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How To Get More REM Sleep? Meet Your Overall Sleep Need

Want to get more REM Sleep? Focus on getting enough healthy sleep in general and your body will take care of the rest.
Published
2022-09-26
Updated
15 MINS
Sleeping couple in bed trying to get more REM sleep

Perhaps you’ve been analyzing your sleep stages and noticed REM (or rapid eye movement sleep) is a small percentage of your night. You might think getting more REM could help you have more dreams or even beat sleepiness during the day. Either way, you may want to know how to get more of it. 

But, it’s not as simple as that. Not only are all sleep stages important to general well-being and energy levels, there’s actually not a lot you can do to control how long you spend in certain stages of sleep. Plus, at-home sleep tracking is often inaccurate, so you may be getting more REM than you think and it can be difficult to know if any changes you make actually lead to you getting more of it. 

The one thing you can control, however, is how long you sleep for overall — and that will directly affect how much REM you get. 

Below, we’ll dive into what REM sleep is, how you can get more of it, and why you shouldn’t worry too much about how much of it you get (and what to do instead).  

What is REM Sleep?

REM sleep stands for rapid eye movement sleep. It’s one of the stages of sleep that we cycle through each night. In total, REM sleep makes up about 20% to 25% of the night. 

You’ll most likely have dreams during REM sleep and your eyes can be seen moving quickly underneath your eyelids — hence the name. 

A night of sleep is split between non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM sleep) and REM sleep, and it usually looks something like this: 

  • Stage 1: This is when we’re first drifting off and we can easily be woken up. We spend 2% to 5% of our total sleep time in this stage. 
  • Stage 2: We spend about 45% to 55% in stage 2, also known as light sleep. This is where our breathing, heart rate, and brain activity all begin to slow down as we move deeper into sleep.
  • Stage 3 or deep sleep: This phase is also known as slow-wave sleep because it’s characterized by slow-wave brain activity. Most of this stage happens within the first third of the night, and it's the stage that’s the hardest to be woken up from. 
  • REM sleep: In this stage, our muscles are temporarily paralyzed to stop us acting out our dreams. If you wake up remembering a vivid dream, you were probably in this stage. Brain wave activity, breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure all rise. In the first sleep cycle, we may only spend one to five minutes in REM, and the amount of time we spend in REM usually increases as the night progresses. This is why you need to get enough sleep overall to get enough REM, as most REM happens in the second half of the night. 

When you’ve moved through all of the sleep stages, you’ll begin a new cycle from the beginning. Each cycle could last between 70 to 120 minutes.  

Why is REM Sleep Needed?

While deep sleep sounds like the most needed stage of sleep, every stage is in fact important. And that includes REM — it’s not just for dreams! 

It’s thought that REM is important for: 

  • Memory consolidation
  • Brain development and learning motor skills   
  • Regulating emotions 
  • Creativity: REM may enhance creativity and a lack of sleep lowers it.   
  • Pain response: One study found that when we don’t get enough REM sleep, our response to pain increases the next day. 
  • Executive function: This includes working memory, self-control, and flexible thinking. Research suggests more REM sleep and fewer awakenings during the night are significantly associated with better performance tests measuring executive function. 
  • Accuracy: In the study above, accuracy was reduced in individuals who had less REM sleep. 
  • Reducing dementia risk: Research has found less REM sleep is associated with a higher risk of dementia. 
  • Language learning: According to sleep expert and author of Why We Sleep Matthew Walker, REM may even play a role in language acquisition in babies. A six-month-old may spend 50% of their time asleep in REM. 
  • Quality of sleep: One study found self-reported sleep quality was positively associated with the duration of REM sleep — although there’s no agreed-upon definition for sleep quality yet. 

How Much REM Sleep Should I Get?

There’s no one single answer to the question of how much REM sleep you should get. Although research shows REM makes up 20% to 25% of total sleep time, the amount of sleep we all need is highly unique. 

This is called your sleep need. It’s determined by genetics and one study suggests the average sleep need is 8 hours 40 minutes, plus or minus 10 minutes or so. However, 13.5% of us may need 9 hours or more sleep a night.

You can find out your sleep need with the RISE app. RISE uses your phone use behavior and proprietary sleep-science-based models to work this out, and it gives you a number to aim for each night in hours and minutes. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to view their sleep need. 

Plus, the amount of REM sleep you need can change from night to night. If you’ve had a few nights of sleep deprivation, for example, you’ll experience REM rebound. This is when your body takes the opportunity to get more REM than usual to make up for what it lost out on. 

One study looked at participants who only got six hours of sleep a night for six nights, followed by three recovery nights of 10 hours of sleep. The researchers found the amount of deep sleep didn’t change by much between the six-hour sleep nights and the 10-hour sleep nights. The amount of REM, however, decreased significantly during the restricted nights and then increased significantly during the 10-hour nights (in what’s known scientifically as a ‘REM rebound’, which describes the increased frequency, depth, and intensity of REM sleep following a bout of sleep deprivation).

