REM Sleep
A new study suggests that the brain may be switching to different mental imagery during REM sleep, which would explain the rapid eye movement. Each movement is thought to track a new mental image.
"We suspect rapid eye movements reflect the instant when the brain encounters a new image in a dream” said the study's lead researcher, Dr. Itzhak Fried. He believes that dreaming exists to help us process memory. "Rapid eye movement offers a window into the human visual experience. At these moments, our sleeping brains capture snapshots of the dream world inside our heads.”
It is suspected that REM sleep occurs to help encode memories through the creation and maintenance of neural pathways. If this theory is correct, REM sleep could be essential to learning, creative problem solving, and motor skills.
Physical Aspects of REM Sleep
Apart from the diaphragm and the heart, most muscle movement stops during REM sleep. Scientists think that the skeletal muscles become frozen so that sleepers do not carry out their dreams. Sleepwalking occurs before the REM stage begins, but it could be potentially dangerous if people physically acted out their dreams.
Other physical changes that occur during REM sleep included a rapid and variable heartbeat, which might be a physiological response to dream content and a lower body temperature that reflects patterns in your circadian rhythm.
Why is REM sleep important?
During a typical night of uninterrupted sleep, our brains remove neurotoxins. It is important to make sleep a priority because skimping an hour most likely takes away from REM sleep. Less REM sleep means you’re not giving your body enough time to fully restore itself.
When you are sleep deprived, your brain opts for lighter sleep and therefore you are less likely to enter the REM stage. Additionally, the REM periods of sleep become longer as you cycle through the sleep stages. If you only sleep through one or two cycles, your REM sleep is disproportionately affected and takes the biggest hit.
Enjoy deep sleep with a mattress that helps you fall asleep
If you’re consistently waking up feeling exhausted and experiencing daytime sleepiness, you might not be achieving an optimal amount of REM sleep. If you have a solid bedtime routine, then your mattress might be the source of your sleep woes. If you are waking throughout the night or experiencing joint pain after sleeping, then it’s time for a mattress uniquely designed for your body.
Get back into your regular rhythm. Try bedMATCH®, a sleep science technology exclusively at Mattress Warehouse, and fall in love with your bed. This tool identifies the most favorable postural support and pressure relief for your body. Based on the results of the test, our team will recommend the mattresses that are the best fit for you.
Be sure to visit your local Mattress Warehouse location and see how bedMATCH® and our sleep experts can help you get your best night's sleep.