We've been getting feedback about how much sleep is optimal for a while now. A recent, massive study of 44,000 people, for example, concluded most of us need about 7 to 8 hours of shuteye every night. If you're not having dreams when you hit the hay, though, that could spell trouble, even if you're supposedly meeting the rest guidelines.

Sleep experts break down a sleep cycle, which normally lasts about 90 minutes, into five distinct phases or stages. As you go through these stages, your brain waves generally slow down, and the body engages in physiological changes for rest, such as reduced heart rate and body temperature.

The last of the five sleep stages, which generally lasts about 25 minutes, is Rapid Eye Movement (REM). While you can dream in any stage, this is when you have your most intense dream and brain activity. In fact, according to Dr. George Zureikat, medical director of the Mid-Michigan Sleep Center in Grand Blanc, as much as 80 percent of dreams happen during this phase.

The exact biological reason for sleep is still somewhat of a mystery. But the research we have so far suggests that REM is important for memory consolidation and working out how to handle problems, although more research is needed to be conclusive. A lack of REM sleep is associated with slower cognitive and social processing, as well as trouble concentrating and making decisions.

Because the presence of dreams is an easy way to gauge whether you're getting into REM, if you're rarely dreaming anything you can remember, it could be a warning sign that you're not getting past the initial sleep stages, and that your amount of REM sleep isn't adequate.

So let's say you aren't really getting through the sleep stages the way you should. What could be causing you to stay out of dreamland? Common issues that interfere with sleep are:

  • Consumption of substances, such as alcohol, caffeine or marijuana
  • Sleep apnea
  • Medications
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Lighting
  • Room temperature
  • Pain
  • Stress

While some of these issues are easy to manage on your own, others, like health conditions, might require you to get a helping hand. That's OK, and when in doubt, don't hesitate to get yourself checked out. The important thing is just that you recognize that your sleep isn't as good as it could be, and that you advocate for yourself to get it back on track.