Strengthen your dreams and you'll sleep better. Sounds kinda cart-before-the-horsey, right? But frolicking in a field of dream-unicorns kicks Ambien's ass for increasing the quality - and side-effects - of sleep.
The first thing you need to know about dreams, is that we have them every night. You could think of them as psychic radio waves. All you need it the right antenna to pick them up.
"You're always dreaming," says JoHannah Reilly, a Boulder, CO naturopath who helps her patients sleep better, in part, by getting them to remember their dreams. "But are you remembering it?"
Dreams occur in the REM phase of sleep, Reilly says. "Sleep is when the immune system kicks in," she says. The better your sleep, the better you're rebuilding.
REM is a particularly rejuvenating phase of sleep - the longer we stay there, the more rested we are - and the more likely we are to remember what we've dreamed.
Dream-memory as a measure of sleep quality sounds logical. It's also chemical.
"Dream recall is based on Vitamin B6," Reilly says.
Most Americans get lots of B6 in their diet. But a person who consumes Vitamin B6-rich foods will be Vitamin-Dream deficient if she's not metabolizing her food.
Which lead us to Stress: slayer of sleep, forgetter of dreams.
Stress is famous for dancing the tango on our adrenal system. The adrenals are an internal alarm system. They jolt us into action when they perceive that things are Really Dangerous aka; Life Threatening by releasing an espresso-like dose of fight-or-flight chemicals into our system.
When the adrenals kick in, our pulse quickens, our heart races. And our digestion shuts down. Back in caveperson days, this digestive-stress combo let us outrun predators by diverting oxygen and blood to fuel our physical dash to safety.
But in a Web 2.0 world, ongoing adrenal panic mode can be exhausting.
We cart our overtaxed, under-fueled body off to bed in a state Reilly calls "wired and tired" which leads to a Bette Davis-quality "bumpy night" of less-than-restful sleep.
What's a wanna-be dreamer to do?
Reilly, who views the body along the lines of Chinese medicine, prescribes enzymes to facilitate digestion. She also uses adrenal support to get her patients' "fight or flight" and "safe, home" nervous systems back in order.
Her goal is help her patients live less stressfully and sleep more dreamfully so they can fuel their lives organically.
All of which brings us back to dreams, and why we want to have them at all.
Recalling your dreams means you've been sleeping better - and good sleep, as we know, is a contagiously great thing.
But dreams offer additional benefits, Reilly says.
In addition to being fun things to recount to our nearest and dearest in small doses, dreams can lower our stress by offering answers to problems we've been tackling during the day.
Reilly's favorite example of this phenomenon involves a scientist called Friedrcih Kekeul, who solved a years-long inquiry into the nature of atoms by seeing a ring made of snakes in a dream.
(If you're interested in reading more, bellaonline.com offers a number of stories linking Nobel Prize-worthy discoveries and more to dream imagery.)
And then, there's the idea of letting yourself go - literally.
Jewish mysticism, among other traditions, maintains that the soul leaves the body during sleep and travels the world, leaving dreams in the mind of the night-wanderer. (The catch, in this tradition, is that if your soul doesn't make it back to your bod by the time your alarm clock goes off, you're toast. But let's not stress about that.)
Reilly recalls a series of dreams in the 1970s in which she consulted with the artist Peter Max on a series of sweatsuits featuring long shirt flaps. Years later, she saw her dream creations in her waking life, on sale in a local store.
Coincidence? Divine inference? All/none of the above?
"What interests me about dreaming is that things are discovered in dreams," Reilly says.
If we don't like what we hear and see on our dream screen, Reilly suggests we redirect them. We can set an intention before going to bed that our dreams will be sweet, our sleep will be restful and that answers to the day's - and years' - questions will be forthcoming.
Looking beyond the problem may be the best way to solve it.
You can read my other features on Non-Pharma Sleep Help for Women here.