Despite what Garfield comic strips told us, getting enough z’s isn’t just about feeling your best in the morning or needing more coffee. More and more studies are finding that healthy sleep habits can lower one’s risk of developing many harmful conditions and deadly diseases, while not getting enough sleep can significantly affect one’s performance at work or in school. Now, a new study suggests that it’s not simply the rest and recovery offered by sleep that our bodies need. In a groundbreaking study, sleep researchers at Rutgers University have discovered that REM sleep – the phase of sleep in which we dream – can significantly lower one’s risk of stress and stress-related disorders like PTSD.
Rutgers neuroscientist Itamar Lerner and his colleagues published their study in The Journal of Neuroscience. In their experiment, Lerner’s team used mobile sleep monitoring devices and functional neuroimaging (fMRI) to track participants’ sleep habits alongside scans of their brains. Their data shows that REM sleep can effectively shield the brain against developing anxiety or PTSD in the first place, even when encountering stressful situations.
PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, is a condition which sometimes follows stressful, frightening, or traumatic events. Individuals affected by PTSD often experience the “fight-or-flight” responses associated with these events long after the events themselves occur, leading to anxiety, panic attacks, or disturbing thoughts. This study is the first to discover a link between an individual’s sleep habits before stressful events themselves and the PTSD and other stress disorders which occur after the events.
Lerner and his co-authors suggest that the best prevention for these stress disorders is to ensure a healthy diet of good rest each night. One of the authors of the study, Shira Lupkin, says that for most individuals, “REM sleep makes up about 20 to 25% of the time they spend asleep. So for now, the best way we can recommend getting more REM sleep is to simply get more sleep overall.” REM sleep cycles occur during the deepest phase of sleep, so the best way to get sufficient REM sleep is to get as much healthy sleep as possible each night. If you work in a high-stress environment, the difference between a healthy mental state and developing stress disorders could be catching enough shut-eye.