This is an invited research digest, contributed by Rubin Naiman, Ph.D. at the University of Arizona, with Sarah Moran
Where would we be without our dreams? When dreaming, or REM sleep, takes a hit, we lose so much more than we realize. The loss of dreams holds us back us on every level, compromising our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being.
An increasing number of people understand that sleep deprivation is a widespread public health problem. But dream deprivation? It’s a silent epidemic—and one that’s consistently overlooked.
When we sleep, our brains prioritize non-REM sleep stages over the REM/dream stage. That means if we don’t get enough quality sleep, dreams are the first thing to go. So if sleep is poor, dreaming is inevitably poor too. Many of the problems associated with sleep deprivation might actually be the result of dream deprivation.
A growing number of studies show dream loss takes a serious toll on our health and well-being. Dream loss compromises our immunity, mood and emotional regulation, memory consolidation, creativity and spiritual experiences. And it raises the risk for illness, inflammation, depression, anxiety, memory loss, weight gain and other health problems. My paper “Dreamless: the silent epidemic of REM sleep loss,” published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, provides more detail.
Our dreams take a hit from a range of culprits, including:
- Sleep loss. Artificial light at night (LAN) allows people to expand their waking hours and push back their bedtime. In addition, the exposure to light disrupts the body’s production of melatonin, a natural hormone that promotes sleep and REM/dreaming. Insomnia, insufficient sleep syndrome and sleep apnea are all linked with disordered REM.
- Medications. Numerous over-the-counter and prescription medications disrupt REM sleep. These include many sleeping pills, most antidepressants, tranquilizers and anticholinergic drugs like Benadryl.
- Substances. Millions of people use alcohol and cannabis, believing it helps them with sleep. It’s true that both substances can help people fall asleep faster, but it’s also true that alcohol and cannabis suppress and disrupt REM/dreaming.
- Attitudes. Dreams are often viewed through an overly medicalized, depersonalized and “wake-centric” perspective. The assumption is that the experience of waking consciousness is more valuable and that the experience of dreaming is meaningless.
Individually and collectively we must recognize the value of dreams for our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being and give them the respect they deserve. We can help restore our dream loss by:
- Expanding our awareness of dreams. This can be done on a personal level by making sleep more of a priority and by noticing, remembering and reflecting on our dreams. Keep a dream journal at your bedside to record dreams. Share interesting dreams with loved ones or with others in a dream support group or dream circle.
- Improving sleep habits. More and better quality sleep naturally leads to more and better quality REM. Implement healthy sleep hygiene habits and get to bed earlier so you don’t need an alarm to wake. You can also reduce exposure to LAN by keeping indoor lights dim in the evening and by using blue blocker technology if you must look at a screen near bedtime.
- Consider trying oneirogens, substances that promote dreaming. You can find recipes of botanicals and nutraceuticals that support dreaming. Melatonin, when used correctly, can also improve sleep and dreams. (Usually 0.3—1.0 mg of a time-release formula is ideal).
- Expanding social consciousness. There are several ways to address REM/dream loss on a broader scale, including through public health education campaigns, increased research on REM/dreaming and also by establishing parameters for diagnosing dream loss.
The research is clear that REM/dreaming is critical for our health and well-being. And as great philosophers and ancient wisdom traditions have always known, our dreams can be healing in every sense of the word. They can bring insight, creativity and spiritual connection. They can teach us more about who we really are. When we recapture our lost dreams and reconnect with their value, we can live waking life more fully.