What is REM Sleep and Why it’s Important

If you follow sleep trends at all, you’ve probably heard the term REM sleep thrown around a lot. It’s associated with a ton of articles on cognitive function and productivity at the workplace. That being said, it’s not the easiest concept to understand in the world. Isn’t sleep just… sleep? Turns out, no. Sleep is as varied and interesting as our waking hours. So what is REM sleep and how do I get it? We’ve got you covered on what you need to know to make sure you’re refreshed and ready to face the day — with plenty of REM sleep.

What is REM Sleep? The Final and Deepest Stage of Rest

Sleep is divided into four stages. As we lay down and sleep, we progress gradually from a state of near-consciousness to a place of deepest sleep. In stages one and two, our senses are gradually turned off (or turned inward) so that noise and light have less of an effect on our sleep. In stage three we reach deep sleep, where the body and brain’s activities drop to their lowest point. At this point, blood is redirected from the brain to the muscles.

But something different happens in the fourth and final stage of sleep. REM, an acronym for the term rapid eye movement, activates our brains — even more so than when we are conscious. This is when the majority of our dreams take place. Dreams aren’t the only important part of REM sleep though, it’s when a ton of our processing happens. This is a crucial part of brain health and productivity. When asking what is REM sleep, it’s important to understand WHY it’s important for our waking hours.

Why is REM Sleep So Important?

Besides being an extremely active time for our brains, REM sleep is when our brains process and synthesize memories and emotions. This is a crucial part of how we learn, and a big idea when it comes to higher-level thoughts. If we shortchange our REM sleep, we risk having slower cognitive functions and worse social processing. That means that you’re going to have less ability to understand new tasks at work the next day, and you might not be able to understand or empathize with coworkers and family the way you would if you had a full night’s sleep. This idea is why it’s so crucial for understanding what is REM sleep: it has real-world implications.

That’s not the only problem, studies have shown that problems with memory and concentration can also stem from not getting enough REM sleep. A 2008 sleep poll found that people who slept less than six hours per night were twice as likely to report difficulty concentrating as those who got a full night’s sleep.

Not Getting Enough REM Sleep is a Vicious Cycle That Leads to Big Problems

So here’s why you not getting enough sleep is really bad news: when you cut back on sleep, your REM is the first thing to suffer. There are a couple of reasons for this, but here is the main idea to get ahold of. When your brain is starved for sleep (known as sleep deprivation), it opts for the other, more physical parts of sleep. Your body and brain remain in the first three stages, opting for lighter sleep, instead of giving your brain and cognitive functions the attention they need and deserve. It’s a huge part of why knowing what is REM sleep and acting on that knowledge can keep you from falling into these cycles.

Another problem that can hamper REM sleep is falling asleep late at night. This is because late night sleep cycles usually have longer REM periods than cycles earlier in the evening. This has to do with the body’s natural circadian rhythm, and with the natural processes attached to light sensitivity. That means you’re only sleeping through one or two cycles instead of three and you have less time for REM sleep.

How Shortchanging Your REM Sleep Affects Your Job Performance

When you don’t get enough REM sleep, your concentration goes to hell in a handbasket. That means focusing on a single task can be extra difficult, and multitasking (a big component of any job) is almost impossible. Since your brain is the seat of all verbal and non-verbal communication, it can also be a huge detriment to your work relationships too, making it harder to pick up on nuances or negotiate transactions correctly.

Not only that, your decision making can really suffer. A recent study published in the US National Library of Medicine showed that participants who didn’t get enough sleep made much poorer decisions than those who did. They went as far as to compare people with poor sleep schedules to those who had severe cognitive disorders like Parkinson’s disease or Lewy Body Dementia.

Now that you know what is REM sleep, you can see how important it is. Not just for your job and relationships, but to your brain health. Your brain is the most important muscle in your body and you need to treat it right so that you can live a full and happy life.

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