Dream deprivation: How the loss of REM sleep affects health and learning

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 sleep stage.

There are concerns that REM sleep deprivation may harm human health. You may not get enough REM sleep if:

  • you take antidepressants
  • you have a sleep disorder

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

What is REM sleep?

REM sleep is one of the two main natural sleep stages. It’s so obvious that other stages are sometimes classified as “non-REM sleep.”

Modern sleep research such as polysomnography Use different tools to measure sleep activity. These include:

  • EEG (EEG) measurement of brain waves
  • EMG (EMG) to measure muscle activity
  • electrooculogram (EOG) measurement of eye movement

During REM sleep, the brain is active. Most muscles are not.

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

Vivid dreams are another central part of REM sleep. Paralysis may prevent you from achieving your dreams.

Without this paralysis, REM sleep behavior disorder may occur. People with this disorder manifest their dreams during sleep.

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

Important functions of REM sleep

The research is inconclusive, but it suggests that REM sleep is important for daytime function. It helps you learn and consolidate your memory.

REM sleep is thought to aid procedural memory. This is the type of memory you use when learning a new skill, such as how to ride a bike. It is different from factual or semantic memory. This is the type of memory you use for things like date or fact lists.

REM sleep can also help you with the problem. During REM sleep, you may make unique connections in your brain.

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

Mood disorders can alter the experience of dreams. This can happen in the following groups of people:

  • anxiety
  • frustrated
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)


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

Reasons for Dream Deprivation

Lack of sleep has real effects on health and well-being. The most obvious is drowsiness. Drowsiness can affect your work and home life. It can also make doing things like driving a car dangerous.

Lack of sleep can also affect the following:

  • metabolism
  • pain
  • heart health

Sleep is structured. REM sleep occurs periodically during sleep. This is usually every 90 to 120 minutes.

REM sleep may last 5 to 30 minutes. The duration of REM sleep usually becomes longer in the morning. This means that most REM sleep occurs in the last third of the night. The last period of REM sleep may be interrupted when you wake up.

If your REM sleep is regularly disturbed, you may experience false awakenings. This is when you feel like you are awake but are actually still dreaming.

In some cases, you may spend less or no time in REM sleep. For example, if you don’t get enough total sleep time, it can lead to a decrease in overall REM sleep.

You may also spend more nights in REM sleep. This happens because you probably don’t spend any time in lighter sleep. This is part of the sleep consolidation process, when you “catch up” to lost sleep.

Substance use has a large effect on REM sleep. The following are known to inhibit REM sleep:

  • caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • marijuana
  • Opioids or narcotic pain relievers
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Antidepressants
  • Petrochemical (lithium)

Sleep disturbances may also cause fragmented REM sleep. This is especially true for the following situations:

  • obstructive sleep apnea
  • narcolepsy

During REM, the muscles relax. This can cause the airway muscles to collapse. When this happens, it triggers the breathing disorder 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 rebound REM sleep.


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

Effects of dream deprivation unclear

Alcohol and antidepressants are widely used. Sleep apnea is common. Still, studies haven’t been able to show that sleep deprivation caused by these things has a big impact on health.

Long-term sleep deprivation does not appear to have any measurable health effects, even in patients who have been on antidepressants for decades.

Subjects with permanent damage to REM-related parts of the brain did not appear to be affected by REM sleep loss. These subjects may have normal memory and no loss of function. The purpose of REM sleep is still unknown.


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


REM sleep is the stage of sleep associated with dreaming. During this phase, your brain is active and your muscles are relaxed.

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

Many factors can affect how much REM sleep you get. Sleep disorders such as substance use and sleep apnea can all play a role.

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

VigorTip words

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

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

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the signs of REM sleep deprivation?

    In general, clues that you may not be getting enough sleep and therefore missed REM sleep include:

    • Falling asleep quickly within minutes of hitting your head on the pillow
    • daytime sleepiness
    • Sleeping or dozing off during the day

  • What happens to the body during REM sleep?

    REM sleep is characterized by distinct biological changes:

    • Skeletal muscles relax to the point of paralysis
    • breathing faster
    • increased heart rate
    • High blood pressure
    • Eyes that are closed but move quickly under the lids
    • men have erections
    • Body temperature drops to its lowest point during the day or night
  • Why do we dream during REM sleep?

    Some experts believe that during REM sleep, changes in brain wave activity combined with increased firing of nerve cells (neurons) in the brain contribute to dreaming.