While shuteye feels like a pretty seamless experience, there are actually four stages of sleep. Stage 1, Stage 2, Stage 3, and the REM stage all have different functions that come together to give you a restorative night's rest.
While they're all important, REM sleep is one sleep stage with benefits you really don't want to miss out on—but very well might be. We dug into this sleep cycle to find out what it is, why it's so important, and how to spend more time in it every night.
What happens during REM sleep?
REM sleep, or rapid eye movement sleep, is most well known for being the stage of sleep in which we dream. Your first REM cycle of the night typically lasts 10 minutes, and it happens 90 minutes after you fall asleep. Each REM stage will get longer as the night goes on.
Here are some of the most notable things that can happen to your body during REM sleep:
- Rapid eye movement behind the eyelids
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Brain activity at near-waking levels
- Temporary paralysis of muscles
- Increased breathing rate
- Changes in body temperature
- Sexual arousal
What is the purpose of REM sleep?
This is the most widely accepted theory regarding the purpose of REM sleep, with significant research to back it up. Many studies suggest that when REM sleep is restricted, new memories aren't formed as easily. That's because REM sleep offers the right neural environment2 for the brain to change. Think of it as "pruning" the brain's synapses, which allows for learning and memory consolidation during sleep.
Stimulating the central nervous system
Given newborns are in a REM sleep-like state for much of their early lives, another theory is that REM sleep is necessary for brain development.
How much REM do we need, and how can I know if I'm getting enough?
So, how much REM sleep do we really need? According to Girardin Jean-Louis, Ph.D., professor of population health and psychiatry at New York University, "We know that the average sleeper experiences three to five REM cycles nightly."
That number will of course vary depending on how much time you spend sleeping, with Jean-Louis noting that seven to eight hours of nighttime sleep is optimal. "Healthy sleepers might spend approximately 20% of their sleep time in the REM sleep stage," he says. Generally, if one gets about 90 minutes of REM sleep total on a nightly basis, they're in good shape.
How can I get more REM sleep every night?
If you have a feeling you're not getting enough REM sleep, there are a handful of things you can do to help the body and brain enter this important stage:
Try a magnesium supplement.
Taking a relaxing supplement like magnesium glycinate before bedtime may help promote deeper, more REM-filled sleep, as it's been shown to help people fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.* Research has found that magnesium can benefit those with insomnia4 by promoting longer sleep and has also been studied for its positive effects on stress5 that can inhibit sleep.* Unlike other popular sleep enhancers like melatonin, magnesium goes beyond sending the signal that it's time to fall asleep and actually helps promote longer, deeper sleep, potentially by decreasing cortisol and increasing melatonin levels in the body throughout the night.*
mindbodygreen's sleep support+ supplement combines magnesium with PharmaGABA, a neurotransmitter shown in clinical trials to enhance natural sleep quality, and jujube, a fruit used in traditional Chinese medicine for calming and sedation for a nightly supplement that promotes an all-around better sleep.*
Follow a consistent sleep/wake schedule.
Our bodies all have an internal clock, aka circadian rhythm, and living in sync with it helps us out tremendously. So waking up and going to bed at the same time every day, according to Jean-Louis, will help you both fall asleep and have a restful (and REM-filled) night's sleep.
Curate your bedtime routine.
Along with setting your sleep and waking times, having a relaxing bedtime routine goes a long way. "This makes it easier for both the mind and the body to prepare for the sleep experience," Jean-Louis adds, "progressing through the regular sleep stages, ultimately reaching the REM stage."
Avoid alcohol before bed.
"Avoiding smoking and alcohol consumption immediately before bedtime is highly recommended," Jean-Louis notes. Multiple studies have found that drinking alcohol before bed inhibits REM sleep—as do some pharmaceuticals and marijuana.
The bottom line.
Sleep is essential for our health and overall sense of well-being, and REM sleep is a stage you definitely want to get enough of. Taking a relaxing supplement, keeping up with a consistent bedtime and nightly routine, and avoiding alcohol can all pay dividends for your REM sleep.*
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Writer, as well as a registered yoga instructor. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.