Even in the latest sleep science, dreaming is still somewhat a mystery. But it seems to be essential to what makes us human. Dreams usually happen during the REM (rapid eye movement) sleep cycle; we get 4-5 per night – the first one starts approximately 90 minutes after falling asleep, and it is typically the shortest REM cycle. If we go straight from REM sleep back to non-REM sleep without waking, the dream is often lost forever.
REM sleep and dreaming are crucially important; they improve the creative process more than any other state – asleep or awake. This wisdom moment – creative solutions to problems come to us when we are sleeping – sleep science calls this “pattern recognition.” This happens when the brain is in a relaxed-enough state to create new connections and neural pathways – also known as neuroplasticity. This explains why great ideas often come to you in the shower, on a walk, lying in bed at night, and dreaming, because the brain is relaxed enough to enable those new connections to form.
While the sleep cycles happen every night they collide with the body’s other internal cycles – none more so powerful than our menstrual and hormonal cycles. A study from University of the West of England found that women have more vivid dreams than men. Researchers believe this is due to changes in the body temperature caused by our monthly cycle. It’s not the only way it affects our dreams…
What’s happening in our brains when we dream?
Whilst we are dreaming, we are in fact in subconscious creative mode. We process over 70k images that we see on average each day, made up of interactions, emotions and experiences, and then extract overarching rules and commonalties. Neuroscience research has since demonstrated that dreaming is not just a by-product of REM sleep, but actually serves critical functions for our well-being and mental health.
How do hormones affect our dreams?
All dreams, nightmares and night terrors are all caused by different chemicals being released while you are sleeping. The way you fall asleep is through the activation of the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric-acid) and, when dreaming, the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (a chemical that motor neurons of the nervous system release) is released in high levels as a result of wakefulness and alertness during the day. But it is also found in high levels during REM sleep. GABA is calming, and can reduce anxiety.
Does my period affect my sleep?
Pre-menstrual-induced insomnia and restless nights are real, and also really normal. When you get your period, you have drops in oestrogen and progesterone levels and that unbalances your sleep cycle as well. We know that the amount of REM sleep – which is when we have most of our dreams – is less in this part of the menstrual cycle. Hormonal changes at this time (e.g. sudden drops in progesterone) affect the body’s temperature control. In turn can affect sleep quality.
In women with PMS, disturbances of sleep are very common in the second half of the menstrual cycle (as compared with the first half of the cycle), and dream sleep is greatly reduced. Lower levels of allopregnanolone (a breakdown product of progesterone which helps block anxiety) are also found in women with PMS, as well as lower GABA receptor activity levels.
What about the menopause?
Our age matters here as well, as when we approach the menopause, our overall oestrogen levels decline. So, right at and just before ovulation we will mostly notice some sleep disturbance. I know from patients I see at my sleep clinic that it can become a bigger problem for women after 35/40 years, because most women begin the 10 to 15-year journey of perimenopause around that age. During this time, production of progesterone decreases slowly. When this hormone is low, you have less ability to balance out your oestrogen levels. This is the source of the insomnia: elevated oestrogen negatively impacts melatonin and serotonin production. The combination of both is what we need to fall asleep and stay asleep.
How to boost your sleep during your cycle
1. For so many of my clients a caffeine curfew after 12pm, or even a week off entirely, is hugely helpful.
2. If you’re knackered, boost your hormones with a quality magnesium supplement. Magnesium deficiency is often a reason you you’re feeling so wiped out and waking really early missing out on REM Sleep.
3. Feed your gut bacteria. Right after you ovulate, you have much more oestrogen circulating in your body. What you eat can help your body metabolise this, and fermented foods and probiotics are a great place to start.
4. Eat tryptophan-rich foods – the amino acid found in oats, cheese, turkey, bananas – to help promote sleep, or try supplements including Cherry Juice Extract, the amino acid L-theanine which can help promote sleep.
5. Make morning daily exercise a priority. This supports hormones and ensures that you'll be tired by bedtime.
To find out more about Natalie’s techniques and coaching, visit mindtonictherapy.com or follow her on Instagram @calmerrama