Dream Deprivation: How Loss of REM Sleep Impacts Health (2023)

Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is the dream stage of sleep. It was first described in 1953.

Decades later, we still have a lot to learn about this phase of sleep.

There is concern that REM sleep deprivation may harm human health. You may not be getting enough REM sleep if:

  • You take antidepressant medications
  • You have a sleep disorder

This article looks at REM sleep deprivation and how it might affect memory and learning.

Dream Deprivation: How Loss of REM Sleep Impacts Health (1)

What Is REM Sleep?

REM sleep is one of the two major naturalsleep stages. It is so distinct that other stages are sometimes grouped together as "non-REM sleep."

Modern sleep studies like polysomnogram use different tools to measure sleep activity. These include:

  • Electroencephalogram (EEG)to measure brain waves
  • Electromyogram (EMG) to measure muscle activity
  • Electrooculogram (EOG) to measure eye movement

The brain is active during REM sleep. Most muscles are not.

Most skeletal muscles, except those used for eye movement and breathing, are paralyzed during this phase of sleep. Skeletal muscles are the muscles that control voluntary movements like walking.

Vivid dreams are another core part of REM sleep. Paralysis may prevent you from acting out your dreams.

Without this paralysis, REM sleep behavior disorder can happen. People with this condition act out their dreams during sleep.

Sleep Study (Polysomnogram): What to Expect

Recap

REM sleep is the sleep stage associated with dreaming. During REM sleep, your muscles relax and your brain becomes active.

ImportantFunctions of REM Sleep

Research is not conclusive, but it suggests that REM sleep is important for daytime function. It may help you learn and consolidate your memories.

REM sleep is thought to be helpful for procedural memory. This is the type of memory you use when you learn a new skill, like how to ride a bike. It differs from factual or semantic memory. This is the type of memory you use for something like dates or lists of facts.

REM sleep may also help you solve problems. During REM sleep, you may make unique connections within your brain.

During REM sleep, you have vivid dreams. They may unfold like a movie in which you are an actor. When the content of a dream is disturbing, you may experience it as a nightmare.

(Video) What would happen if you didn’t sleep? - Claudia Aguirre

Mood disorders can change the experience of dreams. This could happen for people with:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Recap

REM sleep may be important for memory and daytime function. It may also help you learn new skills.

Causes of Dream Deprivation

Sleep deprivation has real impacts on health and well-being. The most obvious is sleepiness. Feeling sleepy can affect your work and family life. It can also make it dangerous to do things like drive a car.

Sleep deprivation also affects things like:

  • Metabolism
  • Pain
  • Heart health

Sleep has structure. REM sleep happens at regular intervals during the sleep period. This is typically every 90 to 120 minutes.

REM sleep may last 5 to 30 minutes. The periods of REM sleep usually become longer towards morning. This means most REM sleep happens in the last one-third of the night. When you wake, the last period of REM sleep may be interrupted.

If your REM sleep is often disturbed, you may have false awakenings. This is when you feel like you woke up but are actually still dreaming.

In some situations, you may spend less or no time in REM sleep. If you don't get enough total hours of sleep, for example, that can lead to less REM sleep overall.

You may also spend a greater percentage of the night in REM sleep. This happens because you may not spend any time in lighter sleep. This is part of the sleep consolidation process, when you're "catching up" on lost sleep.

Substance use has a strong impact on REM sleep. The following are known to suppress REM sleep:

  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Marijuana
  • Opioid or narcotic pain medications
  • Benzodiazepine medications
  • Antidepressant medications
  • Lithobid (lithium)

Sleep disorders may also cause fragmented REM sleep. This is especially true for:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • Narcolepsy

During REM, the muscles relax. This may cause airway muscles to collapse. When this happens, it can trigger the breathing disturbances of sleep apnea. This can interrupt REM sleep.

Sleep apnea can be treated with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy. This is a device that keeps the airway open during sleep. Effective sleep apnea treatment can help REM sleep rebound.

Recap

You may experience dream deprivation if you use certain substances like alcohol and antidepressants. Sleep disorders like narcolepsy and sleep apnea can also cause you to lose REM sleep.

Unclear Effects of Dream Deprivation

Alcohol and antidepressants are widely used. Sleep apnea is very common. Still, research has not been able to show that the sleep deprivation caused by these things has a strong impact on health.

Even in patients who have used antidepressants for decades, there does not seem to be any measurable health impact caused by long-term sleep deprivation.

Subjects with permanent damage to the REM-related part of the brain can seem unaffected by the loss of REM sleep. These subjects may have normal memory and no loss of function. The purpose of REM sleep is still unknown.

