Some experts believe that a lack of REM sleep and a lack of dreaming are responsible for many of the health problems Americans suffer from today. Loss of not just sleep, but the dreams and rem sleep has been associated with greater risks of inflammation. Pain sensitivity, obesity and memory problems, including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Throughout the night, we pass through four stages of sleep several times. We do the majority of our dreaming during the fourth stage, called the ‘rapid-eye-movement’ (REM) phase. Research has found that about one in three American adults don’t get enough sleep in general and missing out on dreaming that occurs during REM-sleep can have particularly dire consequences for both our mental and physical health.
The stage of sleep during which we have the most active dream lives, the REM cycle, was once thought to be the most deeply restful phase of sleep. Now, much contemporary research says that the stage before REM sleep, called deep non-REM sleep is the most restful. But psychologists say that we need both.
If we don’t dream well, we are no longer digesting experience.it’s like psychological indigestion or constipation, which is a synonym for clinical depression…
The link between REM sleep and Alzheimer’s is quite clear. Studies have shown that those that don’t enter the dreaming phase of sleep as quickly are more likely than others to develop Alzheimer’s. When sleep is disrupted, a chemical called soluble beta-amyloid tends to build up, interfering with cognition and kill brain cells. The presence of the chemical in the brain is one of the earliest warning signs for the onset of Alzheimer’s.
What happens during REM sleep?
Sleep involves five distinct phases, which the brain and body cycle several times during the night. The first four phases involve a transition from shallow to deep sleep, while the fifth phase, REM sleep, involves heightened brain activity and vivid dreams. REM sleep stages tend to be relatively short during the first two-thirds of the night as the body prioritizes deeper, slow-wave sleep. And because longer periods of REM sleep only happen during the final hours of sleep (in the early morning, for most people). it can get cut off when you don’t spend a full seven or eight hours in bed.
During REM sleep, there is more activity in the visual, motor, emotional and autobiographical memory regions of the brain. But there is also decreased activity in other regions, like the one involved in rational thought — hence the reason for extremely lucid, but often nonsensical, dreams. (The dreams you remember when you wake up are only part of REM sleep, in reality, the brain is highly active throughout the entire phase).
What happens when we dream?
Scientists have decided as to whether dreams are simply a product of random neurons firing during sleep. Or if they’re something more like a data dump that helps the brain separate important memories from non-important ones. Or a way for people to prepare for challenges and play through different scenarios in their heads. “Everything we see every conversation we have is chewed on and swallowed and filtered through while we dream.”
What are the health benefits of REM sleep?
Several studies suggested that REM sleep can affect how accurately people can read emotions and process external stimuli. They also found that people who view emotional images before getting a good night’s sleep are less likely to have a strong reaction to the same images the next day. Compared to those who didn’t sleep well.
Other studies have suggested that REM sleep may be important for other reasons. But there’s less evidence of direct, REM-specific benefits in these areas. In a recent review, dreaming has effects on memory and mood and cites research linking poor-quality REM sleep to conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and depression.
Dreams and REM sleep have benefits, but it’s not the only stage of sleep that matters. Slow-wave, non-REM sleep “still seems to carry the majority of health benefits”. Including regulating blood flow and blood glucose levels, and clearing Alzheimer’s-related plaque from the brain. REM sleep may have its own function. But most of the research still focuses on the restorative and important benefits of the other phases.
How to get more REM sleep
If you wake up every morning with vivid memories of last night’s dreams. Chances are you’re getting at least some decent quality REM sleep. But besides that, there’s no easy way to monitor your levels for REM sleep specifically. For most people, REM sleep makes up about 20 to 25% of the time they spend asleep. So for now, the best way we can recommend getting more REM sleep is to simply get more sleep overall.
There are, however, some known culprits that disrupt normal sleep patterns and reduce total time spent in REM sleep. A big one is obstructive sleep apnea. A condition that interferes with nighttime breathing and causes people to wake up many times throughout the night. Other aspects of modern life including alcohol, drugs, nicotine, the use of artificial light at night and dependency on alarm clocks interfere with REM sleep as well.
Routinely waking up with an alarm clock repeatedly shears off the endings of our most protracted REM/dream periods. Imagine being abruptly ushered out of a movie theater whenever a film was nearing its conclusion.
For better sleep overall, it helps to sleep in a cool, dark room and go to bed at the same time every night. Practicing other aspects of good sleep hygiene like powering down electronics and nixing the nightcap may also help improve your sleep and maybe even your dreams.
What are the best ways for most of us to get a good night’s sleep?
- Stick to a regular schedule of going to bed and getting up at the same time every day.
- Exercise regularly in the morning or early afternoon, but not within five hours of bedtime.
- Stay away from drinks containing caffeine after about 4 pm.
- Avoid alcohol which may disturb sleep patterns and cause early morning awakenings.
- Be careful about sleeping pills. Long term use may lead to increased insomnia.
- Find the right room temperature for you and maintain it throughout the night.
- Try to relax before going to bed (i.e. a warm bath, read a light novel, listen to music, etc)
- Do not eat heavily before going to bed.