In Search of Better Sleep
After a year of emotional upheavals and health challenges, I resolved to enter 2018 with a singularly proactive step: getting more restful, productive sleep. It can’t be coincidental that numerous sleep studies caught my attention, as my subconscious mind probably directed me to find them. I already know, as do most of us, that sleep is necessary for the body to rest and replenish, as well as heal, yet there are many more aspects of stages of sleep and effective sleep that I’ve discovered in my quest to become more sleep-proficient.
Nightmares: More Complex Than You Think
As someone who’s been plagued by vivid nightmares many times in the past, and sometimes even the present, I welcome research that provides a more complete picture of this nighttime torment. Ever wake up in absolute dread, feeling a sense of impending doom, like you can’t escape the horrible dream you just awakened from? That’s a nightmare, and who wouldn’t relish the opportunity to learn more about them as well as how to overcome them?
It makes sense to me that, as a study in Brain and Behavioral Sciences reported, the form and content of dreams is not random, but constructed by the brain in an organized and selective fashion. Furthermore, certain types of waking experiences profoundly affect dreams. Study authors proposed that the function of dreaming is to simulate threatening events, and then rehearse both threat perception and threat avoidance. Weinstein et al. (2017) found that waking-life psychological need experiences are reflected in daily dreams. Another study published in Stress and Health linked need frustration to higher stress, leading to greater evening fatigue and subsequent poorer sleep quality and shorter duration of sleep.
University of Montreal researchers found that nightmares have more emotional impact than do bad dreams, and frequently contain themes of physical aggression – death, health concerns and threats. Researchers learned that men more often have nightmares involving calamities and disasters, while women’s nightmares centered on themes of interpersonal conflict twice that of men.
During the dream stage of sleep, called REM (rapid eye movement), the sleeper’s brain processes emotional experiences and can promote healing from the reactivation of memories of the event, say researchers. This is thought to happen due to low levels of norepinephrine, a brain chemical associated with stress, during REM sleep and results in a stress-free environment in which to process emotions. The sleeper awakes the next day with those experience memories softened, thus, better able to cope. This finding holds promise for new treatment for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In Search of Better REM
If REM sleep is so important in sleep hygiene, I wanted to know more about how to achieve a higher quality and longer duration of this vitally important sleep stage. An intriguing 2015 study by Japanese researchers identified a neural circuit in the brain in mice that both regulates REM sleep and controls the physiology of non-REM sleep, another major sleep stage. Of interest to me was a 2017 study published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology that found that people who get less REM sleep may be at greater risk of developing dementia.
Checking recommendations on the web for improving REM sleep, I found several that seem to be self-evident:
- Avoid alcohol before going to bed.
Alcohol interferes with the various stages of sleep and can result in restless sleep, interrupted sleep, and less high-quality REM sleep as well as deeper, more restorative sleep.