Rapid eye movement sleep (REM), one of four main sleep stages, is critical for brain health and emotional resilience. It’s so distinct from the other sleep stages – light and deep – that they fall under the umbrella of “non-REM sleep.” [1]

We tend to think of sleep as a passive process. But REM, also known as ‘paradoxical sleep,’ engages the body and brain very similarly to waking life.

Where non-REM sleep reduces blood pressure and brain activity, REM increases both.[2] The brain is so active during REM sleep, in fact, that your body paralyzes itself to protect you from acting out dreams.[3]

You can expect 1 – 1.5 hours of REM sleep each night, with cycles occurring about every 90 minutes and each REM cycle getting longer as the night progresses.[4]

What makes REM so important?

Though scientists haven’t pinpointed the exact purpose of REM sleep, researchers have marked it as being particularly important for emotional health and learning.

Emotional health

REM sleep is associated with an overnight reduction in amygdala reactivity – the area of the brain responsible for anxiety, stress and fear.[5] Scientists reason that the low adrenaline during REM sleep decreases the emotional intensity of events as we reprocess them in dreams, which promotes emotional balance.[5]

Say you got in a fender bender before work. REM sleep could help reduce the negative charge of that experience when you think about it the next day, safeguarding you from a potential anxiety disorder.

Other research (in rats) has shown that acetylcholine – the rest and relax hormone – triples during REM sleep, which could further protect the brain and reduce negative emotions.[6]

Learning

As for learning, sleep scientist Matthew Walker describes REM sleep as a sort of informational alchemy.

The brain stores a day’s information into seemingly random locations via REM dreams, and during this process, each new bit of data is cross-referenced with everything you already know. The goal here is an insight or breakthrough.

“Essentially, REM is creating a revised mind-wide web of associations,” Walker said in an interview with Rhonda Patrick.[7] “We make connections during REM sleep.”

Exactly how this REM learning occurs isn’t known, but research suggests that REM prunes synapses to facilitate learning.[8]

How to get more REM sleep

In general, most sleep interventions will improve REM because more sleep = more chances for REM. (Well, hot showers or saunas before bed definitely won’t help.) [24] But we’ve got seven sleep tips tailored just for the REM lovers out there.

If that’s you, try out a couple this week and find what works best.

1 – Supplement with magnesium

The neurotransmitter GABA regulates REM sleep.[10] And if you don’t have enough GABA to crank out some vivid dreams and reset those pesky emotions, magnesium deficiency could be to blame.[11, 12]

You can try a magnesium supplement to make up for any deficit. In a study on older adults with insomnia, magnesium supplementation reduced early morning awakening – the time most associated with REM sleep – and it improved sleep onset.[13]

Magnesium pills are one supplemental option. But the explosive, ahemm, side effects of internal magnesium could persuade you to try a magnesium lotion, bath, or spray instead.

2 – Stop smoking (pot) 

While marijuana use can increase deep sleep, it’s also known to reduce rapid eye movement.[14]  Occasional users shouldn’t have much to worry about. But long-term use is associated with chronically depleted REM sleep.[15]

3 – Experiment with essential oils

A placebo-controlled pilot study involving nine healthy people over two days demonstrated that the aroma of lavender can significantly improve sleep quality.[16] While REM sleep wasn’t measured in this small study, other studies have shown that lavender oil reduces anxiety and depression, which would directly affect the nervous system governing REM function.[17]

A word of caution: Be sure to avoid stimulating essential oils before bed, including eucalyptus, citrus, and bergamot. Not all scents are created equal – at least when it comes to sleep. 


4 – Get more light in the day, less in the night

Research published in the Sleep Journal found that later first-light exposure and later light exposure at night both negatively influenced REM sleep patterns.[18] Dr. Matthew Walker says this combination of light/dark deprivation is causing problems.

“What happens is that your brain goes through life in this stupor state where it’s not getting enough daylight to keep it ramped up throughout the day,” he said, also noting that we don’t get enough dark at night to wind down.

Walker recommends reversing the trend by spending the first thirty to forty minutes outside each morning (even if it’s cloudy) and turning off all blue lights two hours before bedtime.

