What Causes Nightmares and Vivid Dreams and How to Prevent it?


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.

Vivid dreams can be either pleasant or frightening. They have a variety of potential causes, from deeper systematic woes to simpler dietary hiccups. Provided they are not associated with any adverse health effects, vivid dreams can be a tool for achieving more lucid dreams and increased awareness while dreaming.

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 to rule out any of these possibilities.

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.

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.

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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