We all need a good night’s rest to recover and prepare for the next day ahead – but sleep apnea can often prevent many patients from getting enough of it. REM sleep is one of the most essential sleep stages during the night, and the most impacted by repeated awakenings and disrupted sleep caused by apnea. If you’re living with the condition and concerned about sleep quality, it is important to understand how much REM sleep you’re getting each night to manage symptoms and improve your health.

The science behind REM sleep

REM sleep, known as “rapid eye movement,” is one of the four stages of the nightly sleep cycle, focusing on the mental restoration of the brain and imprinting experiences of the day into memories. This cycle follows deep sleep, which provides physical repair to the muscles, bones, and immune system. REM sleep is essential for committing new items to memory and encouraging healthy brain development. However, when the REM sleep period is disrupted or shortened, patients can often experience memory loss, confusion, and emotional dysregulation.

The average person spends 20-25% of their sleep cycle in REM

There is a scientific explanation for why you don’t start dreaming the moment your head hits the pillow! REM sleep begins around 90 minutes into the night, lasting only 10 minutes for the first episode and increasing with every additional cycle, with the highest period of the night averaging an hour. With the normal adult averaging a total of 3-5 cycles per night, 20-25% of sleep should account for REM for every 7-8 hours spent in bed. This can be variable depending on age, lifestyle, and other factors, especially as REM intervals decline as we get older.

The impact of disrupted or shortened REM cycles

Although one bad night of sleep may not be too harmful to your overall health, skipping two or more REM cycles can leave you feeling fatigued, disorientated, and emotional. This is because REM is crucial for optimal brain functioning, so even losing a little sleep can leave you feeling groggy. More long-term deprivation may result in more serious health concerns, including an increased risk of cardiovascular and non-cancer-related deaths when combined with other medical complications. If you’re concerned that you are chronically deprived of REM sleep, it’s important to take note of the following signs and symptoms and discuss these with your doctor:

Difficulty concentrating or with memory
Mood changes
Anxiety or/and depression
High blood pressure
Cardiac problems

The science behind sleep cycles

Understanding the impact apnea has on sleep cycles, and overall health can help those living with the condition recognize complications early on, seek treatment sooner, and work towards improving the quality of their REM sleep. Generally, over the course of the night, the brain and body undergo a series of sleep cycles to recover from the day, a process that may be disrupted or missed entirely for apnea patients.

Stage one NREM, known as light sleep, usually lasts for only 10 minutes.

When you first begin to ‘doze off’, the body enters a short period of light sleep. At this stage, brain activities are beginning to slow down, ready for a night of rest. If you’re awoken during this stage, it is likely you will feel like you haven’t slept at all.

During stage two of your sleep cycle, the muscles relax, and slow-wave brain activity begins

The next stage in your sleep cycle lasts around 25 minutes as it prepares your body for deep sleep. Your heart rate, breathing, and brain waves will slow down at this point, dropping the core body temperature and relaxing the muscles.

Once you enter deep sleep in stage 3, it can be difficult to wake you

This part of the sleep cycle is one of the essential restorative stages of sleep. The body repairs damaged tissue, strengthens the immune system, and improves bone structure and muscle. Waking during this time will be more difficult and likely lead to symptoms such as brain fog and disorientation. Depending on age, lifestyle, and other contributing factors, the deep sleep stage can last anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes.

REM Sleep, the final stage of your sleep cycle, lasts around 10 minutes

After around 90 minutes of passing through the previous sleep cycles, brain activity increases again during REM. This activity can sometimes exceed conscious levels during the day, although your muscles are still paralyzed (apart from the eyes and respiratory system) to prevent injury during sleep. Dreaming may occur at this point; unfortunately, this is a common stage for sleep apnea sufferers to experience breathing issues.

The complicated relationship between apnea and REM sleep

Unfortunately, research has found links between sleep apnea and the deeper stages of sleep cycles, showing the two only exasperate issues for apena patients. REM sleep, which occurs during the fourth stage of the sleep cycle, encourages muscles of the body to become more relaxed, preventing you from acting out the dreams created by the brain creates as it works through memories of the day. This deep relaxation can sometimes work too hard on the muscles in the upper airways, making them more narrow and restricting breathing. Patients will often wake at this point, disrupting the REM cycle and reducing the quality of sleep further, continuing the apnea cycle.

Seek medical guidance for improving sleep apnea symptoms

If you’re concerned about your sleep patterns or experiencing symptoms of chronic REM deprivation, you may require a sleep study to review an apnea diagnosis or current treatment plans in place for the condition. The Sleep Cycle Center uses a combination of scientifically accurate screening tests and sleep testing equipment to diagnose underlying sleep problems and offer a range of treatments to manage symptoms to improve the overall quality of your sleep.​​

Contact Sleep Cycle Centers for reliable and comfortable apnea screenings

If you’re struggling with sleep apnea and wish to improve your REM sleep and overall sleep quality, call our professional team to schedule an appointment today!