Have you ever wondered why we dream? Rosalind Cartwright, Ph.D., says that dreams are the way the brain "incorporates memories, solves problems and deals with emotions. In this way, dreams are essential for our emotional health."
While dreaming is an important and necessary physiological phenomenon to help with our memory and mental health, dreams can also indicate other health issues that might need our attention. From nightmares to the frequency of dreams, we can learn a lot of information from our nocturnal adventures.
Nightmares can be a warning sign
There's nothing worse than waking from a nightmare in a cold sweat, heart pounding and nerves rattled. While a nightmare from time to time is generally not anything to worry about, frequent nightmares can indicate something more serious is going on with your health. One study found that nightmares can be linked to heart disease, with an irregular heartbeat increasing your risk of nightmares even more. This is because heart disease can decrease the amount of oxygen reaching your brain, which can trigger a nightmare.
Another possible cause of nightmares is sleep apnea, a chronic condition that can really mess with your REM sleep due to lack of oxygen. "Patients have had terrifying dreams of drowning or suffocation," says William Kohler, MD, medical director of the Florida Sleep Institute, "in reality, their airway is blocked off."
Dream frequency may point to a number of conditions
Most people have about four to six dreams every night, but don't remember near that many. Interestingly, we're more likely to remember dreams if we wake up right before the dream is over, or soon after it. Mood disorders like anxiety and depression might be a cause of increased dream frequency. If you are concerned, you might try keeping a journal by your bed and noting the frequency of your dreams. Although you might not think you are suffering from a mood disorder, the frequency of your dreams might say otherwise.
Vivid dreams and bizarre dreams
Vivid dreams may arise for a variety of reasons. They may indicate you are suffering from certain medical conditions, which might include neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson's disease. There are other, less frightening reasons for your weird dreams as well, so don't jump to conclusions too quickly.
This may come as a surprise to you, but particularly bizarre or memorable dreams might also indicate a possible infection. "Any infection increases the amount of slow-wave sleep we have, however, this delays the starting point of when we enter dreaming sleep, so dreaming sleep starts late, and can erupt into consciousness. This leads to vivid dreams and strange hallucinations," says Dr. Patrick McNamara, a neurologist from Boston University Medical School.
Alcohol can also prompt vivid and memorable dreams. This is because the effects of alcohol wear off toward morning, affecting your brain chemicals and triggering bizarre dreams.