How Much REM Sleep Do You Need? + What Exactly Is REM Sleep?

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REM sleep, or Rapid Eye Movement Sleep, is often what gets depicted in cartoons where someone falls asleep—the brain enters an unconscious dream state.

But what exactly is REM, and how much REM sleep do you need as an adult?

REM sleep is the phase of sleep where the body lies completely still, except for rapid eye movements and breathing. It is typically associated with the recovery of the central nervous system, which is why it is so closely related to a feeling of restfulness. 

The amount of REM sleep per night for an adult will typically total about 25% of your sleep duration, averaging about 2 hours in total.

We spoke to three sleep experts to get their insight into how REM sleep works, what the different stages of sleep are, and they ultimately answer your question, “How much REM sleep do you need per night?”

Let’s jump in!

The letters REM.

What Are the Different Phases of Sleep In the Sleep Cycle?

Susan Miller, a Certified Sleep Technician, Registered Polysomnographic Technologist™ (RPSGT), and Founder of Sleep Mattress HQ, says that the sleep cycle is broken down into multiple phases, cycling through Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) and Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. NREM sleep has three stages: light to deep sleep.1Purves, D., Augustine, G. J., Fitzpatrick, D., Katz, L. C., LaMantia, A.-S., McNamara, J. O., & S Mark Williams. (2001). Stages of Sleep. Nih.gov; Sinauer Associates. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK10996/

“Stage 1 marks drowsiness, transitioning to Stage 2 with slight brain activity. Stage 3 is deep sleep, crucial for restoration. REM is associated with vivid dreams,” shares Miller.

“This cycle repeats 4-6 times a night. Each cycle lasts about 90-110 minutes, with REM extending gradually.”

In other words, we don’t have one long sleep cycle that works its way from light sleep to deep sleep to REM sleep. Rather, we go through multiple sleep cycles per night, each lasting approximately 1 1/2 hours.

However, the time spent in each sleep phase changes slightly as we go through each subsequent sleep cycle at night. At first, the time spent in REM sleep is quite short, but the REM sleep time increases with each subsequent sleep cycle in a given night of sleep.

Miller says there are a few compensatory adjustments to the other phases of non-REM sleep.

“Initial cycles have more deep sleep but later, REM dominates. The first half of the night prioritizes physical restoration, while the second half emphasizes mental rejuvenation,” explains Miller. “Consistent cycles are vital for overall sleep quality.”

A person sleeping in bed.

What is REM Sleep?

Bianca Grover, an Exercise Physiologist, Medical Exercise Specialist, Health Coach, and Owner of Bianca Grover Fitness, says REM sleep is what we think of when it comes to dreaming and a restful night.2Bianca Grover Fitness. (2023, December 29). Bianca Grover Fitness. https://www.biancagroverfitness.com/

‌“Our breathing becomes a bit more irregular, and our eyes begin to move rapidly (as the name suggests), but the rest of our body is completely still.”

Grover explains this a bit further.

“REM sleep is the only phase of sleep where the body lies completely still, except for rapid eye movements and breathing. In this REM sleep, you are actually closer to an awake state than you are in deep sleep,” explains Grover.

“It is during this near-awake state that your blood pressure and heart rate rise, and you begin to dream more.”

A person sleeping in bed.

What Are the Benefits of REM Sleep?

Grover says that REM sleep is typically associated with the recovery of the central nervous system, which is why it is so closely related to a feeling of restfulness. 

“This is also the only time during the night when your muscles completely relax, losing all tone,” shares Grover. “This is when your body spends most of its resources to repair tissues and cells, making this extremely important for athletes or those who exercise regularly.”

According to Miller, there are a number of benefits of REM sleep in your overall sleep cycle. Therefore, it is very important to try to optimize your sleep habits so that you increase the amount of REM sleep time you get per night.

Here are some of the REM sleep benefits that Miller shares:

1. Dreaming and Memory Consolidation: REM sleep is closely linked to dreaming, contributing to emotional processing and memory consolidation.

2. Cognitive Restoration: REM sleep supports cognitive function, creativity, and problem-solving skills.

3. Emotional Regulation: It plays a role in emotional regulation and stress processing, aiding overall mental well-being.

A person sleeping in bed.

How Much REM Sleep Do You Need Per Night?

So, how much REM sleep is normal for adults?