Recap

The science is unclear about the long term effects of dream deprivation. More research is needed.

(Video) REM Sleep Disorder - Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Summary

Rapid eye movement sleep is the sleep stage associated with dreaming. During this stage, your brain is active and your muscles are relaxed.

Scientists don't yet understand why we need REM sleep. It may be important for memory and daytime function.

Many factors can influence how much REM sleep you get. Substance use and sleep disorders like sleep apnea can all have an effect.

The long-term effects of dream deprivation are unknown. Still, sleep in general is important to health and well-being.

A Word From Verywell

If you're worried about REM sleep deprivation, contact a board-certified sleep physician. Ask about the benefits of a diagnostic sleep study.

More research is needed into the effects of REM sleep deprivation. Still, getting a good night's sleep will always help you feel your best.

Frequently Asked Questions

8 Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Brooks PL, Peever JH. Identification of the transmitter and receptor mechanisms responsible for REM sleep paralysis. J Neurosci. 2012;32(29):9785-95. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0482-12.2012

  2. Rasch B, Born J. About sleep's role in memory.Physiol Rev. 2013;93(2):681–766. doi:10.1152/physrev.00032.2012

  3. Beijamini F, Pereira SI, Cini FA, Louzada FM. After being challenged by a video game problem, sleep increases the chance to solve it.PLoS One. 2014;9(1):e84342. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0084342

  4. Cabeza de Baca T, Chayama KL, Redline S, et al. Sleep debt: the impact of weekday sleep deprivation on cardiovascular health in older women. Sleep. 2019;42(10):zsz149. doi:10.1093/sleep/zsz149

  5. Angarita GA, Emadi N, Hodges S, Morgan PT. Sleep abnormalities associated with alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, and opiate use: a comprehensive review.Addict Sci Clin Pract. 2016;11(1):9. doi:10.1186/s13722-016-0056-7

  6. Nigam G, Camacho M, Riaz M. Rapid eye movement (REM) rebound on initial exposure to CPAP therapy: A systematic review and meta-analysis.Sleep Science and Practice. 2017;1(1). doi:10.1186/s41606-017-0014-7.

  7. Cleveland Clinic. Sleep basics.

  8. Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School. The characteristics of sleep.

Dream Deprivation: How Loss of REM Sleep Impacts Health (2)

By Brandon Peters, MD
Brandon Peters, MD, is a board-certified neurologist and sleep medicine specialist.

(Video) What Happens To Your Body And Brain If You Don't Get Sleep | The Human Body

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FAQs

What happens if you are deprived of REM sleep? ›

What Happens if You Don't Get Enough REM Sleep? Multiple studies of both humans and animals suggest that being deprived of REM sleep interferes with memory formation. However, memory problems associated with a loss of REM sleep could be due to overall sleep disruption, since those often occur together.

What are the effects of not dreaming? ›

If you're not dreaming—and more and more people aren't, according to new research—you're putting yourself at higher risk for obesity, memory loss, and inflammation throughout your body, which can lead to autoimmune troubles.

Can lack of REM sleep cause fatigue? ›

Researchers have discovered that a lack of REM sleep is to blame for the chronic fatigue often caused by pulmonary fibrosis. Pulmonary fibrosis, a disease with no known cause, progressively damages the lungs and reduces the amount of oxygen that is taken in to the body.

Why is REM sleep important for mental health? ›

Sufficient sleep, especially REM sleep, facilitates the brain's processing of emotional information. A lack of REM sleep is associated with poor emotional and behavioral functioning. One of the more common health problems that occurs with poor sleep is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).

Can a person survive without REM sleep? ›

slow wave (NREM) and paradoxical (REM) sleep are not necessary for life (at least for 4–5 months for the first and about 8 months for the second), and we cannot consider their suppression to be the cause of any serious disorders in the body.

Can you dream in non-REM sleep? ›

Abstract. Dreaming can occur in both rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM (NREM) sleep.

Is it unhealthy to not dream? ›

On its own, not dreaming is no cause for concern, and there are even a few things you can do to encourage dream memory. When a lack of dreaming is due to lack of quality sleep, that's another story. Poor sleep could be a sign of a physical or mental health problem. Chronic sleep problems can harm your overall health.

Does melatonin increase REM sleep? ›

Melatonin did not shift circadian phase or suppress temperature but did increase REM sleep continuity and promote decline in rectal temperature during sleep. These results were confirmed in patients who received melatonin in the second study (REM sleep percentage baseline/placebo/melatonin, 14.3/12.0/17.9).

