by Neuroscientist Dr. Allison Brager
Last week I was in Boston attending my annual sleep conference (and visiting Fenway). Every year, the top sleep scientists of the world gather to discuss recent discoveries in the world of sleep, with REM sleep being one of the most popular topics.
Despite many unknowns and unknowables in the field of sleep, as scientists, we can agree that there is one type of sleep that helps us to maximize creativity, learning, and information retention. What types of sleep is this? REM sleep.
In fact, I even had the opportunity to sit down and hear about the trials and tribulations of discovering REM sleep from the original discoverer of REM sleep himself: Dr. William C. Dement (Stanford University).
We talked about many topics, such as:
What is REM sleep?
(no, it is not R.E.M sleep. R.E.M is a band [and one of the greatest])
REM sleep stands for rapid eye movement sleep. This is what Dr. William Dement (and his fellow researchers) decided to call REM sleep when they discovered it inat the University of Chicago in 1953 when they noticed that their research participants had vigorously flickering eyelids at random intervals throughout the night.
After careful study, this team discovered that REM sleep is characterized by a highly active brain, aggressive eye movements (that will often drive dream content), and a nearly paralyzed body.
These characteristics of REM sleep are why REM sleep is called paradoxical sleep. It's like putting your brain on the gas and your body on the brake at the same time.
I am not exaggerating when I say that nearly every muscle of your body is paralyzed during REM sleep. The only muscles that aren't are the ones important for basic survival, this includes:
•Ocular eye muscles (to initiate rapid eye movements)
•Auditory muscles (for hearing)
•And the diaphragm (for breathing).
Otherwise, all of your body’s other musculature are limp thanks to signals traveling from the brain and along the spinal cord.
The REM Sleep Cycle
How long is a REM sleep cycle? Each cycle of human sleep is 90 minutes. During that 90 minutes, we transition from non-REM sleep (typically deep non-REM sleep) to REM sleep to a brief arousal (typically subconsciously).
REM sleep is only 10-15% of our total nightly sleep. This means that we only spend 15-20 minutes in REM sleep per cycle! Thus, how our brains piece together narratives and what appear to be cinematographic films (i.e. dreams) is still a mystery.
REM Sleep and Dreaming
REM sleep is also the only state of sleep where you dream. Some dreams seem to last the entire night. This is especially true if you are sleep-deprived. As sleep scientists, we still know very little about how dreams occur (and the meaning behind them).
Two Key Benefits of REM Sleep
1. REM Sleep Helps You Learn Faster:
Why is it that you can remember how to ride a bike and never forget, but can't remember what you ate for dinner the day before? REM sleep.
REM sleep keeps the necessary information and filters out the unnecessary.
(Disclaimer: what you ate for dinner is important to a chef or foodie, but for most of us it is just another day in the life)
REM sleep is helpful not to just for remembering encyclopedic knowledge, but loves to prioritize the integration and retention of muscle knowledge. Learning to ride a bike as a child is a skill. Learning to Olympic snatch as an adult is a skill. In fact, there is a direct correlation between learning new skill in real-time and the amount of REM sleep in real-time.
To no surprise, being deprived of REM sleep, deprives your mind from integrating and retaining new skills.
This is why REM sleep is so important for those who have intensive jobs where you take in a lot of information (whether physical or mental).
More REM sleep = better retention = better performance.
2. REM Sleep Helps You To Become More Emotionally Balanced:
"How to Win Friends and Influence People," by the late Dale Carnegie is one of the best selling books in the world. It was written in the early 20th century, but still has real-life relevance in today's age of technology.
What does this book have to do with REM sleep? The book talks about how to be emotionally balanced. This is the ultimate key to success in life. REM sleep acts out our frustrations, feelings, and fights for us: while we dream. It is not a coincidence that a traumatic and emotionally troubling time in one's life coincides with more REM sleep (as studied in the lab).
REM sleep helps to fine-tune the emotional centers of the brain, making sure nerve cells are communicating properly and, hopefully, with increased frequency. Become more emotionally balanced with increased REM sleep!
REM sleep vs. non-REM sleep:
On paper, REM sleep is rapid-eye movement sleep and non-REM sleep is well, non-rapid-eye movement sleep. As we know now, REM sleep is more for mental restoration while non-REM sleep is more for physical restoration. We cycle in and out of non-REM and REM sleep throughout the night, restoring and preserving our physical and mental health in the process!
If you’d like to learn more about non-REM sleep and it’s physically restorative benefits, you can read my in-depth article here.
How To Get More REM sleep:
• Stay Cool At Night. As our body’s temperature drops, our body’s desire to be in REM sleep rises. Sleep in a cool room. Or better yet sleep naked. Clothing provides insulation, and insulation makes us sweat. We can't get quality sleep if we are sweating. You can read more sleep tips here.
• Stay Away From Light When You Sleep. When REM sleep occurs it is internally controlled by your biological clock. We have evolved to be day-active creatures and to sleep at night. If we sleep during the day, our clocks can’t - and quite frankly will never - really be re-programmed to optimize REM sleep.
• Take Magnesium: Most people are magnesium-deficient and need to supplement. In fact, research shows that half of the US population is deficient (source). Magnesium helps to maintain and fine-tune the functioning of the nervous system. This helps to positively impact REM sleep. U-Mag is a great tasting, lemon flavored magnesium drink that I recommend.
Basically, do whatever you can to maximize REM sleep. Studies are constantly showing that you are smarter, cooler, fitter, and (better looking) with it!
At Utzy, we have created a full line of sleep support supplements, you can shop our science-backed products here.
Dr. Allison Brager is a neuroscientist specializing in the physiology and genetics of sleep and performance. She is author of Meathead: Unraveling the Athletic Brain, which debunks the myth of the "dumb jock" and serves as a manual for optimizing athletic performance through neuroscience. Outside of the laboratory, she is a former college athlete, Crossfit Games team athlete, and is still active in track and field: pole vault and hurdles.
Other Resources for Optimizing Sleep:
1. My book, “Meathead: Unraveling the Athletic Brain” describes several "neurohackers" for bettering athletic performance through science.
2. Podcast on How to 10x Your Sleep.