5 – Finish your coffee by 10:00am

A two-week sleep study involving 18 healthy men suggested that caffeine close to bedtime inverts the normal sleep cycle: REM sleep happened earlier in the night, and slow wave sleep happened later.[19] Other studies showed that afternoon coffee didn’t have an impact on REM per se but decreased the average sleep time by a whole hour.[20]

Facepalming at the thought of giving up coffee? Well, we’re not sadistic enough to suggest that. Just try to finish your last cup within 14 hours of bed. (Caffeine’s six-hour  half life means that there’s plenty of stimulant in your system even 12 hours after your last cup.)

Decaf after noon helps, too!

6 – Try a cooler sleep temperature

Your body temperature decreases with deep sleep and can increase during REM.[21] This means that if you were to wake up hot, it’s likelier to happen when your eyes are rolling around in your head watching a kaleidoscopic dream.[22]

A safe bet to preserve your REM sleep is to sleep in a comfortably cool room (between 60 and 67 degrees) with ample covers. You can even experiment with a tool like chiliPAD or cooling sheets to help cool your body more directly, if that ambient temperature is unrealistic.

7 – Sleep the full amount

The majority of REM occurs in the last couple hours of sleep. You might be able to biohack your way into functioning on five or six hours, and maybe even at a high level, but you’ll skip out on most of the incredible benefits of REM sleep if you do.

So aim for 7-8 hours each night as a habit.

Conclusion

REM is a mysterious and powerful sleep stage. We still don’t know half of what it accomplishes for the body, but REM sleep is so essential that we’ll experience “Rebound REM” (an increase in REM) after sleep loss and emotional trauma.[23] No other sleep stage can boast that.

Before you get too restive about not getting enough REM sleep, though, researchers aren’t quite unanimous about it. Some limited studies even hint at improvements with REM suppression.[9]

Odds are that if you’re getting enough sleep overall, you can put any REM anxiety to bed.

 

About The Author: Dan Dowling is a health and fitness expert based in Albuquerque, NM. A biohacker-turned-writer, Dan cured two years of insomnia with time-restricted eating and beat chronic fatigue with essential amino acids and B3.


Resources:

1. Patel AK, Reddy V, Araujo JF. Physiology, Sleep Stages. (2021 Jan). [Updated 2020 Apr 29]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK526132/

2. Séi H. (2012). Blood pressure surges in REM sleep: A mini review. Pathophysiology : the official journal of the International Society for Pathophysiology, 19(4), 233–241. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pathophys.2012.04.006

3. Patel AK, Reddy V, Araujo JF. Physiology, Sleep Stages. (2021 Jan). [Updated 2020 Apr 29]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK526132/

4. Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research; Colten HR, Altevogt BM, editors. (2006). Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US). Sleep Physiology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK19956/

5. Van der Helm, E., Yao, J., Dutt, S., Rao, V., Saletin, J. M., & Walker, M. P. (2011). REM sleep depotentiates amygdala activity to previous emotional experiences. Current biology : CB, 21(23), 2029–2032. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2011.10.052

6. Kametani, H., & Kawamura, H. (1990). Alterations in acetylcholine release in the rat hippocampus during sleep-wakefulness detected by intracerebral dialysis. Life sciences, 47(5), 421–426. https://doi.org/10.1016/0024-3205(90)90300-g

7. Patrick, R. (2019). Dr. Matthew Walker on Sleep for Enhancing Learning, Creativity, Immunity, and Glymphatic System. Found My Fitness Podcast. https://www.foundmyfitness.com/episodes/matthew-walker

8. Li, W., Ma, L., Yang, G., & Gan, W. B. (2017). REM sleep selectively prunes and maintains new synapses in development and learning. Nature neuroscience, 20(3), 427–437. https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.4479

9. Rasch, B., Pommer, J., Diekelmann, S., & Born, J. (2009). Pharmacological REM sleep suppression paradoxically improves rather than impairs skill memory. Nature neuroscience, 12(4), 396–397. https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.2206

