Busy executives readily associate a good night's sleep with health, but often aren't aware that dreaming is also critical for brain and body wellness. Most people accumulate nearly six years of dreaming throughout their lives, with the most vivid dreaming occurring during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. REM phases begin roughly every 90 minutes throughout the night and increase in duration ultimately leading to the deeper delta sleep associated with large, slow brain waves. Proper balance between delta and REM sleep is critical for the brain and body to rest and heal.
Unfortunately, a good night's rest can be disrupted by bad dreams which can be caused by a variety of sources. Stress, the types of foods you eat, medications you take, drinking, smoking or even vitamin deficiencies can lead to tossing and turning throughout the night.
Anxiety and stress are known to disrupt sleep. According to the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD), “major surgery or illness, grieving over the loss of a loved one, and suffering or witnessing an assault or major accident can trigger bad dreams and nightmares.“
Medications such as barbiturates, narcotics, beta-blockers, tranquillizers or anti-depressants can cause nightmares as a side effect. While nightmares usually stop after the medication is cleared from the system, some people who stopped taking drugs like sleeping pills may experience increased nightmares.
When and what you eat can be disruptive to dreaming as well. Eating right before bed may cause bad dreams due to the increased metabolism and brain activity necessary to digest a full stomach. High protein, high fat and low carbohydrate diets such as Atkins may also increase metabolism and load the brain with greater work causing nightmares. On the flip side, low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, may cause the brain to push stored glucose into the blood stream leading to adrenaline spurts which cause excessive physical movement during sleep. Adding more protein to your diet will regulate glucose levels for a more peaceful rest. Spicy or fatty foods just before bedtime are another no-no as findings indicate that these foods may elevate body temperatures and ultimately disrupt sleep.
Both physical factors and chemistry can also impact dreaming. Illnesses accompanied by fever, sleep apnea, or other sleep disorders like Narcolepsy can cause nightmares, while low dopamine levels may also cause problems. The chemical dopamine provides pleasant feelings and rewards activities such as eating and sex with increased dopamine levels. Low dopamine levels in the brain can cause violent dreams. Vitamin B-6 will help correct brain function by metabolizing amino acid neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, melatonin, and norepinephrine. However, too much vitamin B6 in the body and can be a warning sign of more complex neurological disorders, so limit intake to 100 milligrams (mg) or less per day to avoid toxicity.
Other ways to eliminate nightmares are to increase fiber and water in your diet as well as decrease sugar intake. Common natural remedies include drinking chamomile or peppermint tea, adding lavender essential oils to your bath or eating foods with herbs such as anise or caraway seeds. Some extreme cases of nightmares can be resolved by Kava Kava or Valerian root, but take them at bedtime as they can make you sleepy.
If you are having unusual and disruptive dreams, contact your doctor at EHS Corporate Care to rule out any health issues and to discuss ways to improve your sleep.
John P. Mamana, M.D.