Here’s a question: How often do you dream? If your answer is “not much at all,” you’re not alone. According to one study, nearly 32% of people report having one or fewer dreams per month. But even though not dreaming is common, it could say something about the quality of the sleep you’re getting—and what’s worse, it could actually be dangerous.
According to Dr. Rubin Naiman, a sleep scientist at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, Americans are having fewer dreams than ever—and it’s nothing less than a public health crisis. That’s because dreaming is an essential part of any person’s physical, mental, and spiritual health, as he outlined in a recent paper for the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.
“We look at sleeping and dreaming as being secondary and subservient to waking life,” Naiman said in an interview with Men’s Health. “But it’s so much more.”
Dreams are most often the product of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, the stage of the sleep cycle where the brain is most active and thus most likely to dream. If you’re not having any dreams, says Naiman, that means you’re probably not getting enough REM sleep, which means you’re probably not getting enough high-quality sleep in general.
So why is this the case? Naiman claims the pressures of modern society—sleep-hostile work schedules, substances like alcohol and prescription medications, and the omnipresence of electronic devices—have ruined our relationship with sleep, eating away at our precious REM time. Naiman said that the lack of REM sleep is putting us at increased risk of depression, memory difficulties, obesity, and a whole host of other conditions.
At this point, it might sound like Naiman is wading pretty far out into the weeds of New Age science. And to a degree, that critique makes sense. Throughout our conversation, Naiman dropped terms like “spirituality” and “modes of perception,” and his paper actually leads with a quote from the Rolling Stones.
That said, the core of his ideas is supported by solid evidence. Research has found that the majority of Aussies aren’t getting the recommended amount of sleep and the health effects are well-documented: General sleep loss has been proven to harm your immune system and even make you gain weight.
The solution, Naiman believes, lies in REM sleep and dreaming specifically. But other scientists aren’t so sure.
Patrick Fuller, a neurologist specializing in sleep research at Harvard Medical school, told Men’s Health that some of the research regarding REM sleep is inconclusive.
“I am dubious of any specific claims made about REM sleep, as its function remains enigmatic,” Fuller said. “We have some data to indicate that REM sleep is important for certain aspects of memory, but there are also individuals who have little to no [detectable] REM sleep, yet remain highly functioning. Because REM sleep is seen across the animal kingdom, we assume that it has an important biological function, but it remains unclear what this function is.”
What Fuller didn’t disagree with, however, was that sleep loss was an epidemic across the country.
“I do think we have established as a cultural norm that sleep is, to a certain degree, expendable,” Fuller said. “I think one of the greater gifts, so to speak, that we can give not only to ourselves, but to the next generation, is an appreciation and respect for good sleep.”
There are a few things you can do to make sure you get enough high-quality sleep. Fuller recommends waking up at the same time every day, seven days a week. Other experts have suggested staying away from computers or smartphones before bed, or waking up without an alarm clock to let the body run through its natural sleep patterns uninterrupted.
But while the science around REM sleep may still be a bit, well, dreamy, it’s clear that getting a good night’s rest is crucial to your overall health. If you want to lose weight, stay happy, and keep yourself healthy, it may be a good idea to X out of this article on your browser and just go to sleep.
This article originally appeared on Men’s Health
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