When Gina, 31, checked the app connected to the watch, it didn’t only show she was getting considerably less sleep than the recommended eight hours
When Gina Clarke got a fitness tracker at Christmas from her husband, Will, she fully expected to be told she wasn’t clocking up enough steps every day.
What she wasn’t prepared for was the news that she also needed to spend more time dreaming to look and feel her best.
When Gina, 31, checked the app connected to the watch, it didn’t only show she was getting considerably less sleep than the recommended eight hours.
The tracker, which monitored her heart rate and movements during the night, also pointed out she was lacking the most vital type of all — deep Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, when we have our most intense and emotional dreams.
While many of us think dreams are superfluous to daily life — no more than a quirky episode to be related in the morning — experts are increasingly saying otherwise.
For without this form of crucial ‘overnight therapy’ — which enables us to work through the experiences of the day — we face a ‘dream deprivation epidemic’ which is leaving us feeling drained, less able to manage our feelings or even enjoy life.
What’s more, a lack of REM sleep has also been linked to a rise in obesity and an increased risk of dementia.
Going short of deep sleep means we are also more likely to give into impulses such as eating more and snacking — and it’s women who are most affected.
During the night, we go through different stages of sleep.
The first cycle is light sleep, followed by deep sleep and then dream or REM sleep, when our brains are most active and our eyes move in different directions.
During the night, our REM stages get longer, so the final one may last up to an hour. In all, these phases should make up around 20 per cent of our total sleep — and this is when we have our most intense and emotional dreams and nightmares.
Indeed, when Gina looked at the analysis of her sleep every morning, she was shocked by how little REM sleep she was getting.
Gina, a mother of two children, age three and six, who runs her own marketing business from home in Wiltshire, says: ‘Technically, adults are supposed to get five cycles of REM deep sleep a night. On the nights I worked late, I saw I was getting as few as three and they were much shorter’
Gina, a mother of two children, age three and six, who runs her own marketing business from home in Wiltshire, says: ‘Technically, adults are supposed to get five cycles of REM deep sleep a night. On the nights I worked late, I saw I was getting as few as three and they were much shorter.
‘While the final REM cycle should last up to an hour, my final dream phase would last three minutes. Then my alarm clock would go off at 6.30am for me to get the children up for school.
‘Before I had kids, I remember dreaming every night. Some were recurrent themes, like falling off the edge of a car park into the sea. Others were a mish-mash of snippets I’d heard during the day.
‘But even if they were nightmares, they felt like a way of working through my fears and emotions and I’d wake up feeling refreshed.
‘On days when I didn’t get that dream sleep, I felt like I hit my emotional limits sooner. I also felt numb, and just getting through the day, as if I didn’t have a passion for anything.’
A struggle to get into a dream state: Account executive Lola Bellouere-Keay
Now a growing number of both neuroscientists and psychologists believe that deep dreaming sleep is needed to both reset the levels of stress chemicals in our bodies and to re-balance our emotional brain circuits so we can manage our feelings better.
As we get busier and sleep less, going without dreams is harming our emotional and physical health, according to Dr Rubin Naiman, a psychologist and a sleep and dream specialist at the University of Arizona.
‘We are at least as dream-deprived as we are sleep-deprived’, says Dr Naiman. ‘Dreaming sifts through all of the experiences we consume during the day.’
Neuroscientist Matthew Walker also believes that dreaming helps us to get a ‘resolution’ to painful emotional experiences we have when we are awake — ‘healing emotional wounds’ — and to ward off anxiety and depression.
Professor Walker, author of Why We Sleep, says dreaming helps us to process painful memories without the stress hormones that would accompany them if we remember them while awake.
In his research at the University of Berkeley, California, he found people who had not had a good night’s dreaming the night before reacted more strongly and more negatively to emotional images.
He says: ‘We can learn and recall salient life events without being crippled by the emotional baggage that those painful experiences originally carried.’
A recent study by scientists in Germany found that women need 20 minutes more sleep a night than men to restore their brain power
Yet one in 15 Britons gets less than five hours’ sleep each night, while three in ten sleep for only six to seven hours — an hour less than the NHS eight-hour recommendation and gradually eating away at REM time.
Women are hardest hit because, in the first place, they need more sleep. A recent study by scientists in Germany found that women need 20 minutes more sleep a night than men to restore their brain power.
Other research has found that women generally sleep less deeply — and so find it harder to get into a dreaming state, perhaps because evolution has hard-wired them to be more alert to the sound of a baby’s crying.
One such woman is account executive Lola Bellouere-Keay, 26, from Manchester.
When she used a sleep tracker for several weeks last year, she discovered she was having only one cycle of REM deep dream sleep a night.
Lola says: ‘Since I started working long hours and getting home later, I have struggled massively to get to sleep, even when I go to bed. Sometimes, I’d get as little as four or five hours a night.’
