Six Reasons We Have Bad Dreams

No one likes being jolted awake from a deep sleep, especially when what riled you up was an assailant, a snake in the bed, or being engulfed by flames. Bad dreams—or worse, nightmares—aren’t just annoying; when reoccurring, they can disrupt a good night’s sleep, and sometimes, life.
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On the spectrum of dreams, missing an important exam or showing up naked to work pales in comparison to nightmares, which are defined as bad dreams that wake the sleeper. They occur during rapid eye movement (REM) late in the evening and because we jerk awake during them, we usually remember all too clearly the fear, anxiety, and horrors.


Though more common among children, nightmares and bad dreams happen throughout life. But is there anything we can do to prevent the bad things from creeping into our sleep?


1. Anxiety and Stress
Anxiety and stress, often as the result of a traumatic life event, are sometimes the cause of nightmares and bad dreams. According to the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD), a major surgery or illness, grieving over the loss of a loved one, and suffering or witnessing an assault or major accident can trigger bad dreams and nightmares. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is also a common cause of recurrent nightmares.


Not all nightmare triggers have to be traumatic, however. Everyday stressors, such as job or financial anxiety, or major life transitions such as moving or divorce, can also cause nightmares.


2. Spicy Foods
When and what we eat may affect our nighttime rest, if not our tendency toward bad dreams. A small study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology had a group of healthy men eat spicy meals before bed on some evenings and compared their quality of sleep on nights where they had non-spiced meals. On the spicy nights, the subjects spent more time awake and had poorer quality sleep. The explanation is that spicy food can elevate body temperatures and thus disrupt sleep. This may also be the reason why some people report bad dreams when they eat too close to bedtime. Though few studies have looked at it, eating close to bedtime increases metabolism and brain activity and may prompt bad dreams or nightmares.


3. Fat Content of Food
Though far from conclusive, some research has indicated that the more high-fat food you consume during the day, the greater the chance that the amount and quality of your sleep may suffer. A small study published in 2007 in Psychological Reports found that the dreams of people who ate a high amount of organic food differed from those who ate “junk foods.” The authors hypothesize that certain foods may negatively influence dreaming.


4. Alcohol
Though alcohol is a depressant that will help you fall asleep in the short term, once its effects wear off, it can cause you to wake up prematurely. Excess consumption can also lead to nightmares and bad sleep; nightmares are also a common occurrence for those going through alcohol withdrawal.


5. Drugs
Some drugs, including antidepressants, barbiturates, and narcotics, can cause nightmares as a side effect. For instance, a 2008 study published in the journal Pyschopharmacology looked at ketamine, a drug used in anesthesia and recreationally, and found that compared with a placebo, ketamine use resulted in more dream unpleasantness and increased the incidence of bad dreams. Similarly, anyone who has traveled to a country where malaria is endemic may have taken Lariam and had some interesting nightmares associated with it. Nightmares usually cease once the drug is cleared from the system.


6. Illness
Illnesses that include fever, such as the flu, can often trigger nightmares. And other sleeping disorders, including apnea and narcolepsy, may also increase the incidence of bad dreams and nightmares.


While bad dreams and nightmares are considered normal responses in dealing with everyday experiences, the IASD recommends consultation with a therapist if they last in intensity and severity. But trying to eliminate these six factors first may be the best place to start in your quest to sweeten your dreams and chase the nighttime demons away.

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