Have you ever been jolted awake in the middle of the night by a weirder-than-usual dream, and wondered what the heck was going on in your noggin?
Whether frightening or funny, extra-vivid dreams may seem random—but that’s not necessarily the case. According to top sleep experts, there are a number of factors that can trigger wacky, intense dreams. Here are six you should know about.
1. You’re Seriously Stressed
Can’t ever seem to relax? It could explain your nightmares. “Some data suggests that if you have negative thoughts right before you go to bed, they can have an effect on your dream content,” says board-certified sleep specialist Michael Breus, Ph.D., advisor for SleepScore Labs.
To nix negative thoughts—and ward off crazy dreams—Breus suggests writing a gratitude list before bed. Just jot down five things you’re grateful for. Big or small, it doesn’t matter what they are, just that they’re positive.
For stress support, also try adding adaptogens, like ashwagandha, your everyday supplement routine. These herbs have been shown to help the body adapt to stress and promote energy and vitality.
2. You’re Taking The Wrong Dosage Of Melatonin
Melatonin, a hormone secreted by the pineal gland in your brain, regulates your sleep-wake cycle, (a.k.a. ‘circadian rhythm’ or ‘biological inner-clock’). Your body cranks up production at nighttime to help you fall asleep, but the hormone is also commonly taken in supplement form. While melatonin supplements can support a restful night’s sleep, taking the wrong dosage can make you have totally out-there dreams.
Many supplements contain anywhere from three to 10 milligrams of melatonin—but if you’re intent on avoiding intense dreams, Breus recommends taking just a half to one milligram at a time.
Doctors don’t know for sure why high doses of melatonin cause strange dreams, but the hormone can impact the quality—and even length—of REM, (a.k.a. rapid eye movement) the deep stage of sleep during which we dream. (Experts believe the activation of the regions of the brain responsible for learning and memory may be involved.)
Stick to a smaller dose of melatonin, and take it 90 minutes before bed (that’s how long it takes to kick in), recommends Breus. The Vitamin Shoppe brand’s 1 Milligram Melatonin Tablets make supporting solid shut-eye easy.
3. You’re On Certain Meds
SSRIs—a type of antidepressant (Zoloft and Prozac are two examples)—have also been known to cause vivid dreams, because they cut the amount of time you spend in REM in half, or even more. “When you condense a dream state like REM down that much, you can change the continuity of the story being told in your dreams,” says Breus.
Think of it like this: If you took the storyline of a half-hour sitcom and crammed it into 10 minutes, it probably wouldn’t make all that much sense. That’s exactly what these antidepressants can do to your dreams.
Blood pressure meds can also cause odd dreams because they slow your heart rate down enough to decrease the flow of oxygen to your brain. This can affect your brain function, sleep quality, and thus, your dreams, Breus explains.
In some cases, adjusting when you take your medication—and making sure it’s not too close to bedtime—is all you need to do to squash those zany dreams, Breus says. But always talk to your doctor before making any changes.
4. You Have Sleep Apnea
If your weird dreams have ever involved being underwater, swallowing a giant marshmallow, or trying to eat your pillow, you might have a condition called sleep apnea, in which your upper airway becomes blocked while you snooze. “These dreams are a manifestation of the fact that you’re not breathing when you’re sleeping,” Breus says. No joke.
Snoring, waking up gasping or choking, feeling tired all day, and waking up with headaches are all indicators of sleep apnea. If you think you have sleep apnea, head to a sleep doc. They can run tests to confirm the condition and figure out a treatment plan, which often includes wearing a breathing device (called a CPAP machine) that keeps your airway open during sleep, Breus says. Once you begin treatment, those underwater dreams should subside.
5. You Hit The Bottle Hard
If you think that drinking a few cocktails or glasses of wine before bed will ensure a restful night’s sleep, think again. Booze actually suppresses the first couple of cycles of REM sleep, because your body can’t enter REM until your liver metabolizes all of the alcohol in your system, which can take upwards of three to five hours depending how intoxicated you are, says neurologist Jeffrey Durmer, M.D., Ph.D., co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of FusionHealth. Once your body can get into REM, it’s likely to stay there for longer than normal, which can lead to more intense dreams. (Alcoholics who are in withdrawal often have straight-up hallucinations as their brains try to make up for all the REM they’ve missed.)
You already know to keep alcohol consumption low or moderate (one drink per day for women and two for men) for optimum health, but you should also steer clear for at least three hours before bedtime, Durmer says.
6. You Watched Something Weird Before Bed
Yes, Black Mirror is totally addicting, but it’s probably not ideal bedtime entertainment. Why? “You often dream about whatever you think about right before you fall asleep,” says Breus. So if you watch a horror movie—or just something weird—right before crawling under the covers, you pretty much set yourself up for equally weird dreams.
Skip the pre-bed thriller and watch something less stirring (like Food Network or The Office) before you hit the hay.
Keep this infographic handy the next time your slumber isn’t so smooth…