I remember a few years ago, sitting in a college health lecture only half paying attention (as I was wont to do) when I caught a bit of the current discussion that made me do a double take. They were talking about sleep and the importance of the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep where dreaming occurs.
The professor mentioned that too much dreaming is actually a sign of poor sleep, but REM sleep is the most important, right? Nope.
Your brain functions at a much different level during the sleep cycle. During the day your brain uses high-frequency Beta waves but sleep is divided in stages consisting of mostly Alpha, Theta, and Delta waves. Why is this important? Well, your brain moves at a much slower pace during this time, allowing it to recharge itself. There are four stages before REM sleep occurs and, in all, it takes 90 minutes to pass through all of them together. Then your body repeats the cycle over and over but each time you move through stages 1-4 more quickly and spend more time in REM sleep.
Okay, so now that I’ve finished our science lecture I can tell you what this means to you. When your body is interrupted from sleep, (you wake up frequently during the night, have less healthy sleeping patterns, etc) your brain skitters through the cycles choosing the most important ones. Your dreams become more vivid and therefore your remember them easier. REM sleep is by far the most important stage of sleep though experts can’t necessarily agree why. However, we know that during your Delta sleep (stages 3-4 which are the deepest) that is when the most repairing and recharging of your body takes place. Your brain will choose REM sleep over anything else and your body loses its ability to repair itself in many ways.
So what are signs that your body isn’t getting enough stage 3-4 sleep? Depression is a common side effect of too little delta sleep. Consistent nightmares or recurring dreams are another signal. (These are also signs of psychological disorders such as PTSD and there is debate whether one causes the other or vice-versa) Also too much dreaming may lead to not dreaming at all. Also you could be feeling sluggish on days when intense dreams occur. A little confusing and all-encompassing don’t you think?
So, here are some tips to make sure your sleep cycle is working properly and you’re getting the most out of a night’s sleep:
- Expose yourself to some morning sunlight. This will help to reset your Circadian clock.
- Don’t smoke, as nicotine withdrawal may wake you up in the middle of a cycle, or after too few cycles.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol and sleeping pills. All interfere with the sleep cycle and may suppress delta and REM sleep.
- Learn relaxation techniques and use them. Biofeedback, for example, teaches you how to produce those relaxing alpha waves. They may help you slip more easily into the rest of your sleep cycle.
Don’t be afraid to see a doctor if you think you are dreaming too much, and don’t be surprised if s/he tries to help you sleep more rather than less. Sweet dreams!