Not reaching your sleep REM cycle on a regular basis can cause problems while you're awake. Sleep has an effect on your ability to function and sleeping without enough REM sleep can also cause a variety of health issues.
What Is REM?
REM stands for "rapid eye movement" and it named for the spike of activity in the eyes during sleep. The activity in the eyes signals a spike of activity in the brain in this stage of sleep, which takes up about 20 percent of total sleep time, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).
Sleep used to be considered a passive state but studies have found that the brain is quite active, especially during REM. The REM cycle follows a pattern in the body:
- Signals from the pons in the base of the brain travel to the thalamus
- The thalamus sends the signals to the cerebral cortex
- The pons shuts off the neurons in the spinal cord, making the sleeper unable to move while dreaming
REM is one of five stages of sleep. Throughout the course of a night, the sleeper progresses from stage one to REM, the fifth stage. Not reaching your sleep REM stage translates into an incomplete cycle.
Not Reaching Your Sleep REM Stage
Certain conditions may factor into the inability to get enough rapid eye movement sleep.
- Individuals with terminal insomnia may not experience as much of this stage of sleep because the state increases during the later part of the sleep cycle. People tend to dream more in the early hours of the morning. Those who have late insomnia lose REM sleep as they wake up too early, unable to fall back to sleep.
- Sleep apnea disrupts sleep cycles and it can interfere with the ability to reach the fifth stage of sleep throughout the night.
- Sleep disorders that interfere with the natural progression of sleep can interfere with the fifth cycle. In addition, individuals taking certain medications, herbal supplements or alcohol before bedtime may experience a decrease in the fifth stage of sleep.
It is important to discuss sleep problems with your physician to ensure that the problem does not persist. A sleep study may be necessary to diagnose a sleep disorder.
Ramifications of Not Reaching REM Sleep Stages
What happens if you are not reaching your sleep REM stage? Conflicting information exists but problems may occur in cognition and pain sensitivity as well as in other areas according to some studies. Studies on the subject of rapid eye movement and sleep deprivation have found:
- Lack of rapid eye movement sleep may interfere with long term memory. Rats deprived of rapid eye movement sleep experienced reduced cell proliferation in the part of the brain associated with long term memory in a study by Dennis McGinty, PhD.
- Weight problems are associated with a lack of this stage of sleep. Reduced REM sleep may contribute to weight problems in teenagers and children, according to a University of Pittsburgh study.
- You may be more sensitive to pain without enough sleep. Acute pain sensitivity may increase with lack of rapid eye movement sleep, according to a study at Henry Ford Hospital.
- Coping skills and reflexes may diminish. A University of Wisconsin study found that rats deprived of rapid eye movement sleep had reduced ability to handle difficult situations and to show defensive responses in threatening environments.
Learning and Memory
The fifth stage of sleep may play a role in learning and memory. The article, "Sleep Learning, and Memory" from Harvard Medical School's Division of Sleep Medicine explores the relationship between sleep, memory and learning:
- People participating in an intensive language course experienced an increase of REM. This indicates that the brain requires more REM sleep in order to assimilate the new information.
- Mice in studies show an increase in REM sleep after finishing a new path through a maze. This means that the mice may require more of this stage of sleep to absorb the lessons learned in the experience.
- The fifth stage seems to play a role in procedural memory (sequential steps to complete tasks). It appears that this stage of sleep can help you remember how to complete tasks.
As with many sleep issues, the role of rapid eye movement in learning and memory is still being explored. Conflicting theories and debates about the issue continue, and some conflicting evidence arises:
- People taking medications that interfere with REM sleep have not reported memory impairment.
- Injuries to the brainstem can eliminate the fifth stage of sleep in some patients but the patients experience no apparent inability to form new memories.
Not reaching your sleep REM state can be beneficial in certain circumstances but sleep deprivation is not a therapy for depression to consider. Individuals with depression may experience improvements when deprived of this stage of sleep.
Although little is known about the specific functions of rapid eye movement cycles, this stage of sleep seems to be important and failing to reach this cycle may lead to problems in some cases. During this active stage of sleep, the regions of the brain used for learning are stimulated. This may be the reason that babies experience more REM sleep than adults do.