How can I increase my REM sleep naturally? ›

6 Ways To Improve REM Sleep

Hydrating properly over the course of the day (not before bed, which can disrupt sleep for trips to the bathroom) Massage therapy or a steam room that day. Blue-light blocking glasses before bedtime. Reading in bed (the old-fashioned way) prior to falling asleep.

Which is more important REM or deep sleep? ›

Scientists agree that sleep is essential to health, and while stages 1 to 4 and REM sleep are all important, deep sleep is the most essential of all for feeling rested and staying healthy. The average healthy adult gets roughly 1 to 2 hours of deep sleep per 8 hours of nightly sleep.

How much REM sleep does a person need? ›

For healthy adults, spending 20-25% of your time asleep in the REM stage is a good goal. If you get 7-8 hours of sleep, around 90 minutes of that should be REM.

Can sleep deprivation cause a mental breakdown? ›

While insomnia can be a symptom of psychiatric disorders, like anxiety and depression, it is now recognized that sleep problems can also contribute to the onset and worsening of different mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, and even suicidal ideation.

How does sleep deprivation affect physical health? ›

Sleep deficiency is linked to many chronic health problems, including heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, obesity, and depression. Sleep deficiency is also linked to a higher chance of injury in adults, teens, and children.

How does sleep deprivation affect the brain? ›

Sleep deprivation makes us moody and irritable, and impairs brain functions such as memory and decision-making. It also negatively impacts the rest of the body – it impairs the functioning of the immune system, for example, making us more susceptible to infection.

Is REM sleep good for anxiety? ›

Restless rapid eye movement (REM) sleep impedes emotional processing, which may contribute to mood and anxiety disorders, new research suggests. A team of Dutch investigators used fMRI to scan the brains of participants who underwent a stressful experience — in this case, hearing themselves sing out of tune.

How do you recover from sleep deprivation? ›

Give it time: Remember that it can take days to recover from a sleep debt. Increase your sleep time slowly, by 15- to 30-minutes at a time, until you reach the optimal amount of sleep for your body. Focus on improving your sleep hygiene and consistently getting enough rest, and your body will do the rest.

What drugs increase REM sleep? ›

Cholinergic agonists such as carbachol, bethanechol and neostigmine (a cholinesterase inhibitor) induce REM sleep.

Is 3 hours of REM sleep too much? ›

The takeaway.

Spending around 90 minutes in REM sleep each night is considered healthy for most adults, though it depends on the person.

Do dreams mean deep sleep? ›

Dreaming sleep is a deep stage of sleep with intense brain activity in the forebrain and midbrain.

What are the 4 stages of non-REM sleep? ›

Sleep occurs in five stages: wake, N1, N2, N3, and REM. Stages N1 to N3 are considered non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, with each stage a progressively deeper sleep. Approximately 75% of sleep is spent in the NREM stages, with the majority spent in the N2 stage.

What brain part is stimulated during REM dreams? ›

During most stages of sleep, the thalamus becomes quiet, letting you tune out the external world. But during REM sleep, the thalamus is active, sending the cortex images, sounds, and other sensations that fill our dreams.

Why do some people never dream? ›

You could be one of the few people who, in fact, do not dream. The reason, Dr. Tal says, is because their REM sleep is interrupted by a substance (such as alcohol or marijuana), medications (like antidepressants), or a mental health condition like depression.

What is Charcot Wilbrand syndrome? ›

Charcot-Wilbrand syndrome: Loss of dreaming after a stroke. In more technical terms the syndrome is characterized by visual agnosia and the inability to revisualise images. Named for the French founder of modern neurology Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893) and the German neuro-ophthalmologist Hermann Wilbrand.

What does it mean if you never remember your dreams? ›

A person may not remember the events of their dreams because they cannot access that information once they are awake. In a 2016 article in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, researchers posit that people forget their dreams due to changing levels of acetylcholine and norepinephrine during sleep.

Is it OK to take melatonin every night? ›

Regardless of whether it truly helps with sleep or not, Dr. Ramkissoon doesn't recommend taking melatonin long-term. "Namely, because if you think you need to take melatonin every night to get to sleep, we need to understand why that's the case," explains Dr.

Who should not take melatonin? ›

Because melatonin can cause daytime drowsiness, don't drive or use machinery within five hours of taking the supplement. Don't use melatonin if you have an autoimmune disease.

Why do I wake up at 3am every single night? ›

You wake up at 3am because this is the time you shift from a deep sleep into a lighter sleep. If you turn in at 11pm, by three in the morning you're mostly out of deep sleep and shifting into longer periods of lighter sleep, known as REM.

