Have you ever had a long string of nightmares and didn’t know what was causing them? It’s frustrating. Nighttime is supposed to be the time to relax and recharge for the next day, and it’s hard when your fears and anxieties come with you.
We talked to a couple of experts about unexpected culprits, and we have some bad news: Some pretty common, relatable factors (listed below) can trigger nightmares. But don’t worry too much — we’ll also cover tips that can help you enjoy your life while decreasing the chance of a nightmare.
Alcohol, recreational drugs, medication and supplements
A night out at the bar can be a lot of fun, but it may not be so great when you’re trying to sleep later. While alcohol can help you sleep deeply at first, “as the blood alcohol level reduces, the reverse happens: There is more shallow sleep and more frequent waking. This can lead to more REM [or rapid eye movement] sleep, which triggers nightmares and vivid dreams,” said Phil Lawlor, a sleep expert at the mattress company Dormeo.
Antidepressants and opioids can also increase the frequency of bad dreams. “While it is not entirely clear why this happens — there’s still so much we don’t understand about the brain — the increased level of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, that these substances provide, create changes in the way we dream, often leading to more vivid dreaming and thus more intense nightmares,” said Verena Senn, a sleep expert with Emma Sleep who has researched sleep and the brain for almost 15 years.
Melatonin, a supplement that can help you fall asleep, can also cause bad dreams. (You just can’t win, it seems!) “There is no conclusive evidence as to how melatonin affects our dreams; however, there are connections to high levels of melatonin causing nightmares because you are less likely to leave enough of the transition time between being awake and being asleep,” Lawlor explained.
The fix: You can still have that glass of wine at night (if that’s healthy for you otherwise). Just drink it at least four hours before bed, according to Lawlor.
Addressing the medication and supplement side is a little harder since you may need those things to function. Ultimately, talk to your doctor. “I would recommend discussing these concerns with your doctor, as they are best-placed to help you understand your options,” Senn said.
Eating before bed
Yep, your bedtime snack may hurt you, too. “This is because your body will be working hard to break down food and will send signals to your brain to be more active, which may trigger nightmares,” Lawlor said. “Additionally, food can interrupt sleep patterns due to night sweats and acid reflux. Sugary treats and spicy foods can trigger more brain waves; they are directly linked to being sleep disruptions.”
Senn agreed. “No matter what we eat, the closer we indulge to our sleep time, the harder our body will be working to digest while we rest. Eating in the hours before sleep is a habit that will certainly cause sleep disturbances and can trigger nightmares,” she said.
The fix: Listen, if you’re a nighttime snacker, we hear you. Eating something before bed can be comforting and help ensure you fall and stay asleep. So how can you have the best of both worlds? The timing of when you eat matters. Eat your last meal two to three hours before going to bed.
As far as choosing the right foods, it’s a bit of a guessing game — but only a little bit. “There is not conclusive evidence to prove that there are specific foods that directly help sleep. That said, there are foods that have been proven to promote sleep and make people feel drowsy,” Lawlor said.
He recommended proteins such as chicken, turkey, nuts and seeds. He also recommended teas, such as chamomile tea and green tea, to reduce stress. Lastly, he encouraged consulting with your dietitian or doctor before making any major changes to your diet.
Anxiety and stress
Ah yes, the trigger you probably don’t want in your life to begin with.
“Anxiety and stress caused from traumatic or worrying situations can trigger nightmares because your subconscious mind will turn fearful thoughts into a fearful story, and unpleasant story,” Lawlor said.
“During sleep, there is elevated limbic activity. … The elevated limbic activity, particularly in the amygdala [which is the part of the brain that deals with emotions] during REM sleep, may therefore exacerbate the emotional intensity experienced during dreams, which can cause nightmares,” Senn explained.
The fix: Lawlor suggested getting enough sleep since sleep deprivation can lead to both stress and nightmares. Senn suggested not engaging with scary books, movies or games before bed since they can trigger your body’s fight-or-flight response. (That’s a no on “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”)
Exercise, meditation, keeping a journal and seeking counseling can also help you feel more emotionally relaxed in general and at night.
Sleeping on your back
Back sleepers, pay attention: “Studies have shown that back sleepers are more likely to have nightmares,” Lawlor said. “Sleeping on your back can cause breathing difficulties. When you are in REM, the lack of air may trigger a nightmare, such as being chased, suffocating or drowning.”
With all of these tips, just do what you can. It’s about progress, not perfection.