As you’ve probably read, we’re in the midst of a sleep deprivation epidemic. Experts around the globe are warning us that getting less than seven hours a night is increasingly linked to multiple health issues like Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, depression, obesity and stroke. But it turns out that we are also in the midst of of a dream deprivation epidemic. Unsurprisingly, the lack of sleep goes hand in hand with our growing lack of dreaming. While research is clear about what happens when we don’t get enough sleep, much of why we sleep and dream is still a mystery. But it is becoming more clear that dreaming is crucial to our overall wellbeing.
Throughout the night, we experience several different stages of sleep: three stages of NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep that includes two stages of light sleep (N1 and N2) and deep slow-wave sleep (N3); and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. We cycle through each stage multiple times through the night (including some brief waking periods that you likely don’t even remember). In light sleep (N1), there’s still some consciousness at play – this is when you might nod off for a moment while your brain continues processing what’s going on around you. N2 is when your body temperature drops and you begin to more fully disengage from your surroundings. When you enter N3, deep slow-wave sleep, your body gets its deepest rest. It’s difficult to wake from this stage and if you do, you’re likely to be groggy. Lastly, there is REM sleep, the stage in which you do your dreaming: your heart rate increases, your breathing and pulse quickens and of course, as the name implies, your eyes move rapidly beneath your closed lids.
While all stages are important, both REM sleep and deep slow-wave sleep are crucial. When in N3 sleep, your blood pressure drops, your breathing slows and your body does self-maintenance, repairing and growing tissue as well as releasing various hormones. Slow-wave sleep is thought to be involved with memory consolidation and studies have shown that listening to a specific frequency of noise during this stage helps with memory retention.
REM sleep, on the other hand, is a far more active sleep, occurring approximately every 90 minutes, making up about 25% of your sleep cycle. In this stage, your body goes from being deeply relaxed from N3 stage sleep to being completely unresponsive and paralyzed in REM sleep. But your brain is very busy with housekeeping, organizing information that it has encountered throughout the day. And of course, a major component of REM sleep is dreaming. While it’s still not clear how or why dreaming really occurs, some scientists are increasingly emphatic about its importance.
One such scientist, Rubin Naiman of the Center for Integrative Medicine, University of Arizona, recently published a review in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences regarding what he asserts is a growing epidemic of not just sleep loss, but dream loss. According to Naiman’s paper, the physical consequences of REM sleep loss are similar to those effects of more generalized sleep loss: increased inflammatory responses, obesity and memory problems. However, Naiman also emphasizes that “many of our health concerns attributed to sleep loss actually result from REM sleep deprivation." The mental processes that occur during REM sleep point towards a relationship with emotional health and the various ways the brain interprets daytime information. Many scientists speculate that dreams are a way for the brain to sift through its experiences, deciding which memories to keep and which to toss away. When sleep is at a premium, the body prioritizes NREM sleep over REM, thus preventing the brain from its nighttime activity and eliminating the dream stage. Researchers have actually run experiments where subjects are deprived only of REM sleep, finding that most of the negative side effects mirror those of total sleep deprivation.
Naiman cautions those who rely on medications or recreational drugs to assist them in getting sleep. Both alcohol and cannabis have been shown to significantly disrupt REM sleep, and sleeping pills generally increase lighter sleep at the expense of deeper, more restorative sleep. He also recommends abandoning one’s dependence on alarm clocks as they abruptly cut into the dream narrative, jarring the brain back into reality.
So what’s a person to do to get their dreams back? Since increasing your total good sleep quantity is your best shot at increasing your REM sleep, Naiman advocates good sleep hygiene: a dark, cool room; a period of winding down prior to actual sleep with meditation or yoga; decreasing exposure to nighttime light; and – perhaps most importantly – making a conscious decision to prioritize sleep over all the little distractions that come with modern life. This intentional attitude adjustment is just as important as physically changing your routine, if not even more so. Naiman contends that, “This is the first step, and it's a critical attitudinal shift. Because we can do all of the right things, but if our heart is not in the right place around sleep, it really won't help as much." So tonight, try turning off the lights early, do some focused breathing and allow yourself to fall back in love with sleep – with enough time and practice, you’ll be having sweet dreams again.
This article originally appeared in Sleep Retailer eNews on November 30, 2017
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