DR MICHAEL MOSLEY: How I train to stop having nightmares to reduce dementia risk

Do you have recurring nightmares, like being chased by wolves, drowning or being attacked?

If so, you might be interested in a fascinating new study in which Swiss researchers have shown that playing a recurring noise while someone is sleeping not only helps reduce the frequency of nightmares, but can also replace bad dreams with more pleasant dreams.

I have a personal interest in this because I had the same recurring bad dream for years. It involves trying to get somewhere for an urgent appointment and never really being able to make it. I try to take a train or a plane and am constantly thwarted. I wake up feeling on edge.

Mine is a classic anxiety dream, which I tend to have when I feel pressured.  other common issues include falling teeth, being naked in a public place, or taking an exam you haven't prepared for

Mine is a classic anxiety dream, which I tend to have when I feel pressured. other common issues include falling teeth, being naked in a public place, or taking an exam you haven’t prepared for

Mine is a classic anxiety dream, which I tend to have when I feel pressured. other common issues include falling teeth, being naked in a public place, or taking an exam you haven’t prepared for. But where do these bad dreams come from?

When we first fall asleep, we enter a state of deep sleep from which we have difficulty waking up. Later that night, we will enter a strange state known as Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. This is when we have our most vivid dreams.

If you look at someone in REM sleep, you’ll see that under their eyelids, their eyes are blinking madly. No one knows why this happens, but one theory is that it mirrors the type of eye movements you might make while watching a movie.

Dreams have been called the cinema of the mind, so perhaps eye movements are a sign that we are following the action.

Another weird thing about REM sleep, which begins about 90 minutes after we start sleeping, is that most of our muscles are paralyzed during it.

WHAT IS REM SLEEP?

REM sleep — or “rapid eye movement” — is one of many sleep cycles the body goes through each night.

It starts about 90 minutes after falling asleep and repeats.

Longer periods of REM sleep occur with each successive cycle.

However, the scene is not only characterized by rapid eye movements.

REM sleep also causes increased heart rate, paralyzed limbs, waking-like brain waves, and dreaming.

The sleep cycle

The sleep cycle

It’s probably so that while we’re in the grip of an intense, dramatic dream, we don’t struggle and hurt ourselves. We continue to take short, shallow breaths, but the only other part of us that is obviously moving is our eyes.

One theory is that we have vivid dreams during REM sleep because that’s the only time of day when the links to parts of the brain that produce stress-inducing chemicals are turned off.

This means that while the dreams we have then may be frightening or disturbing, they are not as bad as if you had them while you were awake.

Another very plausible reason why we have vivid and disturbing dreams during REM sleep is that this is the time when you can review unpleasant memories and events while remaining calm.

The dreams you have during REM sleep allow you to subconsciously process your emotions and defuse them. Think of dreaming as a cheap but effective form of psychotherapy.

But in people who have recurring nightmares, something is wrong. Instead of being defused, the feelings evoked in their dreams continue to haunt them.

And what’s worrying is that new research suggests it may be linked to an increased risk of dementia later in life.

This new finding, published in the journal The Lancet in September, is based on a study of more than 3,500 people aged 35 and over.

At the start of the study, all participants had to complete detailed questionnaires, including how often they had bad dreams. When the researchers assessed the participants a decade later, they found that older men who reported having nightmares every week were five times more likely to have developed dementia than older men who reported no bad dreams. In women, surprisingly, the increased risk was much smaller – only 41%.

Playing a recurring noise while someone is sleeping not only helps reduce the frequency of nightmares, but can also replace bad dreams with more pleasant ones, a new study has shown.

Playing a recurring noise while someone is sleeping not only helps reduce the frequency of nightmares, but can also replace bad dreams with more pleasant ones, a new study has shown.

These results suggest that either frequent nightmares are an early sign of brain problems, which lead to dementia, or that regularly having bad dreams causes dementia (perhaps by disrupting the elements of sleep that restore the brain ).

The good news, according to Dr Abidemi Otaiku, a neuroscientist at the University of Birmingham who led the study, is that treating nightmares can lead to improvements in memory and thinking skills and can even, in some people, prevent dementia.

So what can you do to avoid having bad dreams? One thing you don’t have to worry about is eating cheese. Despite the idea that it leads to nightmares, when researchers from the British Cheese Board asked 200 volunteers to eat 20g of different cheeses every night for a week before going to bed, they reported no nightmares ( although Stilton eaters reported having more bizarre dreams).

A better bet is to try image replay therapy, where you revisit your nightmare while awake and imagine an alternative, positive outcome.

For example, if your nightmare involves being attacked by wolves, imagine the dream ending with the wolves turning into adorable King Charles Spaniels and curling up in your lap. If you do this every day for five to ten minutes, within two weeks you should see a drop in how often you have this nightmare.

But it doesn’t work for everyone, and for some the new musical technique I mentioned earlier may be a better option.

The study, conducted by the University of Geneva, Switzerland, asked 38 people who had frequent and distressing nightmares to imagine positive endings to their bad dreams.

While they were doing this, half the group also listened to a piano chord being played every ten seconds. The idea being to build a link in their brain between ‘piano chord’ and ‘happy ending’. They did this for two weeks.

All participants received sleep bands containing electrodes that measure brain activity to take home. At the end of the experiment, everyone reported less frequent nightmares, but the group that listened to the piano chord saw the greatest improvements and reported having much more positive dreams.

The researchers plan further studies to see if this approach works with more severe nightmares, such as those related to post-traumatic stress disorder. I have found that practicing image rehearsal therapy made my anxiety dreams related to train catching less stressful, but I would like to try the new approach.

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