The researchers said this suggests: “a stronger biological drive to retain deep sleep than REM sleep.” 

But, that doesn’t mean REM isn’t needed. Participants experienced hormonal changes and their neurobehavior was impacted, even though deep sleep stayed roughly the same. The researchers said this shows that other stages, like stage 2 and REM, are necessary. 

The REM rebound following this period of restricted sleep also shows your brain is very good at self-optimizing and getting the REM it needs when you allow yourself to catch up on lost sleep

You can learn more about how much REM sleep you need here, and why we say you don’t need to know. 

How to Get More REM Sleep?

Your sleep tracker might give you the full breakdown of how long you spent in each sleep stage, but even if it were accurate (which studies show it most likely isn’t), the reality is you can’t really do much about it. If you spend eight hours asleep, for example, you can’t decide how those hours will be allocated to different sleep stages. 

But, your body is very good at self-optimizing and spending the right amount of time in each sleep stage. You just have to give it the chance by focusing on getting enough sleep overall and making sure this sleep is healthy naturalistic sleep through good sleep hygiene (more on that soon).

Here’s how to make sure you’re getting enough REM sleep.

Find Out (and Meet) Your Sleep Need 

Use the RISE app to work out your individual sleep need and start aiming for this number each night. When you don’t get enough sleep, you can actually deny your body REM sleep in particular. 

While we get some REM sleep as part of each cycle, we get much more of it in the second half of the night, as the time we spend in REM increases with each cycle. So, if you don’t sleep for long enough, your body won’t get to spend as much time as it would like to in REM. 

For example, if your sleep need is eight hours and you sleep from midnight to 6 a.m., you’ve lost out on two hours of sleep. But, while that’s just a 25% reduction in total sleep time, that may translate to 60% to 90% of lost REM sleep. 

So, getting enough sleep in general is the key to getting enough REM. 

Bonus tip: Think about sleep efficiency, or how long you spend in bed actually sleeping. It takes some time for you to fall asleep (also known as sleep latency) and you wake up during the night (also known as sleep fragmentation). So, if your sleep need is 8 hours 30 minutes, you need to be in bed for longer than this to meet your sleep need. Add 30 minutes to an hour to your sleep need and spend this long in bed to ensure you get enough sleep and REM sleep. 

Practice Good Sleep Hygiene 

RISE app screenshot showing you when to get and avoid blue light and other sleep hygiene habits.
The RISE app can guide you through 20+ sleep hygiene habits.

Sleep hygiene is the set of daily behaviors you can do to help you fall asleep faster and wake up less often during the night. When your sleep hygiene is on point, you’ll have a much higher chance of getting enough sleep each night, and therefore getting enough REM sleep, too. The sleep you do get will also be set up to include enough REM sleep, as poor sleep habit behaviors like drinking alcohol too close to bedtime can suppress this sleep stage. 

Here’s what to do: 

  • Get light first thing: This will reset your circadian rhythm, or body clock, for the day, helping you feel sleepy at the right time that evening. Aim for 10 minutes of natural light as soon as possible after waking up, and make that 30 if it’s an overcast day or if you’re getting light through a window. 
  • Avoid light in the evenings: Light suppresses the sleep hormone melatonin. Dim the lights and put on blue-light blocking glasses 90 minutes before bed. 
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, exercise, and large meals too close to bedtime: All four can keep you up or wake you up during the night. RISE can tell you the best time to avoid each one depending on your circadian rhythm. 
  • Make your bedroom dark, cool, and quiet: Set the thermostat to 65 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit, wear an eye mask, and use blackout curtains and earplugs to help you fall asleep and reduce sleep disruptions. 
  • Do a relaxing bedtime routine: Give yourself time to unwind before bed each night. This helps to reduce stress and anxiety and helps you fall asleep faster. Use this time to read, do yoga, journal, or listen to music. Learn more about how to create the perfect “adult” bedtime routine here. 

To start getting better sleep, you can learn more about sleep hygiene here. And to stay on top of all of these sleep habits, RISE can remind you when to do them at the right times each day. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications. 

Live in Sync with Circadian Rhythm 

RISE app screenshot showing your melatonin window so you know the best time to go to sleep.
The RISE app can tell you the best time to go to bed.

Your circadian rhythm is your body’s internal biological clock. It runs on a roughly 24-hour cycle and dictates things like your energy levels, hormone production, and body temperature throughout the day and night.

You might be out of sync with your circadian rhythm if:

  • You’re a shift worker.
  • You have social jet lag, or go to sleep later on the weekends than during the week (87% of us do).
  • You’re ignoring your chronotype, like a night owl forcing themselves to be a morning person.

