Recently, I went through a period of having nightly dreams that were so vivid and frightening that I would wake up in a battle stance against my imaginary attackers, only to find my cat staring at me like she desperately wanted a new owner. Nightmares are one thing, but these were so lifelike, it took me a while to separate the dream from reality after waking. I still recall each sensory detail of those dreams in all their horror.
We spend about six years of our life dreaming and have accumulated much lore about what those dreams mean, but scientists who focus on oneirology—the study of dreams—still know very little about the actual process of dreaming. We do know that they arise from Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, in which the brain is as active as it is when the body is awake. Sometimes these dreams are extremely vivid, so much so that the dreamer often has trouble understanding that he or she is not actually awake.
You Should See Your Doctor If …
You notice symptoms of bipolar disorder or diabetes, since both of these conditions may cause vivid dreaming. Both interrupt REM sleep and therefore affect the body’s ability to separate dreams from waking perceptions. The same effect can occur from taking depression medication, sleep medication, and some over-the-counter drugs. If you notice a recent development of abnormal dreaming associated with a change in your health, it is a good idea to see your doctor.
Expecting More Than Work Tomorrow?
Many pregnant women experience vivid dreams, both pleasant and disturbing. Researchers have concluded that these dreams are a way for expectant mothers to prepare for the huge life changes that will accompany their child’s birth. Women have reported dreams of cutting their stomachs open to pull the baby out before it comes to term, delivering deformed children or beasts, or being caught unprepared for motherhood once their babies are born. There is no reason to believe these dreams are prophetic or in any way based in reality. They are simply the result of hormonal changes and the need to discharge fears surrounding the anticipated event of birth. It may be helpful to speak to a support group of other pregnant women, mothers, your partner, or a therapist about these fears, but they are completely normal.
The Link Between Diet and Dreams
You’ve probably heard that spicy or fatty foods can give you nightmares, but the link between food and sleep goes beyond that. Vivid dreams are a symptom of a vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) excess in the body and can be a warning sign of more complex neurological disorders if over ingestion is continued. Most cases of vitamin B6 excess are due to supplements; limit intake to 100 milligrams (mg) or less per day to avoid toxicity.
Low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, is another cause of vivid dreams. When the brain senses that glucose levels are low, it will do strange things to get stored glucose into the blood stream. One way it does so is through adrenaline spurts. If your vivid dreams are accompanied by a feeling of being “wired” (if, like me, you find yourself doing ninja kicks around your bedroom at those pesky alien invaders), it likely stems from a blood sugar issue. I solved my problem by adding more protein to my diet, especially before going to sleep. It keeps my glucose levels regulated throughout the night and I sleep much more peacefully.
Take Control with Lucid Dreaming
The problem with vivid dreams is separating them from waking reality. However, the practice of lucid dreaming, in which you become increasingly aware of your dreams until you actually develop the ability to control them, may offer a solution that doesn’t stem from any of the root causes listed above. Oneironauts, or lucid dreamers, train themselves to alter their dream experiences to include flight, exotic travel, delicious tastes, and any other vivid experiences they desire. Researchers at the Lucidity Institute at Stanford University have developed a Super NovaDreamer kit that helps you recognize “dream signs” or signals that tell you that you’re dreaming. With practice, you learn to recognize and manipulate these dream signs to dictate the elements that will appear in your dream. It’s like a virtual reality game in your head.
Dreams come in all varieties, from the simply satisfying to the seriously scary. Most of the time, we don’t even remember having dreamt, but many people experience dreams so vivid that they spill over into the next day, blurring the edges of reality. After ruling out a more systematic cause of vivid dreams like diet or disease, you might be interested in taking the next step and playing around with how you can take advantage of this other dream world.