Sleep, Mood, and PTSD - The Role of REM on Our Emotions | Boulder Longevity Institute

The alarm goes off. You slap down at your phone. As your feet hit the floor, you realize it feels like a bad day already.

We know that sleep impacts our mood. If we sleep poorly, endure a 2:00 am fire alarm, or wake up unexpectedly early, the day seems like a slog. We feel irritable and anxious. Feelings of depression can creep in. All because of a bad night’s sleep. 

Sleep involves many different stages, all responsible for some piece of recuperation. Wake is the period before and after sleep and includes brief moments of being awake through the night. The other non-REM stages include light and deep sleep periods.

Light sleep is responsible for ushering you in and out of deep sleep. The body relaxes, heart rate and temperature drop, and your breathing slows to a nice calm pace. Deep sleep has been made popular by certain fitness trackers, marking the stage where the body improves physically – muscle and bone-building, immunity strengthening, and brain cleansing all happen in deep sleep stages.

REM sleep may be the most understood. It is the final stage of the sleep cycle ahead of heading back to light sleep or fully waking up. Ideally, we cycle through three to five REM stages during a night’s rest with the first about 90 minutes after falling asleep. REM stages get progressively longer, starting with about a 10-minute REM stage and progressing to an hour or more during the last REM phase.

You know the REM stage because it is the stage that hosts all of our vivid dreams. The body enters a state of temporary paralysis, shutting down neurotransmitters to ensure you don’t “act out” during dreams. REM comprises between 20% – 25% of a healthy night of sleep.

While we do not really know why dreams occur, we know that during dreams our brain activity looks eerily similar to how it does when we are awake. There must be something important happening during this specific period of sleep.

Recently, researchers at the Departments of Neurology at the University of Bern and University Hospital Bern (UHB) have identified how REM is important to helping process emotions. The researchers discovered that the brain seems to work to consolidate and store up positive emotions while suppressing consolidated negative emotions. 

Processing emotions appropriately is essential to our survival and overall health. A high level of persistent negative emotions like fear or anxiety can lead to conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Around 15% of the US population is impacted by consistent feelings of anxiety and severe mental illness related to PTSD.

The researchers at the University of Bern and UHB have shown the importance of REM and processing, consolidating, and handling emotions. Essentially, REM allows all our emotions to remain available to learn from but keeps negative emotions stored in a place that inhibits retrieval which could cause anxiety and stress.

We can reasonably conclude that a shortage of time in REM sleep stages prohibits the proper handling of our emotions. This can lead to anxiety disorders, stress disorders, or PTSD. With the understanding that REM sleep is critical to preventing or controlling these disorders, we can look to improve our chances of achieving the necessary REM sleep stages.

Dr. Elizabeth Yurth of Boulder Longevity Institute likes the benefits a Whoop band or Oura ring offer. These tools give an overview of sleep stages and could indicate how far off of appropriate REM sleep levels you are. 

Simple tools like the bands and rings offer information. We have other tools to get us where we need to be from a REM sleep perspective. Magnesium, specifically magnesium threonate, before bed could help your body relax, destress, and even sleep longer. 

Ensuring your body’s circadian rhythm is appropriate is also critical. Light exposures help with this process. Morning sun, waning dusk light, and no blue lights (phones, TVs, etc.) two hours prior to sleep is vital.

We have known sleep is important anecdotally for some time – bad sleep tends to equal a bad mood. Now, we have scientific evidence that suggests appropriate REM sleep is imperative to regulating not just our mood but how our bodies handle anxiety and stress. Healthy sleep is a gateway to better mental health. 

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Published June 1, 2022

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