What your dreams reveal about your health

Have you ever wondered why we dream? Rosalind Cartwright, Ph.D., told the National Sleep Foundation that dreams are the way the brain "incorporates memories, solves problems and deals with emotions. In this way, dreams are essential for our emotional health."

While dreaming is an important and necessary physical function to help with our memory and mental health, dreams can also indicate other health issues that might need our attention. From nightmares to the frequency of dreams, we can learn a lot from our nocturnal adventures. Here are a few dreaming issues that may indicate something more serious is going on with your health.

Nightmares can be a warning sign

There's nothing worse than waking from a nightmare in a cold sweat, heart pounding and nerves rattled. While a nightmare from time to time is generally not anything to worry about, frequent nightmares can indicate something more serious is going on with your health. One study found that nightmares can be linked to heart disease, with an irregular heartbeat increasing your risk of nightmares even more. This is because heart disease can decrease the amount of oxygen reaching your brain, which can trigger a nightmare.

Another possible cause of nightmares is sleep apnea, a chronic condition that occurs when you have pauses in your breathing or shallow breaths during sleep. These pauses can really mess with your REM sleep due to lack of oxygen. "Patients have had terrifying dreams of drowning or suffocation," William Kohler, MD, medical director of the Florida Sleep Institute, told the Huffington Post. "In reality, their airway is blocked off."

You might want to look into some of these possible causes for your nightmares, if you suffer from them. No one wants to continue having bad dreams.

Dream frequency may point to a number of conditions

Most people have about four to six dreams every night, but don't remember near that many. Interestingly, we're more likely to remember dreams if we wake up before the dream is over, or soon after it. Mood disorders like anxiety and depression might be a cause of increased dream frequency. These disorders can cause you to wake more frequently during REM sleep, so you remember more of them. If you are concerned, you might try keeping a journal by your bed and noting the frequency of your dreams. Although you might not think you are suffering from a mood disorder, the frequency of your dreams might say otherwise.

Other causes of more frequent dreams can include being too hot or cold during the night, chronic pain or coming off antidepressants. Even your hormones can have an impact on the number of dreams you have and remember.

Vivid dreams or bizarre dreams that stay with you

Vivid dreams may arise for a variety of reasons. They may indicate you are suffering from certain medical conditions, which might include neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson's disease. There are other, less frightening reasons for your weird dreams as well, so don't jump to conclusions too quickly.

This may come as a surprise to you, but particularly bizarre or memorable dreams might also indicate a possible infection. "Any infection increases the amount of slow-wave sleep we have, however, this delays the starting point of when we enter dreaming sleep, so dreaming sleep starts late, and can erupt into consciousness. This leads to vivid dreams and strange hallucinations," Dr. Patrick McNamara, a neurologist from Boston University Medical School, told the International Business Times.

Alcohol can also prompt vivid and memorable dreams. This is because the effects of alcohol wear off toward morning, affecting your brain chemicals and triggering bizarre and sometimes scary dreams.

Like alcohol, medications like antidepressants can also trigger vivid dreams, said Dr Patrick McNamara of the Boston University Medical School. "They've been shown to make REM bursts more intense in the people who take them," says Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D., assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston and author of The Committee of Sleep. "And most of those people seem to have more nightmares as a side effect." If your medications are interfering with your sleep and your dreams, discuss them with your doctor. It might be time to switch medications.

Dreams that wake you early

I tend to be an early bird, waking up most days before the alarm goes off. However, dreams that wake you early might be a warning sign for a mood disorder like anxiety or depression, says Professor Jim Horne, a sleep expert from Loughborough University. Doctors have noted that people with depression or anxiety enter REM sleep much earlier during the night, so they have their dreams earlier in the night and wake up early.

Horne says another possible reason for waking from a dream earlier than usual can be a result of acid reflux — better known as heartburn — which may develop after consuming a large or fatty meal the night before. If you suffer from the latter, you might want to consider having a lighter meal in the evening to a assure a good night's sleep, with pleasant dreams.