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Alaska Sleep Education Center

How Dreams Can Predict Your Health

Posted by Kayla LeFevre on Jul 28, 2017 5:34:59 PM

Dreams can be a powerful influencer over our daily lives and a fascinating subject to study.  The impact and meaning of dreams have even been analyzed for centuries by ancient civilizations.  The Romans would translate their dreams as messages from the gods, and would debate dream subjects in the senate.  The Greeks would purify themselves before sleeping in the temples to receive untainted messages from the gods.  But the Assyrians would interpret their dreams as signs, whether a forewarning of things about to go wrong or as advice to follow. 

Considering the bizarre situations that tend to happen in our subconscious state, we probably shouldn’t follow advice from our dreams too literally.  However, maybe there is something in interpreting our dreams as a sign of a physical illness to come.   

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Prodromal Dreams  

It’s well known that the subconscious has an unbelievable amount of importance to our physiological health, and analyzing dreams has been a common practice to gain insight into our stresses and fears we suppress from our consciousness.  But could they also provide any insights into our physical health?  Could some dreams be a result of our body signaling our minds to look into our well-being before we experience any ailments? 

According to Physicology Today, that’s not a far-fetch theory.  In their article “Do Dreams Predict Your Health?”, the concept of dreams predicting an illness “seems less radical if we first acknowledge that detectable changes occur in the body at the onset of disease, prior to the presence of recognizable symptoms...  These subtle physiological changes are also detected by the brain on a subconscious level, and may be translated into ‘prodromal’ dreams—dreams that reflect the onset of an illness prior to the appearance of symptoms.”

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Because all body systems connect to the brain, dreaming about throat irritation could be a response to your immune system communicating to your body of an on-coming cold, or imagery of a lightning strike or blow to the head could foreworn migraines.  These subconscious predictions can even tap into your memory to signal trouble in the future, according to this same article.  If you associate a past illness with a vacation or job, then recurring dreams that use imagery from these same memories could be a sign of that same illness returning.  Another indicator of forewarned ailments?  Most prodromal dreams leave the dreamer in a state of distress and anxiety – in other words, nightmares.  But then again, it’d be hard not to wake with increased anxiety after imagining being struck by lightning.

Dreaming happens most often during REM sleep, which pulls imagery from the surface of our memories.  This is the stage where dreams occur and happen just before we wake, which is why we can recall the next morning.  Deep sleep, however, is when our body recovers the most during the night.  By this logic, remembering multiple dreams during the night could be a sign that you didn’t get as much deep sleep, while not recalling any dreams, on the other hand, could imply plenty of deep sleep and physical well-being. 

But recalling less dreams throughout the night could also be an early indicator of sleep apnea.  This could be due to the fact that most of those who suffer from OSA are awakened before entering REM stage, where dreaming occurs.  According to the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, participants who suffered from mild Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) recalled 43% of their dreams versus their non-OSA counterparts who recalled 71%.  Sleep apnea can also explain an increase in nightmares for a sleeper, as the pausing in breath or shallow breathing affects the subconscious.  William Kohler, MD, told the Huffington Post that “patients have had terrifying dreams of drowning or suffocation… [because] in reality, their airway is blocked off.” In these cases, a “lack of REM sleep can lead to exhaustion, irritability, anxiety and a lack of concentration,” and the lack of dreams can be a bigger concern than the contents of the dreams themselves.  Luckily, CPAP therapy can help sleepers increase their REM stage by improving their OSA. 

Paying Attention

So why are dreams so often dismissed in modern medicinal practice?  Part of the reason (other than the sporadic nature and unreliability) is due to the common acceptance that dreams are a psychological reaction to our daily lives versus a physical reaction to our body. 

The most well-known advocate of the connection between dreams and the subconscious is Sigmund Freud himself.  Freud used the analogy of an ice berg to explain the layers of the mind.  The tip of the ice berg above the water represents our conscious mind, while the pre-consciousness just below symbolizes our memory that is easily recalled.  The third part of the mind being our subconscious, hidden deep below the surface.  The study of dreams can be a way for some to tap into that hidden part of their subconscious state of mind.   

And it is true that much of our dreaming is our mind’s way to process new and existing information and emotions that occur during our waking hours.  Some academics even recommend studying right before sleep so that the subconscious can continue to work through the problems that the conscious mind is trying to solve.  But this close correlation between our conscious and short-term memory is why so many distrust signs presented to them during their dream state. 

Treatment Options            

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Finding a stable balance can be a delicate state to achieve and takes trust and understanding of one’s own intuition.  To help differentiate between prodromal and non-prodromal dreams, Dream Studies Portal suggests keeping a dream journal, noticing symbols and paying attention to recurring nightmares. 

However, self-diagnosis can be a risky task to handle, as interpretations can be misleading and serious conditions ignored, psychological or physical.  While your dreams may be a result of an illness, it is still only a prediction.  If you suspect your dreams may be psychologically related, then be sure to schedule a session with a family psychiatrist.  But only a trained professional can tell you if you’re showing any early signs of an illness, and no one can give better insight into your health than you doctor. 

If you suspect you may be suffering from an on-coming illness (or even just want to make sure you’re not), then be sure to visit your primary physician or specialist – especially if you’re suffering from any signs of a sleep disorder.  Luckily, our specialists are well trained in identifying and treating any degree of sleep apnea, including Obstructive Sleep Apnea.  You can take our quiz if you’re not sure whether you suffer from any signs.  If you are showing signs and you live in the Alaska area, be sure to call for a quick 10-minute consultation with our experts and schedule a sleep study today. 

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Topics: sleep apnea, REM sleep, dreams

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