If you follow me on Facebook or Instagram you’ll know all about how vivid and weird my dreams are. But they haven’t always been like this, well not that I can remember anyway, and so it’s got me wondering whether there is a link between our dreams and the perimenopause.
Now I must just state that I haven’t officially been diagnosed as being perimenopausal, however going by the night sweats, the occasional hot flushes, the erratic more painful and heavier periods, as well as the increased anxiety, mood swings and dark thoughts I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet to assume I am. So, do the type of dreams we have change as we enter this phase in our lives? Does a shift in our hormones create more vivid, more real feeling, more memorable dreams? I’m going to look into this a bit more and try and get to the bottom of why I keep having such unusual dreams.
But firstly, let’s take a more general look at the reasons why we dream:
Why Do We Dream?
We experience four different phases of sleep over the course of one night and these cycle through between 4-6 times before we wake up. It is possible to dream in all four phases, but the phase where our brains are most active and therefore the one where we are most likely to have vivid dreams, is during the phase known as REM (Rapid Eye Movement). The REM phase is the fourth phase in the cycle, which means if you were to wake up naturally, i.e. without an alarm, this is the one you would wake from and you would be much more likely to remember your dream. If, however, you wake from REM sleep, but then go straight back to sleep and enter the initial phase again, you are much less likely to recall the dream.
Scientists have been studying sleep and dreams for years and the jury is still very much out as to the exact reasons as to why we dream. There are lots of different theories and probably there are multiple reasons for why we dream. These are just some of them:
- Memory Storage – If you think of the brain as being a bit like a computer, in just the same way as files need to be backed up on a hard drive so too do our memories. Dreaming is thought to be like a kind of interactive filing system for our memories.
- Mental Clear Out – It could be that our brains have to store so much information that dreaming is a way of getting rid of some of it – a decluttering process if you like.
- Processing – This is going to blow your mind – on average we process over 70,000 images every day!! So perhaps our dreams are simply a way to process everything we have seen or experienced that day.
It might feel as though you don’t dream, especially if you can never remember them, however on average we all dream for roughly 2 hours per night. And interestingly women are believed to dream more vividly than men, which brings us nicely onto the next question…
How Does Perimenopause Affect Sleep?
Women have been going through the menopause since time began, but it is only in very recent times that this subject has become more widely and more openly spoken about. Let’s clear one thing up first of all… the menopause is actually just one day. Yep, that’s right, menopause is classed as the day when one year has passed since your last period. Everything leading up to this point, and we’re talking several years, is classed as the perimenopause, and it is during the perimenopause that women begin to notice their sleep patterns changing, often quite significantly.
The most common sleep problems experienced by perimenopausal women are night sweats, insomnia, sleep-disordered breathing, and vivid dreams. And of course all of these affect how much sleep we get, the quality of sleep we get, and how we feel and are able to function the following day. A bad night’s sleep can leave us feeling moody and unmotivated. We are more likely to eat unhealthy food and to eat more than we usually would in a desperate attempt to get some energy from somewhere. We are less likely to exercise, because we are already exhausted. And it can make us feel proper emotional, anxious, stressed, and downright depressed, which combined with all the other symptoms of the perimenopause just goes to show how much of an impact sleep has on our overall health and mental wellbeing.
And the cause of this disruption to our sleep? Changing hormones. More specifically oestradiol (a form of oestrogen), which drops during perimenopause and has been linked with poor sleep quality, especially if levels of this hormone drop too quickly. Oestrogen is a type of sex hormone that controls not just the reproductive system of women but also the immunological system, the skeletal system, and the cardiovascular system. Low oestrogen levels are often associated with aging, perimenopause, and menopause, and these low levels impact body weight and body fat. For example, hot flashes may cause poor quality sleep, which is linked to obesity and insulin resistance. Another factor is a rise in body temperature, which as we all know is a common symptom of perimenopause – hot flashes and night sweats anyone!?!?
Is There A Link Between Hormone Changes During Perimenopause And More Vivid Dreams?
So, if we know that we are more likely to dream during REM sleep and we know that women experience more vivid dreams than men, it also suggests that women have more REM sleep than men, but if this is the case, why?
Although research would suggest that on average women get more sleep than men, the sleep we do get is more fragmented. This could be for a variety of different reasons, from changes in body temperature, worries and anxieties that play on our minds, hormones… But of course broken sleep, means waking up at points in our sleep cycles that we wouldn’t naturally wake up in. And because of this, it often results in us waking at a point when we are in the full throes of a dream, making us much more likely to remember them and therefore they appear more vivid.
Let us also not brush over the impact that stress has on our sleep. If you thought you suffered from anxiety before showing any symptoms of the perimenopause just you wait until those hormones go completely haywire. It comes at a time in our lives when we are already dealing with a lot. We’re ‘struggle juggling’ if you like. Struggling to keep those balls in the air without all of them crashing down on us. Children going through puberty or leaving the nest, aging parents with health issues, work commitments, changing friendships, social pressures and of course there’s also the small matter of all the crap that goes on in the world to throw into the mix as well. Let’s face it, there is a lot to worry about. And this worry feeds into our dreams, after all our brains have to deal with it somehow, right?
