Almost every sleep tracker you come across lavishes the utmost importance on different stages of sleep, REM sleep included. As REM sleep plays a vital role in your day-to-day functioning — from reading your client’s non-verbal cues to being creative during your team’s brainstorming session — you get caught up in obtaining enough REM sleep each night. But how much REM sleep do you need?
PSA: You don’t need to know the answer, actually. The TL;DR version: Your brain self-optimizes in a way that naturally helps you get the amount of REM sleep you need, so long as you meet your sleep need via healthy, naturalistic sleep. Interested in learning more? Keep reading to find out the details.
Disclaimer: This post is not intended as medical advice. While the RISE app supports natural sleep patterns and boosts sleep hygiene, it does not treat medical conditions.
Before we go into the somewhat unconventional take of not having to know how much REM sleep you need, let’s first explore where the REM stage stands in the grand scheme of sleep.
According to sleep research, sleep is split into two types:
Every stage of sleep is important, but REM sleep beneficially impacts your waking life through the following ways:
When you drift off to sleep tonight, you will go through about 4-6 sleep cycles — presuming your sleep duration meets your sleep need, i.e, the genetically determined amount of sleep your body needs. Each sleep cycle is roughly 90 minutes and begins with non-REM sleep (stages 1 to 4) before wrapping up with REM sleep.
As the night wears on, you spend less time in NREM sleep and longer in REM. In the first cycle, REM sleep lasts for about 10-15 minutes, whereas in the last cycle, it persists for up to an hour. By the fifth or sixth sleep cycle, which coincides with the early to late morning hours, you are now deep in REM-rich sleep.
For the record, REM sleep constitutes around 20-25% of your total sleep duration at night, provided that you’ve actualized your sleep need.
Sleep deprivation (that robs you of time spent in any and all sleep stages) cripples your overall health and wellness. A lack of sleep is closely associated with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. Certain health conditions (for example, obesity) also trigger sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea, compounding the problem of sleep loss.
Fun fact: It’s a well-known fact that newborns and infants need ample sleep, around 14-16 hours, to be exact. What you may not know is that they spend 50% of their snooze time in the REM stage. As they get older, the NREM/REM balance tilts in the favor of non-REM sleep.
Instead of mulling over your sleep patterns on your sleep tracking app, we believe there’s no need to get hung up over how much REM sleep you need, mainly due to these five reasons:
Befuddlingly, many sleep trackers on the market don’t take your sleep need into account. Instead, they create their own version of “sleep quality,” a questionable construct because there is currently no scientific consensus on what the term means.
So, when a sleep app device (or article) says that a certain percentage of your sleep patterns needs to be in the REM stage without first pegging it to your individual sleep need is essentially propagating bad science. We’ll use a hypothetical example to illustrate this.
Let’s say your sleep tracker has recorded last night’s sleep duration as 7 hours and 53 minutes, with 22.8% of your total sleep time spent in the REM stage. Given that this percentage sits within the optimal range of REM sleep mentioned previously, it seems you’ve reaped a good night’s sleep, right? Plot twist: Your sleep need is likely higher than eight hours (the average sleep need is around 8 hours and 10 minutes), in which case your recent sleep schedule was too short to get enough sleep, particularly that of REM.
Even if you knew how much REM sleep you individually needed, consumer sleep trackers cannot replicate the gold-standard accuracy of the polysomnography (PSG), the benchmark for tracking sleep stages. And the irony? In professional sleep labs, tests are manually performed, and sleep experts agree on the final score only about 80% of the time.
If you need scientific proof about your tracker’s imprecision, a groundbreaking 2019 study revealed that Fitbit's sleep-tracking models underrate how much time you take to fall asleep. This could potentially affect other sleep metrics, like the total time spent in the REM stage.
Instead of relying on inconclusive (and possibly inaccurate) metrics like “quality sleep,” sleep debt is the only objective sleep score that matters. If you’re new to the term, sleep debt refers to the amount of sleep you’ve missed out on in the past 14 days relative to your sleep need.
To help you get enough naturalistic, healthy sleep, the RISE app uses the past 365 days of sleep data stored in your phone to calculate your unique sleep need. So long as you consistently meet your sleep need and actively keep your sleep debt below five hours, you are most likely getting enough REM sleep each night to feel and function at your best during daylight.
To complicate matters, the amount of REM sleep you need changes from night to night, especially if you haven’t been meeting your sleep need. We’ll look at these fascinating fluctuations through the lens of recovery sleep following a bout of sleep deprivation.
In the quest for understanding sleep loss’ ill effects, a sleep study discovered that mild sleep deprivation (six hours of sleep per night for a week) shortchanges REM sleep at the expense of retaining deep sleep. During the two nights of recovery sleep, participants experienced a REM rebound. That means they fell into REM sleep more quickly and stayed in this stage longer than usual. Interestingly, the amount of SWS remained the same during the recovery period.
REM sleep volume also varies between healthy people and those with underlying health issues. For instance, depressed individuals spend more time in the REM stage and less time in non-REM sleep. Regrettably, skimping on deep sleep deprives your body of its fatigue-neutralizing restorative powers. This creates a vicious cycle of poor sleep, daytime sleepiness, and low mood in the depressed populace.
Some research evidence suggests REM sleep deprivation may water down depression. However, this treatment option should only be used under the guidance of a licensed healthcare professional. Also, the American Psychological Association highly recommends cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for treating depression.
Another reason why it’s futile to decode how much REM sleep you need is there’s nothing you can do to get “the right amount” or “more.” Your brain naturally self-optimizes in this aspect. It knows precisely how much time you need in each stage of sleep every night. This explains why your sleep architecture looks different in normal sleep versus recovery sleep as mentioned earlier.
To assist with your brain’s master plan for naturalistic, healthy sleep, the best thing you can do is to consistently meet your sleep need.
That said, there are a few things that stymie your brain’s sleep propensity, with poor sleep hygiene at the top of the list:
One classic example of unhealthy sleep habits is indulging in booze too close to your target bedtime. Here’s how your glass of red throws a wrench into your brain’s best-laid plans for sufficient REM sleep:
While continual liquor consumption reduces REM sleep to a lesser degree, you’ll experience a REM rebound once you’ve weaned off alcohol.
An early-bird schedule that cuts into your sleep need disadvantages your REM sleep cycles given that they predominate in the back half of the night.
Let’s say your biological sleep need stands at eight hours. Falling asleep at midnight and waking up at 6 a.m. lops two hours off your usual sleep schedule. But that 25% reduction in your sleep duration doesn’t correspond to a quarter decline in REM sleep. As Matthew Walker warned in his book, Why We Sleep, you’ve likely lost about 60-90% of the REM sleep you needed!
Certain medications, like antidepressants, partially or fully quell REM sleep. Think monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), and selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). An anti-nausea drug known as scopolamine also interferes with REM sleep.
If you’re on any of the above medications, speak with your primary doctor to discuss alternative drugs that won’t disrupt your REM cycles.
Instead of racking your brain over how much REM sleep you need, prioritize meeting your sleep need by giving yourself ample sleep opportunity in bed. Also, adopt healthy sleep habits that take your circadian rhythm (aka the internal body clock) into account. Our step-by-step Sleep Guide has everything you require to brush up on your sleep hygiene practices.
RISE leverages this two-pronged approach to help you avoid self-sabotaging your brain’s self-optimizing nature for healthy sleep. If you want to get enough REM sleep on a nightly basis, download the RISE app today.
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