Does zinc increase REM sleep? ›

Dietary zinc improves sleep quality in humans and increases NREM sleep in mice.

Does magnesium before bed help you sleep? ›

Magnesium helps the body relax. This nutrient reduces stress and helps you sleep longer. In contrast, melatonin helps you get to sleep faster. Both magnesium and melatonin can be used to treat insomnia, sometimes even in combination.

When should I take magnesium for sleep? ›

Umeda recommends taking the supplement about 30 minutes before bedtime. And don't take more than the recommended amount. More won't help you sleep better, but it may cause stomach upset. While magnesium might improve your slumber, it's no substitute for a good sleep routine, Dr.

What's the most restful stage of sleep? ›

The most important sleep stage is Stage 3, Non-REM or, Delta (Slow Wave) Sleep, it takes up 25% of our total sleep cycle, and it's known as the 'deepest' period of sleep. It's in Stage 3 that sleep is at its most restorative, helping our bodies heal themselves and our minds rest.

What stage of sleep does your body repair itself? ›

Stage N3 (NREM 1)

N3 sleep is a regenerative period where your body heals and repairs itself. The first episode of Stage N3 lasts from 45-90 minutes. Subsequent episodes of N3 sleep have shorter and shorter time periods as the night progresses. Your muscles are fully relaxed.

What is the most restorative sleep stage? ›

Stage 3 / N3

The brain activity during this period has an identifiable pattern of what are known as delta waves. For this reason, stage 3 may also be called delta sleep or slow-wave sleep (SWS). Experts believe that this stage is critical to restorative sleep, allowing for bodily recovery and growth.

Is REM or non REM sleep better? ›

1. NREM is more restful: NREM sleep is when our brains start to slip into a more restful state. Brain waves are slower, muscles relax, and the body enters a light sleep. NREM sleep also includes a deep sleep stage, where your heart rate and breathing slows, and body temperature drops.

What is pink noise for sleep? ›

Pink noise is a constant sound in the background. It filters out things that distract you, like people talking or cars going by, so they don't interrupt your sleep. You may hear it called ambient noise. Like white noise, it's a steady background hum that may give you a better night's sleep.

Is Fitbit sleep tracking accurate? ›

Sleep Trackers Don't Measure Sleep Very Well

So, do FitBits, Apple Watches and Oura Rings track sleep with accuracy? The answer is, not really. Particularly when it comes to sleep stages. These wearables measure movement very well and are great when used for tracking steps and exercise.

Can sleep deprivation cause permanent psychosis? ›

In most cases, sleep deprivation psychosis isn't permanent. Although symptoms may be severe and sometimes unsettling, they typically lessen and stop after you've slept for some time.

What is sleep deprivation psychosis like? ›

Early effects of sleep deprivation can include irritability, anxiety, and a sense of being disconnected from your thoughts and feelings. After 48 hours without sleep, you will likely experience several severe symptoms, including hallucinations and an inability to think clearly.

What are signs of sleep deprivation? ›

Symptoms of sleep deprivation in adults
  • Constant yawning.
  • The tendency to doze off when not active for a while; for example, when watching television.
  • Grogginess when waking in the morning.
  • Sleepy grogginess experienced all day long (sleep inertia)
  • Poor concentration and mood changes (more irritable).

Which of these health risks may be caused by sleep deficiency? ›

Sleep Deficiency and Disease Risk

Sleep deficiency increases the risk of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression, and even early death.

Does lack of sleep reduce life expectancy? ›

More importantly, insufficient sleep can ultimately affect life expectancy and day-to-day well-being. An analysis of data from three separate studies suggests that sleeping five or fewer hours per night may increase mortality risk by as much as 15 percent.

Can lack of sleep make you sick to your stomach? ›

Sleep deprivation increases your risk for health problems (even ones you have never experienced), such as disturbed mood, gastrointestinal symptoms (abdominal pain, gas, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, vomiting), headaches and joint pain, blood sugar and insulin system disruption, high blood pressure, seizures, and ...

What part of the brain will shut down if you are sleep deprived? ›

Brain scans conducted by UC Berkeley researchers showed one sleepless night leads to a shutdown of the medial prefrontal cortex— the part of the brain that helps manage anxiety. At the same time, the brain's emotional regulators were overworked.

Does depression affect REM? ›

Characteristic sleep-EEG changes in patients with depression include disinhibition of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, changes of sleep continuity, and impaired non-REM sleep. Most antidepressants suppress REM sleep both in healthy volunteers and depressed patients.

