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4 Ways to Increase Your REM Sleep and Improve Your Well-Being

REM sleep optimizes emotional and mental health

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sleeping cat
By Zoran Milutinovic

Did you know that all it takes is one sleepless night to trigger a 30 percent rise in your anxiety levels? We’re already anxious over the state of the world with Coronanvirus levels resurging and more restrictions likely any second now (if you haven’t already experienced newly enforced lockdowns). It’s a vicious cycle.

We’re too anxious to fall asleep, so we feel terrible the next day. Which then leads to more anxiety the following night about falling asleep. Ask most people why they’re having trouble sleeping, and they’ll say it’s because they can’t shut off their racing minds.

According to Harvard Medical School (HMS), focusing on increasing your rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep can be a great place to start on your journey to better mental health.

REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is the period when people dream . . . Studies report that REM sleep enhances learning and memory, and contributes to emotional health — in complex ways.

Although scientists are still trying to tease apart all the mechanisms, they’ve discovered that sleep disruption — which affects levels of neurotransmitters and stress hormones, among other things — wreaks havoc in the brain, impairing thinking and emotional regulation.

We were a chronically-stressed population before the pandemic and will likely continue to be one after, but if you start to focus your attention on routines that increase REM sleep, you can find a sleep practice that works for you.

There are hundreds of so-called remedies for sleep deprivation from taking Benadryl to natural supplements to prescription sleep aids. It can be confusing to figure out what’s real and what’s bogus. I’ll outline four scientifically-backed ways to improve the amount of time you spend dreaming.

1. Increase Total Sleep

Sorry if this seems obvious, but spending more time horizontal is the best way to increase your chances of getting more REM sleep. REM sleep is the period when people dream. According to HMS, body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing increase to levels measured when people are awake. They report that studies show REM sleep enhances learning and memory and contributes to emotional health — in complex ways.

Is it hard to shut off your favorite show at night or skip your evening downtime to get in bed early? Heck yeah, it is. However, think about it this way, if you wouldn’t get up an hour earlier to do it (most people won’t wake up at 5 a.m. just to watch Netflix), then don’t stay up an hour later to do it.

The benefits of just one extra hour of sleep per night are well-defined. The University of Surrey’s sleep research center conducted a study where half the group slept 6.5 hours for a week and the other half slept 7.5. At the end of the first week, the participants switched protocols the second week.

The authors state that when the volunteers cut back from seven-and-a-half to six-and-a-half hours’ sleep a night, genes that are associated with processes like inflammation, immune response, and response to stress became more active. The team also saw increases in the activity of genes associated with diabetes and the risk of cancer. The reverse happened when the volunteers added an hour of sleep.

2. Don’t Force Yourself Into an Early Morning Wake Schedule

The Cleveland Clinic states the first REM sleep cycle happens around 90 minutes after you fall asleep. On average, you’ll cycle through three to five periods of REM sleep each night, with each cycle getting a little longer. Healthy adults average 20–25 percent of total sleep in this stage.

BBC News reports,

During REM sleep an extraordinary thing happens. One of the stress-related chemicals in the brain, noradrenalin, is switched off. It’s the only time, day or night, this happens. It allows us to remain calm while our brains reprocess all the experiences of the day, helping us come to terms with particularly emotional events.

We get more REM sleep in the last half of the night. Which means that if you are woken unexpectedly, your brain may not have dealt with all your emotions — which could leave you stressed and anxious.

This also means that if you set your alarm for 5 a.m. to increase your productivity, you might do so at the expense of your mental health (sorry, Hal Enrod — author of The Miracle Morning). Of course, if you go to bed at 9 p.m. you may have plenty of time to finish your REM cycles, but it’s not likely if you’re going to bed at midnight or later.

If you find it incredibly difficult to fall asleep at 10 p.m. (scientists have found a gene may make some people night owls) it’s okay to stay up until you are naturally more tired, but give yourself time to sleep longer in the morning. This is 100 percent my husband. He’s unable to fall asleep before 11 p.m. Unfortunately, the world isn’t always kind to night owls with work schedules, but making himself get up even earlier to work out or get extra work finished would make him miserable.

3. Don’t Drink Alcohol at Bedtime

Alcohol is a depressant, which can fool you into thinking you’ll sleep better after imbibing. However, don’t confuse sedation with sleep — it’s not the same thing.

According to Psychology Today, alcohol is the most common sleep aid with up to 20 percent of adults using it to help them fall asleep. The article goes on to say that in the first half of the night when the body is metabolizing alcohol, studies show people spend more time in deep, slow-wave sleep and less time in REM sleep. In the second half of the night, people experience micro-awakenings preventing enough time in any stage.

Moderate drinking may be fine but it’s best not to drink much right before bed for a healthy night’s sleep. Chronic or excessive drinking is correlated with insomnia and other sleep conditions.

4. Be Careful with Sleep Aids

Matthew Walker, director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Why We Sleep says,

Unfortunately the current set or classes of sleeping pills that we have do not produce naturalistic sleep. So they are all a broad set of chemicals that we call the sedative hypnotics, and sedation is not sleep, it’s very different. It doesn’t give you the restorative natural benefits of sleep. … If you look at the electrical signature of sleep that you have when you’re taking those medications, it’s not the same as a normal night of sleep.

Recent guidelines from the American College of Physicians, in the Annals of Internal Medicine, recommend psychotherapy as a first-line treatment for chronic patients instead of medications. In fact, cognitive-behavioral therapy helps by reducing the worry, anxiety, and fear around not being able to fall asleep, which often keeps insomniacs awake at night.

Some prescription sleep aids have dangerous side effects, including decreased awareness, hallucinations, changes in behavior, memory problems, sleepwalking, sleep eating (and cooking), and even sleep-driving.

What about over-the-counter medications like antihistamines (Benadryl)? The Mayo Clinic says if you’re struggling with chronic insomnia, don’t rely on antihistamines for a good night’s sleep. It’s easy to develop a tolerance, so the longer you take them, the more you’ll need. You can also experience daytime drowsiness, dry mouth, and dizziness.

On a positive note, the natural supplement melatonin may have some efficacy in improving sleep patterns. A metanalysis published in Nutrition Journal concluded melatonin shows promise to prevent phase shifts from jet lag and improve insomnia in otherwise healthy adults, but to a limited extent; the use of melatonin in shift workers is inconclusive.

Final Thoughts

We will spend about 1/3 of our lives sleeping or trying to sleep by the time it’s all said and done. While news reports and websites spend a lot of time talking about the importance of deep sleep (for good reason), REM sleep is the most important to our mental health.

Go several nights without it, and your body will compensate with a REM rebound effect, where you spend more time in this stage. Chronic alcoholics can experience hallucinations during withdrawal — researchers believe this the body’s attempt to catch up on REM deprivation (basically dreaming while awake).

Other ways to get a good night’s sleep from Walker’s book include,

  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even after a bad night’s sleep or on the weekend.
  • Keep your bedroom temperature cool; about 65 degrees Fahrenheit is optimal for cooling your body towards sleep. Wear socks if your feet are cold.
  • An hour before bedtime, dim the lights and turn off all screens. Blackout curtains are helpful.
  • If you can’t sleep, get out of bed and do something quiet and relaxing until the urge to sleep returns. Then go back to bed.
  • Avoid caffeine after 1 p.m. and never go to bed tipsy.

For increased REM sleep, follow the tips outlined in the article.

  • Get more total sleep.
  • Don’t force yourself to get up before you’ve had a chance to experience several REM cycles (typically about 8 hours).
  • Avoid alcohol before sleep.
  • Be wary of prescription sleep aids and over-the-counter antihistamines.

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