The benefits of a good night sleep have long been considered essential to health. Not getting enough sleep has been related to several health conditions like increasing the chance of dementia and heart disease. Recent research shows not only is sleep critical to overall health but that the dream phase of sleep can have consequences to mental health.
Dreams seem like a collection of scenes that often make sense in the moment but upon awakening are so strange it hard to figure what they may have meant. And sometimes it’s hard to shake off the memories. So, you blame your weird dream on something you ate. Or perhaps, you’re one of those people who doesn’t remember his or her dreams. The dream state, however, is not to be taken so lightly according to several dream and sleep researchers.
Stages of Sleep
There are five stages of sleep that the brain and body rotate through as you sleep. The short first stage prepares the body for sleep with the brain producing alpha and theta waves. A “catnap” is an example of stage one. Stage two is also a light sleep period where brain waves slow down. A “power nap” is an example of this stage.
In phases three and four, the brain produces delta waves where deep sleep occurs. The body repairs itself, and the immune function and energy systems are boosted during deep sleep.
The REM Stage of Sleep
About 90 minutes after falling asleep, you go into the fifth stage which is the rapid eye movement (REM) and dream period. Typically, adults have approximately five to six REM cycles throughout the course of the night that can last up to an hour. During this stage, brain activity increases in the regions associated with autobiographical memory, emotions, and vision.
Also, the heart rate rises and breathing is irregular and faster. Other brain regions, such as the area associated with rationality, decrease in function. This explains why dreams often make no sense says University of California, Berkeley psychology professor, Matthew Walker.
The REM cycles are shorter in the early hours of sleep and become longer during the closing hours of sleep. Therefore, you may awaken to a dream in the morning. Because REM is longer towards the end of sleep, you risk missing this stage if you don’t sleep the suggested seven to eight hours.
“‘Everything we see, every conversation we have, is chewed on and swallowed and filtered through while we dream, and either excreted or assimilated….’ Psychologist, Rubin Naiman, University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine.”
Experts can’t agree whether dreams are the result of haphazard neuron actions or are where memories are filtered into the important and nonimportant. Important ones are kept, and the others are discarded which helps prepare people to meet daily challenges. However, they all agree that REM sleep is necessary and beneficial to mental health. Dream research experts suggest that mood disorders are connected to atypical dream patterns.
REM Sleep and Emotional Health
- Fear and PTSD – A study in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that the amount of REM sleep a person gets is related to their response to anxiety and stressful situations. After a night’s sleep, study participants were subjected to a mild electric shock. Participants who experienced more prolonged periods of REM sleep registered low fear-related brain activity than those study participants who had less REM sleep. The researchers theorize that getting enough REM sleep may help a person be more resilient to developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Reactions to Emotions – Dream sleep prepares people to decipher other people’s emotions according to Dr. Walker. Studies by his team suggest that REM helps with emotions in different ways, such as providing a type of therapy that reduces strong reactions to emotional stimuli. “‘I think of dreaming as overnight therapy,’ Walker says. ‘It provides a nocturnal soothing balm that takes the short edges off our emotional experiences, so we feel better the next day.'”
- Depression – Dr. Naiman’s theorizes that a lack of dreaming rather than not enough sleep may be a crucial factor in depression that is overlooked in mainstream medicine. Along these same lines, Rosalind Cartwright, Ph.D. from Chicago’s Rush Medical Center, found that divorced people who dreamed and remembered their dreams recovered quickly from depressive states connected to divorce.
- Bad Dreams Are Good – According to Dr. Naiman, bad dreams also play a part in emotional health in a healthy way. He sees them as a form of ‘psychological yoga.’ Dreams in the early part of sleeping, he says, process and disperses negative emotions leftover from the day. Dreams that come later in the sleep cycle become integrated.
- Memory and Alzheimer’s Disease – Other studies show an association between REM, memory, and Alzheimer’s disease. Although, the evidence is less clear and more research is needed.
What Affects REM Sleep
Dream sleep can be affected by many things that either interfere with obtaining REM sleep or shortening the dream phase. Here are a few of them:
- Electronic devices
- Sleep medications
- Alcohol and drugs
- Sleep apnea
- Alarm clocks
- Artificial light
- Irregular bedtimes
Sleep is vital to good health and to recover from illnesses and diseases. But, REM appears to be necessary for mood and emotional health. While many people like to brag that they can get by on a few hours of sleep, dream experts agree that it’s not the amount of sleep that is important, but rather the quality, as in getting enough dream time.
- Learn what is really going on in your body while you’re getting your zzz’s. Retrieved from https://sleep.org/articles/what-happens-during-sleep/.
- McMillan, Amanda. Why Dreaming May Be Important for Your Health (October 27, 2017). Retrieved from http://time.com/4970767/rem-sleep-dreams-health/.
- Weil, Andrew, Dr. Why Dreams Are Vital to Emotional Health (May o4, 2012). Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/author/andrew-weil-md
- McMillan, Amanams-depression_b_1273422.html.da.