Can stress affect REM sleep? ›

Prolonged stress levels therefore decrease sleep duration and reduce REM sleep, leading to poorer quality sleep, impaired memory and poorer mood regulation.

Can lack of deep sleep cause anxiety? ›

Sleep deprivation can worsen anxiety, spurring a negative cycle involving insomnia and anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health problem in the United States, and insufficient sleep is known to have sweeping negative implications for overall health.

Is 3 hours of REM sleep too much? ›

The takeaway.

Spending around 90 minutes in REM sleep each night is considered healthy for most adults, though it depends on the person.

Why do I have no REM sleep? ›

You may experience dream deprivation if you use certain substances like alcohol and antidepressants. Sleep disorders like narcolepsy and sleep apnea can also cause you to lose REM sleep.

Is 2 hours of sleep better than no sleep? ›

Ideally, you should try to get more than 90 minutes of sleep. Sleeping between 90 and 110 minutes gives your body time to complete one full sleep cycle and can minimize grogginess when you wake. But any sleep is better than not at all — even if it's a 20-minute nap. For more sleep support, check out our sleep shop.

How much REM sleep does a person need? ›

For healthy adults, spending 20-25% of your time asleep in the REM stage is a good goal. If you get 7-8 hours of sleep, around 90 minutes of that should be REM.

What drugs increase REM sleep? ›

Cholinergic agonists such as carbachol, bethanechol and neostigmine (a cholinesterase inhibitor) induce REM sleep.

Is REM sleep more important than deep sleep? ›

Scientists agree that sleep is essential to health, and while stages 1 to 4 and REM sleep are all important, deep sleep is the most essential of all for feeling rested and staying healthy.

Does melatonin increase REM sleep? ›

Melatonin did not shift circadian phase or suppress temperature but did increase REM sleep continuity and promote decline in rectal temperature during sleep. These results were confirmed in patients who received melatonin in the second study (REM sleep percentage baseline/placebo/melatonin, 14.3/12.0/17.9).

Why do you dream less as you age? ›

Time in N3 sleep, the deepest sleep stage, also shortens with age; time in N1 and N2 tends to increase. As a result, people wake more easily from sleep as they age. The percentage of REM sleep also naturally decreases; thus, reduced time spent in REM may be a marker of aging.

Why do some people not dream? ›

You could be one of the few people who, in fact, do not dream. The reason, Dr. Tal says, is because their REM sleep is interrupted by a substance (such as alcohol or marijuana), medications (like antidepressants), or a mental health condition like depression.

How do you survive sleep deprivation? ›

Proactive strategies
  1. Drinking water. Dehydration will increase your fatigue, so it is important to drink lots of water. ...
  2. Soaking up the sun. After drinking a big glass of water, go outside and bask in the sunlight for 30 minutes. ...
  3. Napping. Find a time during the day to take a 10 to 45 minute nap. ...
  4. Drinking caffeine.

Should I go back to sleep if I wake up early? ›

"The overall best is if you can wake up naturally because you're done sleeping," he said. On the other hand, if you're waking up early on just a few hours of sleep, you should probably try and squeeze in some more shuteye.

Can you function on 4 hours of sleep? ›

For most people, 4 hours of sleep per night isn't enough to wake up feeling rested and mentally alert, no matter how well they sleep. There's a common myth that you can adapt to chronically restricted sleep, but there's no evidence that the body functionally adapts to sleep deprivation.

How can I increase my deep sleep naturally? ›

How to Increase Deep Sleep: 10 Tips + Benefits
  1. Work Out Daily. ...
  2. Eat More Fiber. ...
  3. Find Your Inner Yogi. ...
  4. Avoid Caffeine 7+ Hours Before Bed. ...
  5. Resist that Nightcap. ...
  6. Create a Relaxing Bedtime Routine. ...
  7. Make Your Bedroom a Sleep Sanctuary. ...
  8. Listen to White and Pink Noise.
29 Apr 2020

Is REM or non REM sleep better? ›

1. NREM is more restful: NREM sleep is when our brains start to slip into a more restful state. Brain waves are slower, muscles relax, and the body enters a light sleep. NREM sleep also includes a deep sleep stage, where your heart rate and breathing slows, and body temperature drops.

What is pink noise for sleep? ›

Pink noise is a constant sound in the background. It filters out things that distract you, like people talking or cars going by, so they don't interrupt your sleep. You may hear it called ambient noise. Like white noise, it's a steady background hum that may give you a better night's sleep.

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