Why Do We Dream?
Sleep is One of the Foundational Pillars of Health
When you’re in the midst of trying to figure out your health, it’s so easy to get caught up in the details. What are my hormone levels? What do my blood tests say? Why is my estrogen level out of whack? What on earth does a semen analysis actually reveal? Let’s take a deep breath and break it down. We give so much weight to the quantitative scores on our tests. When we zoom out from all the nitty gritty details, we must remember that these tests are simply biomarkers for health. They are signs that we can gather to give us information about how to bring our bodies back into balance.
We get so focused on what is WRONG with us and get fixated on how to FIX the problem. Adopting this mindset makes us forget that our bodies are hardwired for homeostasis. In other words, our bodies want to be in balance and sometimes we just need to give it the right input and get out of our own way in order for that to happen.
I will be taking the next few weeks to zoom the camera out a bit and write about what I consider to be the foundational pillars of health. I have seen time and time ad nauseum how working on these Foundational Pillars of Health creates an ideal environment in which the body can thrive and help you reach your goals.
The Foundational Pillars for Health:
- Restorative sleep
- Nourishing nutrition
- Intentional exercise
- Rooted connections
These Foundational Pillars for Health are so important because when we work on the foundations, we are working at a deep root layer which helps unravel so much at the surface level of signs and symptoms. I much prefer to work on correcting the root of the issue rather than playing whack-a-mole with a never-ending list of signs and symptoms. The first topic we will explore is the importance of restorative sleep. Much of our biology pivots on whether or not we have a good relationship with the Sandman (Any Neil Gaiman fans out there?)
The Foundation of Sleep
I listened to a recent Joe Rogan Experience podcast episode in which he interviewed Matthew Walker who describes his job as a “sleep diplomat”. I was so inspired by the conversation they had that I went down the rabbit hole of sleep research and how it relates to our health. Walker is not just a dude with a fancy self-professed title. He has spent the last 20 years of his career as a neurobiologist asking and answering questions about sleep. His curiosity has led him to conclude that “[sleep] is not [a] pillar of good health alongside diet and exercise, but it is the foundation upon which the two of those things sit.” According to Walker, the ideal dosage of sleep is 7-9 hours per night. If you aren’t getting the recommended dosage of sleep, you are definitely not alone. The most recent Gallup poll revealed that the average number of hours of sleep a person gets is 6 hours and 31 minutes. Even I am someone who regularly sleeps only 5-6 hours a night because this is all I thought I needed. I am humbled by the science behind this activity that we spend nearly ⅓ of our lives doing.
Since I’ve had this new awareness around sleep, I’ve been experimenting with allowing myself to sleep a minimum of 8 hours a night. “Allowing” is the operative word here. I had to work through years of feeling guilty and thinking I was lazy for sleeping in. But I have some long term health goals. Sleep research is showing that sufficient sleep will protect against Alzheimer’s, cancer and heart disease so I will gladly take this “prescription” of sleeping at least 8 hours each night. However, I was amazed at the results I’ve noticed in just one week of good sleep. The first thing I noticed is that I am less irritable and more able to stay present. My hunger cravings have changed and I am even noticing that my clothes fit a little differently. I have more energy so I am looking forward to exercising. I am actually more productive, not less even though I am “losing out” on 1-2 hours of waking time every day.
Why We Dream
Turns out, that the quantity and quality of sleep are both essential. Some folks may be getting the allotted 7-9 hours of sleep, but find that they are “light” sleepers or suffer from a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea. This means that they are not able to fall into the restorative stage of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. This is the stage in which we have dreams. Scientists and philosophers alike have wondered for generations about why we dream. After all, we spend ⅓ of our lives in a state of hallucination. Why?
Walker says that motor and problem-solving skills are honed during sleep. We rehearse skilled memories. This is not to say that we are just working through pre-determined memories, but we are actually sculpting out and improving upon the memories we already have. Practice does not make perfect. Practice and a good night of sleep makes perfect. Studies show that athletes who get a good night of sleep are 20-30% better at a given skill than they were at the end of the practice session the day before with less sleep.
When in a state of REM sleep, our visual, emotional and motor centers of the brain are all 30% more active than when we are awake. Simultaneously, our prefrontal cortex (where rational thinking happens) gets shut off. This is why my partner woke up this morning and told me about a dream in which he was planting frozen chickens in the ground. Dream Andre didn’t understand this was an irrational thing to be doing because it made total sense in the context of the dream. While dreaming, we are able to take information that we have previously learned and collide it with new information.This creates new connections that weren’t there before you went to sleep. Because the rational brain gets turned off in REM sleep, we are able to think up creative solutions to problems that may seem impenetrable in real life. For a little context, Andre is a farmer and right now, he is busily spacing and putting all sorts of veggies in the ground. Perhaps he was working out how far apart he will plant his artichokes in real life, but in his dream state, he was doing it with chickens! This is why the old adage of “sleep on it” rings true. While we may not be processing our dreams on a conscious level, there is an unconscious memory processing that affects how we behave and feel every day.
I had so much to say about sleep that I couldn’t fit it all into one blog post! Next week, I’ll be diving deep into the “miracle drug” that is sleep. Turns out getting a full night of sleep helps us lose weight, is an antidepressant, has anti-cancer effects, boosts the immune system, is protective against Alzheimer’s and heart disease and even increases testosterone and sperm count in men.
Matthew Walker Ph.D - Sleep biology neuroscientist
Have you struggled with insomnia? This is a health concern that is near and dear to my heart because I lived for years feeling defeated by my inability to sleep. Because of this, I developed skills to assess and treat insomnia and I’d love to help you. Let’s get to the root of the problem and help you access this foundational pillar of good health. Call (604) 678-8600 to schedule a complimentary 15-minute phone consultation to talk about how acupuncture can help you get restorative sleep.
Kathleen Lee FABORM, R.TCMP, L.Ac. MTCM