10. Boyce, R., Glasgow, S. D., Williams, S., & Adamantidis, A. (2016). Causal evidence for the role of REM sleep theta rhythm in contextual memory consolidation. Science (New York, N.Y.), 352(6287), 812–816. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aad5252

11. Papadopol V, Nechifor M.(2011). Magnesium in neuroses and neuroticism. Magnesium in the Central Nervous System University of Adelaide Press. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507254/

12. DiNicolantonio, J. J., O’Keefe, J. H., & Wilson, W. (2018). Subclinical magnesium deficiency: a principal driver of cardiovascular disease and a public health crisis. Open heart, 5(1), e000668. https://doi.org/10.1136/openhrt-2017-000668

13. Abbasi, B., Kimiagar, M., Sadeghniiat, K., Shirazi, M. M., Hedayati, M., & Rashidkhani, B. (2012). The effect of magnesium supplementation on primary insomnia in elderly: A double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial. Journal of research in medical sciences : the official journal of Isfahan University of Medical Sciences, 17(12), 1161–1169.

14. Pivik, R. Zarcone, V. Dement, W. Hollister, L. (1972) Delta‐9‐tetrahydrocannabinol and synhexl: Effects on human sleep patterns. Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics, 13(3) https://doi.org/10.1002/cpt1972133426

15. Bolla, K. I., Lesage, S. R., Gamaldo, C. E., Neubauer, D. N., Wang, N. Y., Funderburk, F. R., Allen, R. P., David, P. M., & Cadet, J. L. (2010). Polysomnogram changes in marijuana users who report sleep disturbances during prior abstinence. Sleep medicine, 11(9), 882–889. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sleep.2010.02.013

16. Ko, LW., Su, CH., Yang, MH. et al. (2021). A pilot study on essential oil aroma stimulation for enhancing slow-wave EEG in sleeping brain. Sci Rep 11, 1078  https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-80171-x

17. Koulivand, P. H., Khaleghi Ghadiri, M., & Gorji, A. (2013). Lavender and the nervous system. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 2013, 681304. https://doi.org/10.1155/2013/681304

18. Wams, E. J., Woelders, T., Marring, I., van Rosmalen, L., Beersma, D., Gordijn, M., & Hut, R. A. (2017). Linking Light Exposure and Subsequent Sleep: A Field Polysomnography Study in Humans. Sleep, 40(12), zsx165. https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/zsx165

19. Karacan, I., Thornby, J. I., Anch, M., Booth, G. H., Williams, R. L., & Salis, P. J. (1976). Dose-related sleep disturbances induced by coffee and caffeine. Clinical pharmacology and therapeutics, 20(6), 682–689. https://doi.org/10.1002/cpt1976206682

20. Drake, C., Roehrs, T., Shambroom, J., & Roth, T. (2013). Caffeine effects on sleep taken 0, 3, or 6 hours before going to bed. Journal of clinical sleep medicine : JCSM : official publication of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 9(11), 1195–1200. https://doi.org/10.5664/jcsm.3170

21. Komagata, N., Latifi, B., Rusterholz, T., Bassetti, C., Adamantidis, A., & Schmidt, M. H. (2019). Dynamic REM Sleep Modulation by Ambient Temperature and the Critical Role of the Melanin-Concentrating Hormone System. Current biology : CB, 29(12), 1976–1987.e4. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2019.05.009

22. Okamoto-Mizuno, K., & Mizuno, K. (2012). Effects of thermal environment on sleep and circadian rhythm. Journal of physiological anthropology, 31(1), 14. https://doi.org/10.1186/1880-6805-31-14

23. Machado, R. B., Rocha, M. R., & Suchecki, D. (2017). Brain prolactin is involved in stress-induced REM sleep rebound. Hormones and behavior, 89, 38–47. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.yhbeh.2016.12.004

24. Bunnell, D. E., Agnew, J. A., Horvath, S. M., Jopson, L., & Wills, M. (1988). Passive body heating and sleep: influence of proximity to sleep. Sleep, 11(2), 210–219. https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/11.2.210