The Science of Sleep: Dreaming for Good Health
We’re fascinated by our dreams. It’s nothing new – the earliest recorded dreams were written on a clay tablet by ancient Assyrians around the 6th century B.C. Dreams were thought to come from the gods, while demons sent nightmares. More recently, early psychologists, from Freud to Jung, have theorized widely about the meaning of dreams. Today, scientific sleep studies and brain research have added a new dimension to the age-old question:
Why do we dream?
Studies monitoring brain activity reveal that about 25 percent of sleep is dream sleep, says Canyon Ranch in Tucson sleep expert Param Dedhia, M.D.
“During that time, you’re connecting newly formed memories and integrating new information into your memory bank.”
Good sleep promotes alertness and memory, so disturbed or fragmented sleep may result in your thoughts being more fragmented and in feeling less alert. If you don’t sleep well, it’s possible that you don’t dream well. Without good sleep and dreams, you may tend to forget details more easily. Everyone dreams, he says. “You benefit from your dreams even if you don’t remember having them.”
On average, we spend about six years of our lives dreaming, Dr. Dedhia says. “Dreams help us balance and soothe our emotions, review the day and organize new facts. They give us a greater capacity for problem-solving; without dreams, you may not be able to integrate your memories and create that Aha! moment.”
Conditions that cause fragmented sleep, such as sleep apnea, restless legs, anxiety, depression or pain may prevent you from getting the benefits of the different stages of sleep and the mental “sorting” that occurs when you dream, says Dr. Dedhia. “With fragmented sleep, you bounce in and out of dreams like a pinball. Getting diagnosed and treated for an existing sleep condition can be a big boost for your emotional health.”
Sleep and dreams are a vital part of well-being, he says. “Without sleep – and dreams – our lifestyles really struggle. The field of sleep medicine has experienced a resurgence of interest in studying dreams, so there’s much yet to learn about the meaning of dreams, and their implications for overall health.”
However, he points out, we know that sleep and dreams are essential; so while scientists continue to unravel their mysteries, we can all enjoy their multiple benefits for health and wellness.
A sleep cycle typically lasts between 90 and 120 minutes, and consists of several stages:
Twilight sleep. You’re just drifting off to sleep.
Typical sleep, no dreams. Repair and regeneration takes place.
Deep sleep, no dreams. Significant physical repair takes place during this stage; anti-inflammatory and antioxidant processes help daily regeneration of damaged tissue. Better sleep helps the immune system, heart health and brain health. In this sleep stage, you’re also “stamping” or imprinting thoughts and facts into your brain from the day you’ve just lived.
REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, or dream sleep. Dreams are our time for “filing” these newly imprinted memories and creating connections to previous thoughts and memories. “There’s a lot of brain activity during REM sleep,” says Dr. Param Dedhia. “In a sleep study, it often looks a lot like being awake. Your brain is working hard and robust with activity; your eyes are active and moving as if you’re living your dream.”