Dream Your Way to More Health and Happiness

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.


Twelve tips to help you get a better sleep

Sometimes, I struggle to fall asleep at night. I would lie in bed all night, trying to stop myself from thinking about anything specific. And during these times, there was always an impulse to get my phone and browse news or SNS. I would always have to struggle for a few minutes against this idea.

There is abundant neuroscientific evidence that evening use of light-emitting devices (LEDs) suppresses melatonin and increases alertness. LEDs produce enhanced short-wavelength light emissions when displaying texts. As a result, the latency to fall asleep prolongs, and the amount of REM sleep decreases. Evening use of LEDs thus leads to poor sleep quality. In a 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers compared the effects of reading an eBook on a LED with reading a printed book in the hours before bedtime. It was found that, compared to those reading a printed book, subjects reading an eBook took significantly longer to fall asleep, had delayed timing of their circadian clock, and lower next-morning alertness.

Notably, early pubertal children, namely 4-6th-grade elementary students, are particularly sensitive to evening light and show sleep disturbance after using LEDs before bedtime. Frequent usage of LEDs before bedtime impairs their alertness, attention, and learning efficiency the next day. Indeed, it has been reported that high school students who text longer at night after lights are out sleep fewer hours, are sleepier during the day, and have lower academic achievement.

Avoiding the use of LEDs before bedtime is essential. These findings also suggest that healthy sleep habits are important for optimal performance during the day time. In my new book written for pregnant women, The Seed of Intelligence: Boost Your Baby’s Developing Brain through Optimal Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyle, I summarized twelve strategies that help optimize sleep. I share them with you here:

  1. Establish more regularity and consistency in the timing of daily activities, especially the timing of getting up, evening meals, and bedtime routine. For example, you may want to read, take a hot shower, and then go to bed. Higher levels of regularity in behavioral rhythms are associated with better sleep outcomes, lower depression, and improved health.
  2. Make your bedroom quiet, cool, and dark, and your bed comfortable to promote sleep.
  3. Use your bedroom only for sleep, do not work or watch TV or videos in bed. This helps to establish a conditioning between your bedroom and sleep.
  4. Nap early, keep it short and before 5 p.m. Regular napping has been associated with enhanced mood, reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases and better cognitive functioning; but late napping may interfere with night sleep.
  5. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine for three to six hours before bedtime, as these chemicals interfere with sleep.
  6. Avoid heavy meals 2–3 hours before bedtime. Eating big or spicy meals may cause discomfort and interfere with sleep. If you feel hungry, try a light snack at least 45 minutes before bedtime.
  7. Consume enough drinks during the day, but balance it before sleep so that you won’t wake up thirsty nor have to go to bathroom in the middle of
  8. Do not use light-emitting electronic devices such as cell phones and tablets before bedtime, as it has negative effects on sleep.
  9. Exercise every day, as regular exercise improves sleep quality. But try to avoid vigorous exercise within 2 hours of going to bed, for vigorous late-night exercise may produce increased arousal and prolong your sleep onset latency.
  10. Try to reduce total sitting time and time spent television viewing. The more total sitting time and time spent viewing television, the greater odds of long sleep onset latency (≥ 30 min), waking up too early in the morning and poor sleep quality, and the higher risk for obstructive sleep apnea.
  11. If you can’t fall asleep after 20–30 minutes, get out of bed, go to another room, and do something relaxing, for example reading or listening to slow, soothing music until you are tired enough to sleep.
  12. Don’t stare at your clock at night. It actually increases stress and interferes with sleep.

There is a general belief that certain food may improve sleep quality. I’m now reviewing the scientific evidence and will share with you the result soon.