Everything You Need to Know About REM Sleep

Did you know that sleep is as crucial to our health as nutrition and hydration?1

What’s frequently missing from the headlines on the importance of sleep, however, is that the type of sleep we receive is imperative to the sound slumber we need to “operate” at our peak.

Sleep isn’t a uniform biological function. Like breathing and digestion, it possesses gradations, patterns, and phases. And one of its most vital stages—REM sleep—is required to perform a slew of mental and psychological functions.But what is REM sleep, really? How much REM sleep do you need? What happens if you don’t sleep? And if you struggle to sleep, are there natural solutions available to help you nod off faster—and stay there?

Let’s unpack all of this together.

What Is REM Sleep?

REM sleep refers to Rapid Eye Movement sleep. REM sleep is distinct from non-REM sleep (or NREM), the other major “category” on the sleep journey.

As its name suggests, your eyes move swiftly behind your closed eyelids during this stage of rest.2Additionally—and you may not realize this—your body as a whole becomes more active. Your pulse quickens, your respiratory rate accelerates, and your brain activity speeds up.

To fully grasp REM sleep and its importance on your brain and body, it’s essential to understand the different stages of sleep.3

Sleep Architecture: The Four Stages of Sleep

We (or at least most of us) may rarely consider the sleep cycles we go through when we get under the covers. And yet, it’s these cycles that are the defining factor between a poor night’s rest and rejuvenating slumber.

Also known as “sleep architecture,” these stages unfold both sequentially and in a less linear fashion.4,5

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Stage One: NREM 1 (non-REM sleep)

It’s safe to say we’re all familiar with the prelude to that cerebral dip that defines dropping into a deep sleep. This initial stage in the sleep cycle is chiefly characterized by an overall slowing down that affects your:

  • Breath
  • Pulse
  • Eye movements
  • Muscles

It also affects your brain waves, which enters what’s known as the theta stage—that slightly dreamy but not fully awake state that helps your mind process information and construct memories.6

During this light sleep, you can be easily awakened and, if you are, may not realize you were asleep at all. If you’re left undisturbed and remain in this light sleep, it tends to last only a few minutes.

Stage One: NREM 2 (non-REM sleep)

We spend the lion’s share of our sleep in NREM 2, or roughly (and ideally) 50% of our sleep cycle.

It’s a more profound sleep stage of rest than the drifting off felt in the first stage. Your breathing continues to relax and slow down, your eye movements still, and your body temperature naturally declines.

Activity in your brain also changes, and you exhibit two neural activities: the presence of K-complexes and sleep spindles, which decrease your reaction to external stimuli like noise and touch to help you stay asleep.

Further, your body organically manufactures growth hormones, which is central to moderating your metabolism and promoting muscle and bone growth.

Stage Three: NREM 3 (non-REM sleep)

NREM 3 or N3 sleep is the deep sleep you might associate with your child or partner who cannot be budged. In this sleep stage:

  • Body movement ceases
  • Arousal significantly drops
  • Respiratory and heart rate reaches their slowest state
  • Delta brain waves dominate
  • Information is processed and memories are built

This deep, wondrous sleep doesn’t just feel fantastic: This is also when your body performs the majority of its nightly tasks, including cell regeneration and tissue repair. Your immune system also strengthens during N3 sleep.

Stage Four: REM Sleep

REM sleep or paradoxical sleep is not the deepest state of sleep you experience; in fact, it’s one of the most active. It kicks off through the release of acetylcholine and reduces the production of serotonin—a key neurotransmitter that brightens your mood when you’re awake.

As we mentioned, your heart rate, breathing, and brain rev up during the REM stage. In addition:

  • You may experience your most intense, engrossing, and vivid dreams of your sleep cycle.
  • Your muscles grow exceedingly heavy and may become temporarily paralyzed, in a state known as atonia—a natural biological function that prevents you from acting out your more vibrant dreams.
  • Your blood pressure increases.
  • Your breathing becomes irregular.
  • You might experience sexual arousal.
  • You may twitch, particularly your arms and legs.
  • Your brain activity ramps up, and may almost reach a state of wakefulness.

All in all, we go through each of these stages approximately every 70 to 120 minutes or so; in total, we spend roughly 25% in REM sleep.

That said, disruptions in the first three stages—from a loud noise, for example—can pull you out of your slumber and keep you from reaching critical REM sleep.

But why is REM sleep vital? What happens if you experience insufficient REM sleep? Why do we get REM sleep deprivation? Let’s dive in.

Why Is REM Sleep Essential?