When you’re living out of sync with your circadian rhythm, it’s much harder to get the sleep you need, as you might not feel sleepy when you head to bed, for example. 

You can sync up by: 

  • Honoring your chronotype: If your body naturally wants to go to sleep and wake up later, let it. If this doesn’t fit with your lifestyle, you can reset your circadian rhythm and shift it earlier.
  • Keeping a consistent sleep pattern: Find the best sleep schedule for you and then stick to it, even on weekends. 
  • Going to sleep at the right time for you: Check RISE for your Melatonin Window, the roughly one-hour window of time when your body’s rate of melatonin production will be at its highest. Head to bed in this window of time and you’ll have a much higher chance of falling and staying asleep. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up a daily Melatonin Window reminder.

What Science Says to Get More REM Sleep 

While we recommend not worrying about REM, or any other sleep stage, and focusing instead on getting enough sleep overall, there are a few things you can do to make sure you’re not getting in the way of getting your REM. 

  • Avoid alcohol too close to bedtime: Alcohol suppresses REM sleep. You take longer to reach the REM stage and you get less of it overall. Either skip the drinks altogether or finish your drinks three to four hours before heading to bed. RISE can tell you the best time to do this. RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their limit alcohol reminder.
  • Avoid sleep aids: Research says sleep aids like benzodiazepines decrease how long you spend in REM and increase the arousal threshold when in REM, or how easily you can be woken up. Barbiturates, which can be used to treat sleep disorders like insomnia, are also associated with decreased REM sleep. 
  • Avoid marijuana: Research suggests marijuana reduces total REM sleep and REM density. It may also increase how long it takes you to get to the REM sleep stage, but results here are contradictory.  
  • Avoid antidepressants (if possible): Antidepressants increase how long it takes you to reach the REM stage and decrease how much of it you get overall — and this is true for both healthy and depressed patients. For some antidepressants, this reduction is only seen in the first few weeks of treatment and REM slowly increases again. 

Should I Worry About How Much REM Sleep I Get?

The short answer is no. You can’t do too much about it. Of course, you can cut down on alcohol and avoid sleep medicines, but you should be doing that anyway as part of good sleep hygiene to help you get a good night’s sleep overall. 

What’s more, sleep tracking is often unreliable. So, if your fitness tracker says you spent a certain percentage of your sleep time in REM, and you’re trying to get this number up, it may not be something you can trust. In fact, when using just electrical brainwave activity, it’s often impossible to tell REM sleep and wakefulness apart. 

Beyond that, it’s important to remember all sleep stages are important for your overall wellness. Deep sleep, for example, strengthens your immune system, and stage 2 is associated with overnight motor skill improvement. So, you shouldn’t focus on just one stage. 

Finally, if you’re trying to get more REM sleep to get more energy, improve your mental health, or boost your productivity, for example, meeting your overall sleep need and living in sync with your circadian rhythm are the two most important things to focus on. 

If you’re meeting your sleep need and following good sleep hygiene, then you don’t need to worry too much. You’ll be setting your brain and body up to get enough REM sleep, without any additional work needed from you.

Heads-up: You don’t need to worry about how to get more deep sleep, either. 

You Don’t Need to Worry About REM Sleep 

While getting enough REM sleep is important, there’s not much you can do to control how your body cycles through the sleep stages. What you can do, however, is get enough sleep overall, sync up this sleep with your circadian rhythm, and practice good sleep hygiene. 

The RISE app can help with all three. The app can work out your unique sleep need, predict your circadian rhythm each day, and guide you through 20+ sleep hygiene habits to help you stay on top of them. 

So, you can stop worrying about getting more REM sleep. If you focus on getting enough sleep overall, your body will take care of the rest.

How much sleep is right for you?

Summary FAQs

How can I increase my REM sleep?

You can increase your REM sleep by avoiding alcohol, marijuana, and sleep aids. But, the best way to ensure you’re getting enough REM sleep is by getting enough sleep overall as your body will spend the right amount of time in each sleep stage if you give it enough time to do so.

How to increase REM sleep naturally?

You can increase REM sleep naturally by avoiding alcohol, marijuana, and sleep aids like benzodiazepines. Getting enough sleep in general also ensures you’ll get enough REM sleep, as your body will naturally spend the right amount of time in each stage.

Supplements to increase REM sleep

There’s not much research into whether supplements can increase REM sleep. If you want to increase your REM sleep, your best bet is to focus on getting enough healthy sleep in general each night, your body will take care of the rest.

What causes lack of REM sleep?

A lack of REM sleep can be caused by not sleeping for long enough, alcohol, marijuana, antidepressants, and sleep aids. To get enough REM sleep, make sure you’re getting enough sleep overall.

How much REM sleep do you need?

REM sleep can make up 20% to 25% of your total sleep time, but we all need a different amount of sleep overall. Plus, you may need a different amount of REM each night depending on how much sleep you’ve been getting recently.

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