Night of the Sleeping REM

October 31, 2017

“By night, Love, tie your heart to mine,
and the two together in their dream will defeat the darkness.”
~ Pablo Neruda, Soneto LXXIX

The romantic longing of Pablo Neruda’s passionate poem may actually hold a scientific truth.  A study of young adults recently published by the Society for Neuroscience suggested that dreaming more can help you to fear less.

Researchers at Rutgers University monitored students’ sleep for one week, then had them participate in an experiment to measure their response to fearful stimuli.  The scientists found that the students who had spent more time in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep were less inclined to respond with fear.  REM sleep is the phase when dreaming occurs.

Contrary to popular belief, sleep is actually a very active time for the brain.  Although our physiological processes (heart rate, breathing, blood pressure) can slow down, our brains are busy cycling through four distinct stages of sleep in a specific sequence.

Stage N1 is transitional, a light sleep that lasts 5 to 10 minutes. Body temperature decreases and brain waves seem to slow.  This is the sleep you get when you take a short nap, wake up, and then wonder if you fell asleep or not.

Stage N2 lasts 10 to 25 minutes.  Your heart rate slows, muscles relax and eye movement stops.

Stage N3 is deep sleep, also known as “slow wave” or “delta” sleep.  This is the sleep you need in order to feel fully rested and refreshed the next day.  This phase usually lasts 20 to 40 minutes.  You are super groggy when awakened from N3 sleep, which is why you should probably not nap for more than 30 minutes, so you can wake from your nap easily.  This is also the sleep phase when sleepwalking or sleep talking are most likely to happen.

REM sleep begins about 90 minutes after you first fall asleep and have gone through all of the first three stages already.  The first REM stage usually lasts about 10 minutes, with each REM stage you have throughout the night getting longer and longer.

As I mentioned above, REM, stands for Rapid Eye Movement.  During this phase of sleep, your closed eyes may move rapidly from one side to another.  Although not proven yet, many scientists believe your eyes move like this during dreams.  During REM sleep, your heart rate and blood pressure increase a bit and your arm and leg muscles relax so much so that they become somewhat immobile.  This is possibly the body’s way of keeping you from acting out your dreams physically.  If you’ve ever had a one of those scary dreams where you couldn’t move, you were probably just half conscious of your temporary paralysis while dreaming.

So, as you can see, in order to get to the REM sleep that strengthens your psyche against fear, you need to go through all of the stages before REM and that means sleeping well.  Here are a few good tips:

Keep your bedroom dark, quiet and at a cooler temperature.

Turn off your electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bed.

Don’t keep electronics on or charging near your bed.   Use a wind-up clock for your alarm.

Stop all caffeine consumption 8 hours before bed.  Drink a relaxing beverage, like valerian, chamomile or lemon balm tea.

Don’t work or eat in bed.

A hot bath with Epsom salts before bed helps.  The magnesium helps you relax.

Don’t sleep in your daytime clothes, even if they’re comfortable.

If you like to read before bed, use a real, paper book.  The light from e-readers (especially blue light) makes your eyes believe that it’s time to wake up.

Do some relaxing conscious breathing before bed.  Below is a favorite Pranayama (yogic breathing technique) I use to help myself and my students relax and relieve anxiety and/or insomnia.

The Extended Exhale

In this easy breathing technique, you gradually increase the length of your exhales, relative to your inhales.  The heart beats more slowly during exhalation, so increasing the length of time that you breathe out encourages a relaxation response in the body.  Here’s how:

To begin relaxing for sleep when you first get into bed, lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the mattress, about hips’ distance apart.  Begin breathing, preferably in and out of your nose, placing your palms lightly at your solar plexus, the soft place on your abdomen directly  under your rib cage.  Try to begin breathing using this area first, letting the chest expand upward from there, gradually, as you inhale.  Continue taking nice, long, slow, steady and deep breaths, in and out of your nose.  Begin counting to yourself as you breathe in and as you breathe out.  Your inhales will probably be about the same length as your exhales.  Slowly began lengthening your exhales relative to your inhales.  For example; if you inhale for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 6.  Try to gradually work up to a ratio of 1:2 (if you inhale for 5 counts, exhale for 10).  However, do not increase your exhales beyond double the count of your inhales.  If doubling the length of your exhales is too difficult, just making your exhales a couple of counts longer will help, even if they are not double.  The point is to help you relax, so take it easy at first.  Simply extending your exhalations for at least a minute or two, will encourage your heart rate to slow, your blood pressure to drop and your muscles to relax, helping you unwind into a nice night’s sleep.

“Sleep is the best meditation.”
~ Dalai Lama


No need to be afraid of the dark when you bake up some Midnight Boo-scotti – dark chocolate cookies draped in white.

Midnight Boo-scotti
Dark chocolate contains some caffeine, so it may interfere with sleep.  However, according to Swiss researchers, the consumption of dark chocolate can reduce the effects of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.  Dark chocolate increases the amount of seratonin (a mood regulator) in the brain, and it is also high in magnesium, which helps to regulate the body’s internal clock. Eating dark chocolate has many other beneficial effects, including lowering the blood pressure, lowering cholesterol levels and improving blood flow to the brain and heart.  In fact, frequent chocolate consumption is associated with a nearly 40% reduced risk for heart disease and a 30% reduced risk for stroke.  Whether you enjoy these yummy biscotti with your morning coffee or as an evening snack, I’ll let you decide.


2/3 cup organic sugar
5 tablespoons butter
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 & 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 (12 oz) pkg white chocolate chunks (24% cacao), for dipping


Preheat oven to 350°F

Grease a large, rimmed baking sheet with butter or line with parchment paper.

In a large mixing bowl, using a large fork or an electric mixer on low, combine the sugar and butter until pale and fluffy.  Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition.  Add the vanilla and cinnamon and blend 30 seconds more, or until combined.  Set aside.

In another bowl, combine the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt.  Add the flour mixture to the bowl with the sugar/egg/butter mixture and beat until combined.

Transfer the dough to the prepared baking sheet (you may want to dust your fingertips with a little flour, as the dough can be sticky).  Shape the dough into a log, then flatten into a 4-inch wide strip.  Bake the strip, rotating the baking sheet halfway through cooking time, until browned and set, about 25 to 30 minutes.  Transfer the strip to a cooling rack and cool for about 15 minutes.

Reduce the oven temperature to 300°F

Transfer the strip to a work surface.  Using a serrated knife, cut strip into slices (as if slicing a loaf of bread) about 1/3-inch thick.  Arrange the slices, cut side down, on the baking sheet.  Bake the slices, rotating the baking sheet halfway through cooking time, until crisp, about 15 to 20 minutes.  Transfer the slices to a cooling rack and let cool completely.

To dip in white chocolate:
Melt white chocolate chunks over low heat in a small, heavy saucepan, stirring, until smooth and creamy.  Dip end of each biscotto into the chocolate and return to the cooled baking sheet to harden.  You can put the tray into the fridge for ten minutes or so to speed up the hardening of the chocolate if the weather is warm.

Store in an airtight container for up to 5 days.

Makes about 18 biscotti





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