Falling levels of oestrogen and rising levels of progesterone equates to shallower sleep, meaning you are more likely to awaken during a dream and this can make it feel much more real. Combined with our anxieties, dreams can often turn to nightmares and night terrors, which also add to the element of realism. Plus, dramatic, scary, action packed dreams can raise our heartbeats and increase levels of adrenaline, which in turn can trigger a night sweat. So, if you haven’t been woken up by the dream itself, you most certainly will be by the pools of sweat soaking your bed.
Should I Be Worried?
Well in a word, no. It’s perfectly normal to be experiencing more vivid dreams and nightmares during perimenopause and throughout certain points in your cycle. What should be a concern however, is if this is having an impact on your sleep, energy levels, mood and just generally how you’re feeling. If this is affecting your daily life, then yes this is a problem and you should definitely seek help. Unfortunately, I can’t promise it’s going to be easy. Like I said, although conversations about perimenopause have certainly become more widespread, it is still a battle to find help and to be heard and so when you make an appointment to see your GP about this (which you totally should) you’re going to need to be armed with all the facts. Start by logging your symptoms on a menopause app such as Balance or Flo, or if you prefer you can jot it all down in a journal. Pay particular attention to how much sleep you get a night, how many times you wake, write down your dreams, whether you suffer from night sweats, and also how it makes you feel the next day. This kind of information is so vitally important in helping to create an overall picture of what’s going on with you and will help you feel more confident when speaking to your GP.
There are also lots of menopause and perimenopause support groups on Facebook that are worth joining, if nothing else than to make you realise you’re not alone in what you’re going through. Being able to talk openly about it, or to read other women’s experiences and to get advice is invaluable and will help empower you on your own journey.
But in the meantime, there are a few things you can do to try and get a better night’s sleep:
- Cut down on the caffeine – As we all know, caffeine and sleep are not the greatest combo, so think about maybe cutting out one or two cups of coffee a day, or at the very least don’t have any too close to bedtime. And remember tea, chocolate, and cola drinks all contain caffeine too!
- Think about what and when you eat – Eating a heavy meal too close to bedtime will put added strain on your digestive system and this will likely keep you up half the night. Try not to eat past 7pm, or if you do make sure whatever you eat is light and there’s not too much of it.
- Step away from the screens – The blue light emitted from phone and computer screens has been proven to lower the production of melatonin in the body. Which is bad news, because this hormone helps regulate sleep within the body and without decent levels of it you’re going to have a harder time nodding off. Ban all screens from the bedroom if possible and aim to stop using at them for at least half an hour before winding down for the day.
- Regular exercise – Exercise is great for so many reasons, one of which is it helps with better sleep. I mean it makes sense really… exercise uses up energy and therefore your body needs to recover. Just make sure you avoid doing strenuous exercise too late in the day as this will raise your adrenaline levels and may result in the complete opposite effect.
- Stay calm – There’s nothing worse than not being able to get to sleep, it can literally drive you insane. Checking the clock every 5 minutes, tossing and turning, huffing and puffing isn’t going to help, so stop trying to fight it and get up instead. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but you’re far more likely to be able to get back to sleep if you get up and do something to help chill you out. Try reading for a bit, or walking down to the kitchen for a drink, or just sitting somewhere different for a while, to help break the cycle.
- Turn down the heat – If you’re going through the perimenopause I imagine you’re no stranger to feeling hot in bed… and I don’t mean sexy hot. If you’re regularly waking up in a sweaty mess then you might want to do one or all of the following – check your central heating and maybe turn it down a notch or two, change your duvet to a lower tog, open a window, buy a fan, change your sheets to a breathable natural fabric such as cotton or linen, change your pyjamas.
Dreams are funny things really, well you only have to look at mine to know that! And with the changes that occur in our bodies as our hormones fluctuate and ebb away during the perimenopause stage of our lives, it’s no wonder our dreams are so heavily affected. Any stress, be it mental or physical, will likely be played out in our dreams, as a way of offloading. So, whilst more vivid dreams may seem like yet another unwanted symptom of the perimenopause, they are in fact doing us a whole heap of good.
Are you going through the perimenopause and noticed that your dreams have become more vivid?
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Becky Stafferton is a full time blogger over on her website The Art of Healthy Living, mum of 2 and certified Queen of the hashtags. She continually strives to promote a realistic, sustainable and positive image of how to lead a healthy life. When she’s not writing or reading her teenage diary she can be found swigging Prosecco from the bottle, running through muddy puddles, making lists of lists, having a good old moan, scoffing flapjacks and squatting like her life depends on it.