Vol.1, No.4

When can dreaming be a bad thing?

How much you dream depends on your Circadian rhythm. If you spend too much time in REM (dream) sleep, you may deprive yourself of other vital stages.

A woman dreaming
Photo Credit: Sharon Dominick
Got rhythm?

Don't worry: even if you can't dance, you've got rhythm. It's your Circadian rhythm (or biological clock), and, by reacting to light, it tells your body when to sleep and when to wake up.

It also tells your body what KIND of sleep to get. Sleep comes in stages, and one of the most important of those is REM, or dream sleep. (REM means "rapid eye movement"; your eyes, while remaining shut, move quite rapidly while you dream.)

If your Circadian rhythm is out of whack, your dream sleep may be insufficient, overactive or missing. You may even dream in a non-REM stage, which means your dreams might not be able to do their job. Your dreaming may go horribly wrong.

Normal sleep involves several stages. While you're still awake, your brain produces high-frequency beta waves, which are small and rather random in their patterns. As you relax the waves become bigger and more regular: alpha waves. You pass quickly into stage one: drowsiness, or light sleep. Your eyes close, your brain activity has slows to half-speed, and yet you may not even know you're asleep. You may perceive yourself to be conscious and not realize you're been in any stage of sleep at all, and if you are awakened (which may easily happen at this point) you may either be unaware you ever slept at all, or remember little flashes of dreamlike imagery. Your brain has been making theta waves, which are even slower and bigger than alpha waves.

Slowly, you ease into stage two, which makes up the bulk of your sleep time, and it is here that your theta waves are peppered with short bursts of increased frequency (spindles) and amplitude (K complexes). This is still considered light sleep; your body is benefiting from the relaxation but your brain hasn't gotten involved in its true sleep time work.

In stage three, delta waves -- the biggest and slowest of all -- start to take over. By stage four, more than half of your brain wave output is delta. If you're going to sleepwalk or wet the bed, now's the time. This is deep sleep indeed, and you won't be easy to rouse. It probably wouldn't be a good idea anyway; you'd be drowsy, cranky and disoriented.

Then a strange thing happens: your muscles suddenly lose tone, you are virtually paralyzed, your body temperature may rise or fall uncontrollably, and your brain wave activity perks up dramatically. This is REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, and this is when you dream. You won't remember every dream; you may even declare "I don't dream!" But EVERYBODY dreams.

All of the stages together last about 90 minutes and then your body repeats this cycle over and over, with an important difference: each time you go through it, you spend less time in delta sleep and more in REM sleep. You dream more and more each time. If your sleep is interrupted, your next session may be diverted immediately past delta right into REM so you can catch up. You need your dream sleep desperately, even though experts still can't agree about why. However, catching up on your dream sleep can deprive you of your delta sleep. More may turn out to be less.

Dreams are little understood, even in the 21st century. We understand delta sleep and its reparation and production activities much better, but we don't know much more about dreams than we did 100 years ago. We do know that only warm-blooded animals (and birds) dream, but we don't know why. We know that the paralysis that accompanies REM sleep prevents you from acting out your dreams, which could be dangerous. Freud thought dreams were a way of safely acting out what would be forbidden in your waking life. Some people think your dreams predict the future, or even send you traveling into another world. We know for certain that whatever dreaming really is, it's vital to your mental and physical health.

If you don't get delta sleep, your body loses its ability to repair itself in many ways. You suffer a similar loss without enough dream sleep. However, you can also get too much dream sleep!

Apart from depriving you of your delta sleep (or perhaps partly because of it), too much dream sleep can cause depression (whereas depression may cause a LACK of REM sleep). If you have recurring dreams, particularly nightmares, you may be exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. So does the over dreaming cause the psychiatric or emotional problem, or is it the other way around? Perhaps both. Frequent nightmares don't necessarily cause these disorders, nor do they necessarily signal them. Dreams and nightmares may even be your way of trying to resolve some of your problems and overcome them. However, there is no benefit in continually frightening and shocking yourself long after the problem should have been worked out, and the sleep cycle imbalance caused by too much dreaming may impair your waking functions. That may, in turn, throw your sleep cycle off. The result of too much dreaming may, finally, be not enough dreaming.

If you think you've been dreaming too much, don't stop sleeping to avoid dreaming! You probably need MORE sleep... the right KIND of sleep. Balance is the key, and an imbalance might be restored in several ways; here are just a few:

1. Expose yourself to some morning sunlight. This will help to reset your Circadian clock.

2. Don't smoke, as nicotine withdrawal may wake you up in the middle of a cycle, or after too few cycles.

3. Avoid caffeine, alcohol and sleeping pills. All interfere with the sleep cycle and may suppress delta and REM sleep.

4. 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.

Good night!