It seems crazy that something you spend ⅓ of your life doing is also something that you likely know very little about. You know that it is essential and that you should probably get more. You know that you feel better and can focus better on the next day’s challenges and activities when you have a restful night. But have you ever wondered how sleep actually works? Or what is REM, and why it is so important? Read on to find out more.
What is sleep, and why is it important?
If you’ve ever tried to go for more than a day without resting, you likely relied on a large amount of caffeine or other stimuli to keep you going. When left to its natural tendencies, your body craves sleep and will notify you when it’s time to hit the hay. This natural biological response is an innate tool for survival. Just as your body needs food and water to survive, it needs sleep as well.
Research has shown that sleep deprivation or consistent poor quality sleep can contribute to several dangerous conditions, including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity. Plus, rat studies have shown that chronic sleeplessness could even decrease your lifespan. Without sleep, you are unable to grasp complex topics, your response time is greatly diminished, and you may forget information or struggle to form new memories.
How does it work?
Several structures in the brain, including the hypothalamus, the pineal gland, and the basal forebrain (to name just a few), are critical for appropriate rest. These and other structures work together to place your body in a state of supported unawareness. Your physical body certainly is resting and recuperating, and though it may seem like your mind is doing the same, research shows that it is working overtime to process vast amounts of sensory input. While you frolic in dreamland, your superstar of a brain is still working hard to form neural pathways, encode information from the day, and remove toxins — all without your knowledge or conscious effort. What an incredible organ!
What is REM sleep?
Though sleep is technically divided into four stages, it is often condensed into just two: REM and non-REM. Non-REM sleep occurs first and includes the progression from wakefulness to sleep, slowing of brain activity, and a period of deep sleep that is critical for feeling rested. REM is the phase that usually begins around 90 minutes after you fall asleep.
This phase is characterized by mixed frequency brain wave activity, similar to when you are awake and rapid eye movement under closed eye rids, hence the name REM (rapid eye movement). It also brings faster breathing and an increased heart rate and blood pressure. Whether or not you remember them in the morning, you primarily dream during REM, where your legs become paralyzed in order to prevent you from engaging in and acting out your dreams. Keep in mind, there is a condition known as REM Sleep Behavior Disorder, which causes you to move and flail about or talk, cry, or laugh in response to your dream. Though it is usually harmless, you should consult with a specialist if you believe you have REM Sleep Behavior Disorder.
Why is it important?
Though all sleep phases are critical for memory retention and development, REM is the primary time when your brain is exercising neural connections and forming long-lasting memories. It also allows you to learn skills and retain information. Plus, entering into this phase of sleep is necessary for a long, healthy life. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, one study of rats deprived of REM sleep showed a significantly decreased lifespan when compared with rats who achieved healthy levels of REM sleep.
How much sleep do you need?
Though the amount of sleep required to function properly may vary from person to person and is dependant on age and activity level, most experts suggest that you try to get at least eight hours of quality sleep each night. If you feel like you don’t have enough time to get this much sleep, try to adjust your schedule and cut out things that prevent you from sleeping, wherever possible. Stick to a healthy bedtime routine where you are getting up and going to sleep at the same time each day and avoid using your electronics for at least an hour before bed.