Now Lola says she only remembers her dreams every few months — and has noticed she finds herself more likely to get ‘hyper-emotional’ when she doesn’t dream.
Beyond the toll on our mental well-being, there is also the cost to our looks. Dream sleep is the body’s most important recovery time — the time when blood flow increases to the skin, feeding it essential nutrients while also flushing toxins away
‘When I was a teenager, I used to have recurrent dreams about my family having sit-down dinners —which was me processing my emotions about my parents splitting up when I was younger.
‘I also had dreams about my teeth falling out — but I think it was healthy to have that window into my subconscious. I can see that dreams are a form of night-time therapy.’
For many more women, deep dream sleep is even more difficult to achieve because they are working more, at the same time as raising young children.
According to government statistics, there are now 2.25 million women back in work by the time their children are four years old.
As modern life gets more stressful, there are other reasons why we may be having fewer vivid dreams.
Wine o’clock isn’t helping. Research has found that even moderate amounts of alcohol — as few as three glasses of wine — disrupt the normal cycle of light and deep sleep and cuts the amount of REM sleep in the early hours.
Other dream-stealers are sleeping pills and many other prescription drugs. According to the Economic and Social Research Council, one in ten of us in the UK now regularly takes some form of sleeping tablet.
While such medications make it easier to fall into a light sleep, they interfere with the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, which dictates how much we dream. Diuretics and even aspirin can have the same effect.
Beyond the toll on our mental well-being, there is also the cost to our looks. Dream sleep is the body’s most important recovery time — the time when blood flow increases to the skin, feeding it essential nutrients while also flushing toxins away.
Without this phase, stress hormones in the body build up, slowing down skin-cell production and robbing it of the time it needs to renew and repair itself.
Sleep expert Dr Rubin Naiman, author of the new book Healing Night, The Science and Spirit of Sleeping, Dreaming and Awakening, says: ‘Human growth hormone is also released during this deep-sleep stage which contributes to the tone, luminescence and elasticity of the skin.
‘Later on, during our dream-sleep stage, voluntary muscles relax, easing the appearance of wrinkles.
‘It’s why I refer to REM sleep as Nature’s Botox. It’s sleep and dreams which contribute to a healthy appearance.’
Yet beyond that, lack of dream-time is also fuelling the biggest health crisis we are facing: the rise in obesity. People in the UK are now the most obese in Western Europe, with more than a quarter of adults now classed as dangerously fat.
Tam Fry, of the National Obesity Forum, says it’s not just that we need enough sleep. It also has to be high-quality REM rest.
Research has found women generally sleep less deeply than men — and so find it harder to get into a dreaming state, perhaps because evolution has hard-wired them to be more alert to the sound of a baby’s crying
‘Deep sleep takes time to get into. It’s when you are really are asleep. If you don’t get high-quality sleep, it starts to upset the metabolism,’ he says. ‘You only sleep fitfully. Then when you wake up, you reach for rewards and the chances are it will be snacks.’
There’s also a worrying link to dementia: a recent study by the Boston University School of Medicine found that adults who had less REM sleep are at a much higher risk. Researchers say REM sleep may help protect connections in the brain, which become damaged with dementia.
Yet sleep expert Professor John Groeger of Nottingham Trent University says we should be wary of thinking that REM dream sleep is the answer to all our woes.
Professor Groeger says we can dream — or go into a dreamlike state — during any of the five stages of sleep, which go from very light to very deep and REM.
But while it does appear that we have more vivid and emotional dreams during our REM cycle, it’s not known how much we need — or the effect a shortfall may have on our brains.
Professor Groeger also cautions against using home fitness tracking devices as an accurate way to gauge REM sleep.
‘The only way of tracking REM is to wear electrodes near the eyes, which measure muscle tone which drops during REM, and electrodes near the scalp which will detect the small electrical changes which are characteristic of each sleep stage.
‘Some fitness trackers will do a decent job telling us how much sleep we have had — but they cannot tell us what type of sleep we have had.’
Gina Clarke is adamant, however, that more hours spent asleep — and dreaming — will help her regain the emotional self-control she needs to stick to her fitness regime.
Gina, who went up three dress sizes after having her second child three years ago, now believes her dreamless state may have affected her impulse control, making her reach for snacks she knew she shouldn’t have, and making her feel pessimistic that she could ever shed the pounds
‘No matter how many fitness classes I signed up to, I couldn’t feel positive about my fitness regime. I was just going through the motions and gave in to cravings.
‘It was only when I saw my different types of sleep mapped out on graphs, that it occurred to me I wasn’t getting the right sort of sleep, even if I was still managing to get out of bed in the morning,’ she says.
‘And even if I do get some of those old falling nightmares again, I hope a few more dreams will help get the old me back.’