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Definition of REM sleep

  • Medical Author:
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

REM sleep: REM sleep is the portion of sleep when there are rapid eye movements (REMs).

Dreams occur during REM sleep. We typically have 3 to 5 periods of REM sleep per night. They occur at intervals of 1-2 hours and are quite variable in length. An episode of REM sleep may last 5 minutes or over an hour. About 20% of sleep is REM sleep. If you sleep 7-8 hours a night, perhaps an hour and half of that time, 90 minutes, is REM sleep.

REM sleep is characterized by a number of other features including rapid, low-voltage brain waves detectable on the electroencephalographic (EEG) recording, irregular breathing and heart rate and involuntary muscle jerks.

By contrast, NREM (non-REM) sleep is dreamless sleep. During NREM, the brain waves on the EEG are typically slow and of high voltage, the breathing and heart rate are slow and regular, the blood pressure is low, and the sleeper is relatively still. NREM sleep is divided into 4 stages of increasing depth of sleep leading to REM sleep. About 80% of sleep is NREM sleep. If you sleep 7-8 hours a night, all but maybe an hour and a half is spent in dreamless NREM sleep.

Reviewed on 12/27/2018

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