In mammals, REM, or rapid eye movement, is the fifth sleep stage during which the most vivid dreaming, cognitive development, memory solidification, and processing and storing of information occurs. Ideally, the average adult should get about 90-110 minutes of REM sleep each night. The stage occurs roughly every 90 minutes, and the REM stages get longer as the night goes on. However, many people are not getting as much REM sleep as they should be, and are therefore sacrificing cognitive functioning and information that they would otherwise develop during that stage.
But fear not, extending the amount of sleep you spend in REM is possible! However, these are not quick fixes. Modifying the quality of your sleep usually requires continued choices and habits that must be addressed daily.
Alcohol and nicotine, particularly when consumed less than three hours before bedtime, can hinder REM sleep. While a glass of wine before bed may be an easy sleep solution for some, alcohol only induces a light sleep, and prevents the brain from entering REM by delaying the first REM cycle and decreasing the total amount of time spent in REM (keep in mind that this stage gets longer and longer as the night goes on, so delaying the first one means less REM sleep overall).
A lack of regular physical activity is another inhibitor of REM sleep. The keyword here is “regular,” as a single workout will probably not improve the time you spend in REM. Just twenty minutes of light to moderate exercise such as walking, yoga or jogging per day can improve the quality of your sleep. However, make sure that you work out no less than three hours before bed, as exercising any later than that will delay relaxation, and therefore sleep.
The quality and age of your mattress can also contribute to how much time you spend in REM. If your mattress is older than nine to ten years, it may be preventing you from falling and staying in quality sleep. Stress is another factor, as it may affect us beyond our waking hours and actually prevent us from getting the quality sleep we need.
If you feel that you are taking every measure to maximize your REM sleep, from renewing your mattress and decreasing alcohol intake to minimizing stress and working out every day, but still don’t feel any cognitive improvement, you may want to try three milligrams of melatonin 20 minutes before bed. Melatonin is a natural sleep aid, and is produced when sleep signals, such as dusk, occur. Taking melatonin can help to induce sleep naturally, bringing you to dreamland (and maximum REM time) sooner and easier.