Sleep is essential for physical and mental health, so much so that data shows that accidents due to drowsiness from sleep deprivation are more common than those caused by alcohol or other related drug consumption in the U.S. Not to mention that lack of sleep is associated with higher cancer risk, heart diseases and diabetes. In fact, one week without sleep would mess up your blood sugar levels so much that you could be considered pre diabetic, as mentioned by sleep scientist Dr. Walker in his book 'Why We Sleep?'. But more intriguing than sleep itself is the fact that we dream. Why do we have the most delusional and confusing views going on in our minds while we rest?
Dreaming happens during the stage of REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement), one of the 5 stages of sleep, and is believed to help our body process emotional information and connect information that would otherwise not have been put together. Because the most important part of REM sleep happens close to waking up, dreaming can be easily disrupted by the short nights of sleep. As pointed out by Dr. Walker, the average American is sleeping one hour less than the average American in the 1940's. Despite science telling us sleep disruption may lead to a series of diseases and give up on our dreams (literally), running on low and poor sleep became a 'badge of honour' in our society. There's an increasing need for awareness around the importance of REM sleep, since the biggest studies still focus on other stages. With that in mind, this article aims to explore the benefits of dreaming and the consequences of lacking it, as well as tools that may help us improve our dreams.
What happens when we sleep
The figure below represents what Dr. Matthew Walker calls 'The Architecture of Sleep', and shows the stages, duration and the composition of sleep cycles.
Walker, Matthew. (2017). Why We Sleep. New York: Scribner. P. 43 Figure 8
In summary, a good night of sleep is composed of 5 stages that happen in multiple cycles of around 90 minutes each. The stages are divided into two main categories: REM, the focus in this article, and non-REM sleep.
Non-REM sleep is responsible for blood pressure and autonomic function regulation. Missing out on the deep and light non-REM sleep may cause physical malaise, damage to our musculature and difficulties to move.
REM is the dreaming stage of sleep, when parts of the brain that are responsible for emotions are extremely active, while rational thinking areas are inhibited. Because of that, most of our dreams do not make any sense and are totally unrelated to our reality. This happens because we process information and distinguish important from not important memories.
But the big question is, why is dreaming so important?
REM sleep: the dreamland
Dreaming remains one of the biggest mysteries of sleep science. To this day, we still don't know why we need to dream when undergoing REM sleep. However, some studies have demonstrated the health benefits of dreaming and the consequences of not getting enough of it.
Dreaming, for Dr. Walker, is 'an overnight therapy'. REM sleep is thought to be the gut of our sleep, because it is able to help us process information and keep only what's important. Dreaming gathers past and present knowledge and connects information that would otherwise not happen, allowing better development of problem solving and creativity.
As a hypothesis, it is believed that REM sleep and dreaming resets the nerve cell's norepinephrine levels, a messenger that stimulates the amygdala. The amygdala, in turn, is a glandule that's responsible for perceiving threats and danger and releases feelings of fear and anxiety. When getting enough REM sleep and dreaming, the norepinephrine level is restored to normal and therefore the amygdala is less sensitive to its stimulus. This way, we can respond to situations with emotional balance and clarification the next day, and not overreact or misjudge situations. Consequently, dreaming is essential to bring the best of ourselves the next day in our social interactions and with ourselves, it may help regulate our mood and respond to situations with intelligence.
It all sounds great, but how do we know we're getting enough REM sleep? There's no way to know unless you run a sleep study. However, if you sleep 7-9 hours per night and you can remember your dreams often, chances are you're getting enough REM sleep. If you can't remember, that doesn't mean you're not dreaming at all. Most people forget about their dreams anyways. But there are some strategies you can use to increase your chances of dreaming.
Enriching your REM sleep with dreams
These are some chances we can apply to our routine to improve our sleep.
Adjust your sleep routine
A recommendation from Shira Lupkin, sleep research assistant at Rutgers University. This way, you increase the time span in which your sleep can go through the cycles. This is because sleep does not change its cycle programme depending on which hour you go to bed or wake up. In addition, getting your body used to going to bed and waking up everyday at the same time is key to regulating the sleep receptors in your brain. This creates a habit and predictability, which helps your body prepare for
Avoiding light and screen time before sleep.
Artificial or natural light is a sleep inhibitor. Exposing your eyes to light or a screen just before going to sleep hinders the production of melatonin, an important sleep hormone. The dark of the night is a message for our brain to produce melatonin. If we expose ourselves to light, our body won't understand clearly that it's almost bedtime.
Avoid caffeine before bedtime.
Because caffeine is a powerful component that sparks our alertness, it's best to avoid it late in the day. We wrote a full article about caffeine here.
Taking natural supplements that might increase REM sleep quality.
Provided that it's safe and you consult your health advisor, some natural supplements may help with the quality of your sleep. Although there is still a need for scientific studies, ingredients such as Valerian root and Magnolia Flower may help especially with REM sleep. This study conducted with mice and published in 2021, found that both these components influenced on reducing sleep latency and improving REM sleep.
Find a wind down activity that suits you
Meditation or journaling are two great activities that we can include in our routine to improve our sleep. Multiple studies have demonstrated that mindfulness has a powerful impact on mood and well-being. Another option is writing down your thoughts to clear your mind. More importantly, whatever tool you use, try to practise gratitude and avoid negative feelings. This way, your chances of having more positive dreams and waking up refreshed will increase.
Those are some strategies that may help you improve your sleep overall and trigger more quality REM sleep. Because dreaming is so important for our mental well-being, Microdose Together saw an increasing need to go after more educational resources around the subject. The result was the creation of Dreamland, a tea blend that may help people have more quality REM sleep and positive dreams.
The need for Dreamland
Dreamland is a tea blend by Happy Tea with the intention to enrich the depths of your sleep. A delicious herbal tea that contains various ingredients known to be calming, sedative and may increase your REM sleep stage. Containing Valerian Root and Magnolia Flower, Dreamland may help you get rested with more REM sleep and dreams.
REM sleep is an important stage when dreams happen. Dreams can help you process emotions, delete unimportant excess information and regulate your mood for more emotionally intelligent responses to situations at work or home. Check out the product page and pre order now for a better dreamy night.