By Dr. Matsen
Sleep is brought on by the conversion of the neurotransmitter serotonin into melatonin, primarily due to decreased daylight. The increase of melatonin not only brings about sleep, but also activates your body’s nightshift crews (such as growth hormone) to repair any cellular damage that has occurred during the day and to restore your hormone levels. As dawn brings a surge of serotonin, you should be tuned up and recharged, ready to leap out of bed to face another exciting day of challenges.
While your physical body is being regenerated during sleep, your mind has sorting and sifting to do. Your brain is inundated with thousands of bits of information during a day and, as this mental input decreases during sleep, your brain sorts out what has been successfully accomplished, what hasn’t been accomplished and what different approaches might be more successful with unresolved issues. This is why “sleeping on a problem” will often result in a clearer insight the next day.
This replay of the day’s events during sleep is called dreaming; it occurs in all five phases of sleep but is best remembered when it occurs in REM sleep, which usually takes place about four to five times per night.
When dreams create fear, anxiety, guilt, sadness or anger, and cause wakening, they are called nightmares. An obvious explanation is that the dilemma being replayed appears insurmountable to the brain and this sense of powerlessness at finding a resolution triggers an emotional response instead. For example, some war veterans recall an event in which the forces they were up against were overwhelming, rendering them helpless. Children who watch a scary movie before bed may awaken, certain that a monster is under their bed or in the closet and there is nothing they can do about it. For children, prevention of nightmares might include: avoiding scary movies or stories, especially before bed; putting a night-light in their rooms; leaving their bedroom doors open; and a night companion such as a cuddly toy or pet.
If the nightmare isn’t “real” and is merely a creation of the person’s mind, then the person can change it. Therapies that give power back to the person have been successful. Discussing, writing or drawing about the issue allows the person to better understand or even change the scenario in which it occurs. The reestablishment of power allows resolution of the nightmare and a return to normal dreaming.
Drugs, such as barbiturates, alcohol, antidepressants and narcotics, can contribute to nightmares. Nightmares may be worse for awhile when going off of these drugs because reducing them will increase REM sleep, which is the stage of sleep in which dreams, or nightmares, are best remembered.
There are situations, however, where nightmares occur frequently without any drug use or unresolved underlying issue. At least half a dozen of my patients, ranging in age from young to old, had recurring nightmares for no apparent reason. Over a six-month period of naturopathic detoxification, the frequency and intensity of their nightmares gradually faded away until they were completely gone. This demonstrates that toxins due to food allergies, poor digestion and weak liver function can aggravate brain function and cause nightmares without a life issue trigger.
An obvious culprit is eating heavy foods late at night, which can result in poor digestion of foods that can create brain-irritating toxins. Also common, but slower to resolve, are intestinal yeast overgrowths and metals in the liver. These are issues that can be addressed and corrected by working with a naturopathic doctor.