Do You Dream at Night? If Not, You Could Be at Risk for Depression

A woman tries to catch up on some lost sleep while on the Staten Island ferry. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Dreaming and sleep go hand in hand, but a new study on sleep and mental health suggests that those who experience dreamless slumbers may be at risk for a number of health concerns, including depression. The research is the latest in a number of recent studies exploring the intricate link between sleep and its effect on mental health.

The work points to a surprising culprit that has been left out of many reports on the ill effects of sleep deprivation: dream loss. The research, a review of several studies and published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, suggests that a lack of dreams stemming from poor sleep may contribute to a number of health issues.

Rubin Naiman, a psychologist at the University of Arizona, looked at how various sleep patterns affect the body and mental health. In particular, Naimin examined associations between sleep loss and certain medications, substance use disorders, sleep disorders, and behavioral and lifestyle factors. "We are at least as dream-deprived as we are sleep-deprived," said Naiman in a statement. "Many of our health concerns attributed to sleep loss actually result from REM sleep deprivation."

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Typical sleep follows distinct patterns throughout the night, each associated with specific types of brain activity. Rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) are the two main forms of sleep. NREM sleep is the deepest form of sleep, and the period where the brain is least responsive to outside stimuli. This is also the time that information processing and memory consolidation occur, and Naiman explained that our body often prioritizes NREM sleep over REM sleep. But this new review highlights the cruciality of REM sleep, when dreaming is most common.

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Because the paper is a review, rather than a new investigation, it cannot parse the exact mechanisms behind the connection between REM sleep and mental health. But the report is not the first to highlight the complicated link between sleep and mental health issues—and the conclusions vary. Other recent research found that while lack of sleep can contribute to depression, occasional sleep deprivation could have positive effects on depression. As in Naiman's research, the paper, published in Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, analyzed past research on the topic and not based on new information. However, results revealed that all types of sleep deprivation, were able to temporarily improve symptoms of depression in about 50 percent of people.

Naiman refers to the problem of dream loss as a "silent epidemic." All that tossing and turning could be responsible for more than a rough next day at work; it could be making us sick.