Grover explains that the amount of REM sleep per night will typically total about 25% of your sleep duration.

However, how long you spend in REM sleep changes throughout the course of the night, with increasing REM sleep time with each subsequent sleep cycle that you go through.

“You’ll normally start to experience your first cycle of REM sleep at about 90 minutes into your night, and this is the shortest period of it, lasting only about 10 minutes,” explains Grover.

“However, by the end of an 8-hour night, you can expect to average at about 2 hours in total.”

A person sleeping in bed.

Does the Amount of REM Sleep Per Night Change With Age or Sex?

The greatest variations in the normal REM sleep duration or percentage per night are seen with differences in age rather than sex.

The amount of REM sleep per night changes with age, such that the percentage of time spent in the REM sleep stage decreases as we get older.

This relative decrease in the REM sleep percentage is accompanied by a resultant increase in the percentage of time that older adults spend in light sleep stages.

According to Miller, across the lifespan, the average time in REM sleep decreases as follows:

  • Infants: Because infants undergo tremendous physical and cognitive development, the normal amount of REM sleep for infants is significantly higher than for older adults, typically comprising about 50% of the total time asleep. 
  • Adults: The average REM sleep percentage decreases to about 20-25% of total sleep time.
  • Elderly: REM sleep phases get shorter as we age and comprise a smaller percentage of total sleep per night.
An alarm clock on a night stand.

“However, these decreases are not considered to have a major impact among healthy adults over the age of 60,” says Grover. “So remaining healthy and active protects the longevity of our sleep quality.”

While the relative percentage of time spent in the REM sleep phase for sleep cycles decreases with age, there doesn’t seem to be a significant difference in how much REM sleep men vs women get on average.

“We do not see noticeable or consistent differences in light sleep duration between men and women, but rather, variations are unique to the individual and their sleep habits.”

Miller agrees that the impact of sex on the normal amount of REM sleep per night is minimal.

She notes: “Generally, there aren’t substantial differences in REM sleep duration between the sexes, but hormonal changes in women, especially during pregnancy, can influence sleep architecture, including REM sleep.”

A person sleeping in bed with an eye mask on.

How Can You Get More REM Sleep?

Dan Ford, a Sleep Psychologist and Founder of The Better Sleep Clinic,3Sleep Clinic NZ Insomnia Therapy Specialists | The Better Sleep Clinic. (n.d.). The Better Sleep Clinic | Auckland Sleep Medicine | NZ Insomnia Clinic. Retrieved January 2, 2024, from https://thebettersleepclinic.com/ cautions that certain things can impede your ability to get enough REM stage sleep.

“Antidepressants and a number of other medications suppress REM sleep, as does alcohol and cannabis,” warns Ford.

”Sleeping longer into the morning would likely increase REM sleep as this kind of sleep predominantly occurs in the second half of the sleep period and there is a circadian (time of day) influence on how much you get.”

Miller provides a few tips to increase your REM sleep duration and sleep quality at night:

1. Prioritize Full Sleep Cycles: Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep to allow for multiple complete sleep cycles.

2. Consistent Sleep Schedule: Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, supporting regular sleep cycles.

3. Create a Relaxing Bedtime Routine: Wind down with calming activities before sleep to promote a smoother transition into REM.

4. Limit Stimulants: Reduce caffeine and avoid heavy meals close to bedtime to minimize disruptions to REM sleep.

5. Manage Stress: Practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing or meditation to alleviate stress, enhancing REM sleep.

6. Sleep Environment: Ensure a comfortable, dark, and quiet sleep environment to foster deep sleep stages, including REM.

7. Regular Exercise: Engage in regular physical activity, but avoid intense workouts close to bedtime.

A person meditating before bed.

For my own relaxing bedtime routine, I’ve fallen in love with the new BOB AND BRAD Heated Eye Massager

I wear it for 15 minutes before bed and it helps ease tension and relax my mind and body. There is even white noise and the sleep mask folds for travel.

As someone who stares at the computer screen all day for work and then spends much of the evening on my phone screen, I find the BOB AND BRAD Heated Eye Massager is just what I need to ease eye tension and warm and soothe my eyes and temples before hitting the pillow.

So far, it’s helping me fall asleep faster!

Finding your perfect sleep routine before bedtime can help ensure you get enough sleep, while enjoying a quality good night’s sleep to prepare you for the day to come.

A person meditating in bed.

References

Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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