What did you last dream of? Whether it was a happy dream, confusing dream, nightmare, or just downright bizarre, you might have noticed your sleep quality was impacted as a result.
Knowing how long we slept for is as easy as setting up an alarm or keeping a sleep diary. But the quality of your sleep is harder to calculate. Throw in the unpredictable magic of dreaming, and sometimes it’s a complete mystery as to why you woke up feeling more tired than when you went to sleep.
So, do nightmares make your sleep quality worse? Will a happy dream make me wake up feeling well-rested? Or is it not that simple?
What Are Dreams?
Dreams are those images, experiences, feelings, and stories we experience at night when we’re asleep – we all know that. But did you that we don’t actually know why we dream? Or what our dreams mean?
Without understanding exactly why we dream, what causes our dreams, and what we should make of them, it’s hard to link them definitively to sleep quality.
Nonetheless, it hasn’t stopped us from studying and observing dreams for centuries. From myths to scientific theories to bedtime stories your mom used to tell you, we all have ideas about dreams, what they mean, and their impact.
We tend to dream multiple times each night, but it’s the dreams that occur during REM sleep that are the ones you remember.
Dreams and Sleep Quality
Having regular dreams doesn’t seem to impact your sleep quality one way or another, as dreaming is a completely natural process. We haven’t yet found a link between having more dreams and sleeping better either.
But there is some evidence that having a dreamless sleep can make your sleep quality worse. This is because dreaming has some potent health benefits that we’re just beginning to understand:
- Dreams could be linked to better memory,
- Dreams can help us process emotions that our conscious brains aren’t ready to,
- As well as your own emotions, dreaming can help you recognize the emotions of others more easily.
Without dreaming, you might not reach REM sleep, which is linked to memory problems and even an increased risk of health problems, such as depression and obesity.
Another odd factor that we need to consider is that sleep quality is sometimes hard to measure! Scientific studies into sleep use polysomnography to measure your brain waves for accurately calculating the quality of your sleep. Obviously, we can’t do that at home. Even if you have a sleep monitoring device that tracks how much you move and your heart rate, you can sometimes show all the signs of having a good quality sleep… yet wake up feeling tired regardless.
Good Mood, Good Dreams
There appears to be a link between having good dreams, waking up feeling rested, and then having a good mood all day as a result.
Or is it the other way around?
It’s certainly possible that we have good dreams because we had a good day. After all, dreams are more often than not a reflection of something that happened to us during the day, or a feeling/emotion that we experienced or couldn’t process.
What needs to be highlighted here is that you’re more likely to sleep better with good dreams and a good mood. There’s no definitive cause and effect that’s been proven, all we can do is speculate and, well, dream!
Nightmares Are Different
Whether you have the same repeating nightmare or wake up one night from a truly horrifying nightmare, that can harm your sleep quality.
It’s the flip-side of the ‘good mood, good dreams’ dilemma. There’s certainly a link between poor sleep quality, bad dreams, and bad emotions during the day, but proving what is the cause and what is the effect is much harder to pinpoint. Common bad emotions that could trigger this are anxiety and stress.
Your sleep quality may also be immediately disturbed whether you wake up after your nightmare or not. A nightmare could make it harder to switch from REM sleep to non-REM sleep or deep sleep, leaving you feeling unrested in the morning.
The fear of nightmares can also make it harder to fall asleep and cause nightmares from your anxiety. It’s a bad cycle to get into!
While this evidence seems disheartening, it does also indicate that you could possibly change your nightmares into good dreams by staying happy and calm throughout the day. Why not make it a rule to watch something light-hearted or a comedy show in the evenings?
What About Lucid Dreaming?
Lucid dreaming is where you become self-aware within a dream. You know that you’re dreaming, but you don’t wake up! Prolific lucid dreamers may even be able to take control of the dream and change the narrative (but not always).
There does seem to be a link between lucid dreams and poor sleep quality. As lucid dreams tend to be quite vivid and require you to focus your mind, you might wake up feeling just as tired as when you fell asleep.
Furthermore, trying to fall asleep when you’re too excited or your mind is too focused on achieving a lucid dream can also have a negative impact. The more restless and awake you are, the harder it will be to drift off naturally.
If you’re lucky enough to be able to induce lucid dreams and control them, you might want to cut back on your night-time adventures. Having an average night’s sleep might be boring but it will provide a higher sleep quality. If the lucid dreams come for you regardless of whether you want them or not, do your best to stay relaxed. Rather than making a great effort to control them, just let them play out.
Other Factors That Could Impact Your Sleep Quality
If you’re not convinced that it’s your dreams that are impacting your sleep quality – or perhaps you aren’t sure if you dream or not – then these other factors could be getting in the way.
- Diet – studies are simply confirming what nutritionists have been raving about for years. Consuming whole grains and plenty of fresh fruit and veg leads to improved sleep quality. We’re still researching how individual foods, meal sizes, and when you eat can impact sleep quality, however.
- Everyday chemicals – caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and other chemicals that we consume throughout the day can impact our sleep, especially when they block or enhance neurotransmitters in the brain. How much these chemicals will alter your sleep quality will depend partly on how sensitive you are to them.
- Prescribed medications – while feeling restless or even insomnia is a side effect of various commonly prescribed drugs, some drugs might improve the quality of your sleep, like the preventative migraine treatments used in this trial.
- Medical conditions – obesity, diabetes, and cardiac diseases have also all been linked to sleep quality disturbances. Notice how all 3 conditions could also be linked to a poor diet? This may not be a coincidence, as while studies have shown that there’s an impact of disease/poor diet with poor sleep quality, it’s hard to prove the causality. We need further studies to determine exactly what it is about a diet or disease that impacts sleep quality.
- Menopause – sleep disturbances and reduced sleep quality are more common during menopause than you may think, and not just because of the hot flashes and night sweats.
Summary – Do Dreams Affect Sleep Quality?
Yes, dreams can have an impact on your sleep quality, directly or indirectly. We’re just still not entirely sure what’s the cause and what’s the effect. Here’s a quick recap:
The bottom line is, dreaming is natural and healthy, whether you feel it impacts your sleep quality or not. If frequent nightmares or lucid dreaming are negatively impacting your sleep quality (and thus your quality of life in general) and you can’t seem to shake them off, then you should speak to your doctor rather than suffering in silence!
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