Here at meQuilibrium, we talk about sleep a lot—and with good reason. Research has shown time and time again that our physical and mental health suffers when we don’t get enough rest. In fact, the epidemic of sleep deprivation plaguing the modern world is well documented: In a global study of nearly 50 countries, none averaged the recommended eight hours of sleep per night. But here’s a question that isn’t asked nearly as often: Are we dreaming enough?
Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., a sleep and dream expert at the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine, has the answer: No. In a paper titled Dreamless: The Silent Epidemic of REM Sleep Loss, Naiman writes, “We are at least as dream-deprived as we are sleep-deprived.” Dream loss, he says, is “an unrecognized public health hazard” that’s wreaking havoc on our physical and emotional well-being.
It makes sense that if you’re sleeping fewer hours per night, you’re spending less time in the dream stage of your sleep cycle, known as REM (which stands for rapid eye movement). Naiman says that decades of research indicates that many of the health issues we attribute to lack of proper sleep—such as weight gain, anxiety, and compromised immune function—more specifically result from dream stage deprivation. It’s especially impactful on our mental health. “Diminished REM sleep and dream recall,” Naiman says, “is strongly linked to depression,” and short-term disruptions of dream stage sleep can increase irritability, anxiety, and aggression.
The bottom line? To sleep well, we must dream well—and vice-versa. One of the reasons we’re losing our dreams is that we don’t value them sufficiently, says Naiman. “Whether we believe dreams are personally meaningful or not, we must recognize that they are healthful.” Here are four ways to dream your way to more restful sleep:
1. Set yourself up for success.
Many of the usual culprits implicated in sleep disorders affect our dream sleep, too. Researchers have identified a variety of simple yet effective habits—known as sleep hygiene—that can help anyone maximize the hours they spend sleeping:
- Stick to a regular bedtime.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol at least 4 hours before bed.
- Sleep with a fan on. It’ll help keep your room cool and provide a soothing background of white noise.
- Do something you find relaxing (like taking a warm bath or shower, reading, or listening to music) an hour before bed to signal to your body that you’re transitioning from awake time to bedtime.
2. Give your melatonin a (natural) boost.
Certain types of sleeping pills, both prescription and over-the-counter, “typically increase light sleep at the expense of deep sleep and suppress REM/dreaming,” Naiman writes. Widespread use by those desperate for some shuteye is “unquestionably” one of the major causes of dream loss, he adds. If you have trouble sleeping, try some of these natural ways to increase the amount of melatonin (the “sleep hormone”) your body produces instead:
- Up your exposure to natural light, particularly in the morning.
- High-stress levels can suppress the production of melatonin. Keep your stress under control with exercise, meditation, or journaling—whatever works for you.
- Light exposure affects melatonin production. If you can’t make your bedroom completely dark, try using an eye mask.
3. Power down electronics after dark.
Bright artificial light, especially the blue light from phones, computers, and tablets, disrupts our body clock, which in turn cuts into REM sleep. Checking your email or social media feeds close to bedtime can also keep you alert or get you agitated, neither of which is conducive to sleep.
4. Start a dream journal.
Keep a pen and a journal next to your bed and start recording your dreams immediately when you wake up. Document every detail you can remember, including what you were thinking and feeling. This intentional act reframes your dreams as something deserving of your time and mental energy. Over time, you should be able to remember your dreams more easily.
Over the last 10 years, Janet Ungless has developed a comprehensive expertise in health and well-being as a writer and editor. With a particular focus on sleep, meditation, and wellness, Janet has worked with a host of digital platforms to help consumers live healthier, happier lives. Find her on Twitter @jungless.