After a year of emotional upheavals and health challenges, I resolved to enter 2018 with a singularly proactive step: getting more restful, productive sleep. It can’t be coincidental that numerous sleep studies caught my attention, as my subconscious mind probably directed me to find them. I already know, as do most of us, that sleep is necessary for the body to rest and replenish, as well as heal, yet there are many more aspects of stages of sleep and effective sleep that I’ve discovered in my quest to become more sleep-proficient.

Nightmares: More Complex Than You Think

As someone who’s been plagued by vivid nightmares many times in the past, and sometimes even the present, I welcome research that provides a more complete picture of this nighttime torment. Ever wake up in absolute dread, feeling a sense of impending doom, like you can’t escape the horrible dream you just awakened from? That’s a nightmare, and who wouldn’t relish the opportunity to learn more about them as well as how to overcome them?

It makes sense to me that, as a study in Brain and Behavioral Sciences reported, the form and content of dreams is not random, but constructed by the brain in an organized and selective fashion. Furthermore, certain types of waking experiences profoundly affect dreams. Study authors proposed that the function of dreaming is to simulate threatening events, and then rehearse both threat perception and threat avoidance. Weinstein et al. (2017) found that waking-life psychological need experiences are reflected in daily dreams. Another study published in Stress and Health linked need frustration to higher stress, leading to greater evening fatigue and subsequent poorer sleep quality and shorter duration of sleep.

University of Montreal researchers found that nightmares have more emotional impact than do bad dreams, and frequently contain themes of physical aggression – death, health concerns and threats. Researchers learned that men more often have nightmares involving calamities and disasters, while women’s nightmares centered on themes of interpersonal conflict twice that of men.

During the dream stage of sleep, called REM (rapid eye movement), the sleeper’s brain processes emotional experiences and can promote healing from the reactivation of memories of the event, say researchers. This is thought to happen due to low levels of norepinephrine, a brain chemical associated with stress, during REM sleep and results in a stress-free environment in which to process emotions. The sleeper awakes the next day with those experience memories softened, thus, better able to cope. This finding holds promise for new treatment for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In Search of Better REM

If REM sleep is so important in sleep hygiene, I wanted to know more about how to achieve a higher quality and longer duration of this vitally important sleep stage. An intriguing 2015 study by Japanese researchers identified a neural circuit in the brain in mice that both regulates REM sleep and controls the physiology of non-REM sleep, another major sleep stage. Of interest to me was a 2017 study published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology that found that people who get less REM sleep may be at greater risk of developing dementia.

Checking recommendations on the web for improving REM sleep, I found several that seem to be self-evident:

  • Avoid alcohol before going to bed.

Alcohol interferes with the various stages of sleep and can result in restless sleep, interrupted sleep, and less high-quality REM sleep as well as deeper, more restorative sleep.

  • Skip that late-day caffeine.

Since caffeine is a stimulant, sleep experts advise curtailing any caffeinated drinks (lattes, coffee, espresso, sodas and teas) later in the day. Drinking caffeine just before retiring can result in an inability to fall asleep or remaining asleep.

  • Mind your meds.

Certain medications can have a negative effect on sleep. This includes both prescription and over-the-counter medications, as well as herbal remedies. Check into their effects on sleep and ask your doctor if there are other medications that can be substituted that won’t interfere with sleep.

  • Curb the urge to smoke late in the day.

Nicotine interferes with sleep. Heavy smokers are prone to be light sleepers, which cuts down on the amount of REM sleep they achieve nightly. Complicating the matter is the fact that nicotine withdrawal during the night causes heavy smokers to wake more often, which makes it hard to fall into REM sleep or maintain it.

While I don’t smoke or drink, I do like my daily lattes. Sometimes I have one in the afternoon and, now that I’m more knowledgeable about the effects of caffeine, I understand why my sleep is erratic. I also take a few prescription medications, although they do not cause me any sleep problems.

Other helpful tips to achieve better REM sleep include meditation, setting a relaxing sleep routine (getting ready for bed), arranging a comfortable sleep environment, and even adding an extra 60 to 90 minutes of sleep. The latter is because REM sleep occurs in cycles every 60 to 90 minutes, so in theory, adding that extra hour to hour and a half should provide another chance at REM sleep. I’ve implemented each of these to my sleep program and attest to their effectiveness.

I also bought and wear a monitoring device on my wrist that helps me keep track of my steps, heart rate, calories consumed, and amount of time spent exercising. Through an online dashboard, I can log my food, water intake, weight and see the results of my nightly sleep. This smart technology allows me to see my sleep patterns and view the results in graphs (showing the various stages of sleep) as well as minutes/hours in each stage, where I am in comparison to benchmark, and 30-day average. It has proven immensely valuable in helping me achieve better REM sleep.

Deep Sleep Restores the Body

If the mind and emotions become revitalized during REM sleep, when does the body get the opportunity to recharge itself? Researching this question, I learned that the third stage of non-REM sleep, called N3, delta sleep, or slow wave sleep, is the deepest stage of the nightly sleep cycle. It’s during N3 that the body repairs itself and, in fact, the body requires deep sleep to perform other vital functions such as building muscle tissue, healing wounds and regenerating cells. The kidneys clean the blood and organs detoxify during the deepest stage of sleep as well.

Sleep experts say that deep sleep typically occurs in longer periods during the first half of nightly sleeping, with the first N3 episode lasting from 45 to 90 minutes and subsequent deep sleep episodes of shorter duration. N3 decreases with age, sleep is intermixed with wakefulness, and is considered normal. Minus other factors, does not indicate presence of a disease or disorder. During this time, muscles relax, breathing and heartbeat slow further, and brain waves (measurable on an EEG) become even slower. It is very difficult to awaken someone in deep sleep.

Factors inhibiting deep sleep that you can control include mitigating stress — especially pre-bedtime stress – and controlling the temperature of the sleep environment. If the room where you sleep is too warm, getting to sleep will be more difficult, since the body drops temperature when it’s ready to sleep. Too warm and you’ll be restless. In addition to adjusting room temperature to between 60-68 degrees Fahrenheit, make sure sleeping clothes, bed linens and pillows are conducive to cooler sleeping.