Dream Deprivation Is Just as Unhealthy as Sleep Deprivation—Here’s Why

To sleep, perchance to dream? Actually, we're dreaming less than ever and the deprivation could be opening the door to all kinds of health troubles.

SleepingKamil Macniak/Shutterstock
You might already know how important sleep is, and how sleep deprivation can cause a slew of health problems. But have you thought about your dreams? Do you dream? And can you remember your dreams from last night? Whether you can or not, if you’re not dreaming—and more and more people aren’t, according to new research—you’re putting yourself at higher risk for obesity, memory loss, and inflammation throughout your body, which can lead to autoimmune troubles.

In a newly published review of the research on dream deprivation, Rubin Naiman, PhD, a sleep and dream specialist at the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, delved into the dangers of missing out on the rapid-eye-movement—REM—phase of sleep, and the potential reasons why we’re not dreaming as much. Dr. Naiman explains that you may feel your most restful sleep is when you don’t remember a thing—when you’re “out cold.” But dreaming seems to be crucial for the body’s repair systems and for the brain’s learning and memory consolidation processes. “We are at least as dream-deprived as we are sleep-deprived,” Dr. Naiman told ScienceDaily. “Many of our health concerns attributed to sleep loss actually result from REM sleep deprivation.”

As the paper notes, scientific concern regarding the link between dream deprivation and poor health has been a slow progression. Back in the 1960s, researchers discovered that subjects selectively deprived of REM sleep experienced weight gain, concentration difficulties, irritability, anxiety, tension, delusions, and hallucinations. But the findings took a back seat to the discovery that dreaming also took place in non-rapid eye movement sleep. We now know that our dreams are connected to our personalities.

Dr. Naiman refers to dream deprivation as “an unrecognized public health hazard that silently wreaks havoc with our lives, contributing to illness, depression, and an erosion of consciousness,” and says that the disconnect between sleep medicine, which studies REM sleep as an objective neurological process, and traditional schools of psychology, which examine dreaming as a subjective personal experience, are counterproductive. “Today, too many of us view dreams the way we do stars—they emerge nightly and seem magnificent, but are far too distant to be of any relevance to our real lives,” he says.

So how does one fall victim to dream deprivation?

According to the paper, alcohol and cannabis are big culprits, as people often use them to alleviate stress and promote sleep. Alcohol, for instance, permits the release of hormones that are known to interrupt REM, and therefore dreaming, Dr. Naiman explains. Meanwhile, various medications, including sleep aids and certain anti-anxiety and antidepressant drugs, are known to interrupt the REM cycle. He also points to the late-evening use of tablets, smartphones, computers, and artificial light in general, along with early alarms; early risings cut into REM sleep.

The biggest takeway from the paper? We are experiencing dream deprivation is because we don’t value our dreams enough, even though they reveal a lot about who we are. Looks like we better start putting the phrase “sweet dreams” to good use!

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