There’s nothing quite like waking up and being able to remember a dream. Whether it is a crazy dream about a walrus running amok in your kitchen while your kids climb the walls shooting out Spiderman webs, or a more premonition-like dream that seems to be a warning of things to come, being able to recall what you dreamt is really cool.
But in order to be able to remember what you saw while you were sleeping, you have to experience REM sleep.
What is REM sleep?
REM stands for rapid eye movement, and is one of the cycles of sleep that we go through. According to WebMD, we go through three stages of non-REM sleep (light sleep) before entering your first stage of REM sleep, which usually happens about 90 minutes after you fall asleep. You will then cycle through several stages of REM with each successive stage lasting longer until the last stage occurs toward the end of your night’s sleep. This final stage can last up to an hour, and is where your most vivid and memorable dreams take place.
During REM, your eyes move rapidly in several directions beneath your eyelids as if you are watching something exciting happen. In fact, research conducted in the journal Nature Communications found that the brain is switching to different mental imagery when the eyes move, concluding that each time our eyes move, the brain forms a new mental image.
And while the ability to dream and recall dreams is a nice feature of REM sleep . . .
What else happens during REM sleep?
Your heart rate variability (HRV) changes
Research shows that heart rate variability— the time between beats —fluctuates as you transition between light, deep, and REM sleep. These findings indicated that being asleep and awake are not the only parts of sleep. It shows that there are variations (stages) during sleep itself.
Helps you to better handle stress during the day
In the above research, it was found that HRV was higher during REM sleep, which has also been found to have a tie to stress management. Because a higher HRV (or greater variability between heartbeats) is a strong indicator that the body will be able to tolerate upcoming stressors and/or recover from past stress.
Several studies over the years, including this one published by the American Psychological Association, found that during REM sleep, the brain to stores new information into long-term memory. When this happens, you are able to better retain information learned and build upon that knowledge.
Helps you deal with and understand emotions
REM sleep is tied to emotions and how we express our own and deal with emotions that are presented to us.
In a study researching mental activity during sleep, it was found that those who experienced REM sleep were able to express and understand both positive and negative emotions, in particular, joy/elation, surprise, anger, and anxiety/ fear. However, those who were not able to experience REM sleep most often experienced/recognized anxiety/fear and surprise.
How can you make sure you are getting enough REM sleep?
Now that you know how important REM sleep is to your overall health and well-being, how do you make sure that you get enough of it?
Track your sleep
Knowledge is power, and sleep trackers through the use of biometrics can let you know when you have experienced light (non-REM) sleep and deep (REM) sleep simply my tracking your HRV. You can even link the data to an app on your phone to help you better see your sleep patterns.
Take a nap
Because your body needs REM sleep, if you miss it during the night, the next time you sleep, it will go into an REM sleep phase, skipping non-REM sleep entirely. Simply by taking a nap, you can catch up on those all-important REMs.
Just get to sleep
If you can’t nap, it’s OK. Most people can’t. Your next night’s sleep will likely have you all caught up. In fact, according to Scientific America, when you lose even 30 minutes of REM sleep -- say, only getting 74 minutes -- the next night, you could very well jump up to 100 minutes. This is also why you tend to have more vivid dreams when you’re really tired.
Simply do your best to get the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep each night so that you can wake up fully rested with some stories to share of your overnight adventures that may or may not include walruses.