Given that brain activity escalates during REM sleep, it's fundamental to our mental and psychological functions. It both generates and supports the following:

  • Dreaming – Why do we dream? Speculations abound but most scientists theorize that we do so to play out our unconscious fears, anxieties, hopes, and more in a secure, “contained” (if you will), and fictional setting—what Sigmund Freud referred to as a “safety valve” for our unconscious yearnings.5
  • Others hypothesize we dream to bring order to the random signals that are firing throughout our minds. While you probably won’t suffer any terrible consequences from not dreaming—indeed, research shows that some people don’t dream at all—it’s believed to be an important component of performing “mental housekeeping” and processing the emotions we go through on a daily basis.5,6

  • Cognitive development – Years ago, it was believed that our brains grew until around the age of 25… and then reached a stagnant state. And yet, fresh discoveries in the field of neuroscience reveal that our brains are more malleable than we once thought and wholly capable of changing, growing, and healing.7 REM sleep is thought to build and reinforce neural connections, which is precisely why we feel dull-minded and forgetful after skimping on sleep or tossing and turning throughout the night. It also explains why babies require boatloads of sleep and teenagers can easily stay in bed late into the morning (or even afternoon).
  • Learning – Sure, we learn plenty during high school, college, and, for some, years in graduate school. But learning most certainly doesn’t stop once we receive a diploma or complete trade school. Every day, we’re subjected to new information. REM sleep encourages your capacity to absorb these lessons and develop new skills.8
  • Emotional regulation – Research indicates a close link between poor REM sleep and an increase in mental health challenges. Why? Because it’s believed that your emotions are filtered through, organized, and managed during REM. In fact, the absence or inadequacy of REM sleep has been associated with amplified emotional reactivity and anxiety.
  • How Much REM Sleep Do You Need?

    Adults are advised to sleep seven to nine hours per night, which is sufficient time to cycle through the sleep stages. If this sounds like what you’re receiving (or hoping to receive), you should aim to obtain 60 to 120 minutes of REM sleep per night.

    How Can I Help Ensure I Receive REM Sleep?

    Sleep trackers and sleep studies can provide insight to how much REM sleep you’re receiving, but they don’t necessarily facilitate it.

    Since the REM sleep stage is the last stage in the sleep cycle, it’s critical that you get quality sleep. If you must wake up for a 4 am Zoom meeting with your boss in a different time zone, for example, you ought to adjust your bedtime to earlier in the evening; REM, after all, often occurs in the morning hours.

    Proper sleep hygiene is paramount to your health and wellness

    • Aim to go to sleep and rise at roughly the same time every day.
    • Cut your connection to your electronic devices at least an hour before your bedtime.
    • Dodge disturbing or anxiety-producing content before drifting off.
    • Exercise throughout the day.
    • Refrain from alcohol and sugary foods two to three hours before you’re planning to hit the sheets.
    • Curb your caffeine intake.
    • Endeavor to spend time outside daily to receive sufficient amounts of sun exposure; this can trigger the production of melatonin and Vitamin D, which both have a hand in sleep.9
    • Keep your room cool, dark, clean, and comfortable.

    What Can Affect REM Sleep?

    What is REM sleep? is often asked when someone is enduring some sort of sleep disturbance, but pinpointing why they feel snappy or sluggish the next day isn’t always clear-cut.

    Here are just a few scenarios that could interrupt your sleep cycle and hinder your ability to experience REM and NREM sleep:

    • Restless leg syndrome
    • Sleep apnea
    • Insomnia
    • Shift work disorder

    And if you suffer from fragmented sleep or sleep deprivation on a regular basis, it might be time to schedule an appointment with your healthcare practitioner.

    Relish REM Sleep With Cymbiotika

    REM sleep stage is part of the magic behind keeping our moods in check and our skills sharp. And as much as we know that sleep is indispensable to our entire well-being, it can elude us and keep us from feeling our best selves.

    Cymbiotikas collection of products was designed to naturally encourage overall wellness—including a refreshing night’s rest. Our Sleep Formula features several key vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other organic ingredients to promote tranquility and soothe the nervous system, all to foster deep, restful slumber.Explore our products today to wake up refreshed.

    For more sleep tips like How to Fall Asleep Faster or How To Relax Before Bed, visit our blog. If you suffer from chronic sleep deprivation, please check with a sleep expert before starting new treatments.


    1. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Sleep.https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/sleep/
    2. VeryWell Mind. What is REM sleep and how much do you need?https://www.verywellmind.com/understanding-dreams-2224258
    3. Healthline. Theta brain waves: frequency, sleep, binaural beats, and more.https://www.healthline.com/health/theta-waves#what-are-they
    4. PsychCentral. Why is REM sleep important? (And how is it related to dreams?)https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-importance-of-rem-sleep-dreaming#1
    5. Psychology Today. People who do not dream.https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/dream-catcher/201204/people-who-do-not-dream
    6. Sleep Foundation. Dreams: why we dream & how they affect sleep.https://www.sleepfoundation.org/dreams#:~:text
    7. The Neuro Clinic. Neuroplasticity: the self-healing brain. https://www.theneuroclinic.org/single-post/2018/08/13/Neuroplasticity-The-Self-Healing-Brain#:~:text=Neuroplasticity
    8. GoodRx. What is REM sleep, and how much REM is optional?https://www.goodrx.com/well-being/sleep/rem-sleep
    9. Current Pharmaceutical Design. Vitamin D and sleep regulation: Is there a role for Vitamin D?https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32156230/
    10. Healthline. The stages of sleep: what happens during each.https://www.healthline.com/health/healthy-sleep/stages-of-sleep
    11. Sleep Foundation. What happens when you sleep: the science of sleep.https://www.sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/what-happens-when-you-sleep

    by / Dec 14, 2022