Natural Treatments for Nightmares

picture of a girl standing on a beach watching a wall of water wash over the golden gate bridge

A nightmare is defined as an unpleasant dream. If you have a many disturbing dreams that wake you up in the night and make you want to stay awake so you don’t go back to that place, you must have wondered why.

Any answers to that question are going to be theories. Some believe that a nightmare is no more than random memories stirred together with subconscious emotions and fears. That suggests that if you have a great many nightmares, you are harboring many negative thoughts and emotions that creep into your dreamworld.

Most nightmares occur during the most brain-active phase of sleep, REM. They might be more easily remembered than a pleasant dream, so it’s possible you have a fair number of good dreams, too, and just don’t remember them. Night terrors, which are more severe, happen during non-REM sleep, and while they are more emotionally disturbing, they are not as easily remembered.

Some believe that nightmares help you work through deep fears and feelings and serve an extinction function, helping to moderate, or extinguish, our fears. Our nightmares may give a visual image to an otherwise obscure feeling of fear or despair; something that we then can identify and hopefully, deal with in our minds and emotions.

Researchers have identified characteristics of those who are apt to suffer more nightmares—emotional sensitivity, openness, a tendency to be reactive to both internal and external environments. If those who are less reactive, less sensitive and open do not suffer nightmares, it seems that one group is suffering either from a dysfunction or the other is missing out on a normal, fear-processing mechanism. Several studies have found a relationship between nightmare frequency and clinical features of schizophrenia-spectrum disorders, which underscores the possibility of dysfunction. (Levin R. Nightmares and schizotypy. Psychiatry. 1998;61(3):206–216. [PubMed])

Artists and authors report getting inspiration for works of art or literature from their dreams and nightmares. Others report that they are able to solve problems through their dreaming or that they have benefitted from gross and frightful nightmare visions of what happens when, for example, you drive too fast on a motorcycle.

Apparently some good may come from this unpleasant sleep disturbance, although creative people simply are able to find material for art in even a piece of garbage.

It’s possible that some nightmares serve useful mood-regulating functions but nightmares that wake you and that you remember are evidence of a dysfunction in the amygdala (another theory). Whatever the reason, there are those of us who would rather have fewer or no nightmares, so let’s explore how we might work toward that end.

PREVALENCE

NCBI reports prevalence as 5.1% for nightmares occurring at least once a week.

ALLOPATHIC TREATMENT

If a person experiences a pattern of nightmares, daytime distress, and functional impairments, a physician would look for underlying conditions, like PTSD. There are pharmacological and psychosocial treatments available. A medicine might be aimed at reducing activity in the amygdala during REM sleep. Prazosin has shown some promise in treating the nightmares of PTSD.

One promising non-pharmacological treatment is a kind of cognitive behavioral process called Image Rehearsal Therapy (IRT). This is a process in which you write down your nightmare scenarios in detail and then rewrite them so that the new storyline puts you in control of a preferred outcome. You then “rehearse” this new scenario, or relive it, for several days. Studies report that this is effective in reducing the number of nightmares.

SELF TREATMENT

You may find helpful suggestions for treating general sleeplessness and promoting peaceful sleep in the Insomnia post.

DIET

Balanced hormones are the first line of defense against physical or mental dysfunction. To promote balanced hormones, it is important to eat a balanced diet, with as much variety as you can manage, with lots of whole, fresh vegetables and fruits, quality protein and healthy sources of monounsaturated fat. The Zone is an excellent nutrition plan. Brain chemistry, like body chemistry, is affected by diet.

FOODS THAT MAY PROMOTE HEALING

  • Nuts and seeds
  • Tryptophan-rich foods (tofu, pumpkin seeds, turkey, et. al.)
  • Wild fish from cold waters

FOODS AND OTHER SUBSTANCES TO REDUCE OR ELIMINATE

  • Alcohol–eliminate a few hours before bedtime.
  • Caffeine–avoid in the evening.
  • Processed foods and sugars which upset hormonal balance
  • Trans fats

HERBS AND SPICES

  • Cayenne
  • Chamomile
  • Hops
  • Kanna
  • Lady’s slipper
  • Lemon balm
  • Passionflower
  • Sage
  • Siberian ginseng
  • Skullcap
  • Thyme
  • Valerian
  • Wild lettuce

ESSENTIAL OILS

Essential oils can be administered via a diffuser for inhalation, administered topically in a carrier oil (coconut, almond, olive, etc.), or undiluted drops can be added to a hot bath or compress. Find recipes for blends on the web or create your own.

  • Bergamot
  • Frankincense
  • Lavender
  • Mandarin
  • Marjoram
  • Myrrh
  • Roman chamomile
  • Rose
  • Sandalwood
  • Vetiver
  • Ylang ylang

OTHER SUBSTANCES AND SUPPLEMENTS

The cost of having a blood test to determine if you have nutritional deficiencies is likely to be negligible compared to over-consuming expensive supplements that you do not need.

  • GABA
  • Magnesium
  • Potassium
  • Progesterone
  • Taurine
  • Vitamin B complex

HYDRATION

Dehydration is just as hard on brain function as it is for body functions. Water is essential and a main nutrient for the human body. Without it, you cannot survive for many days. Staying hydrated is fundamental for a healthy body, so how much is enough? There are so many differences in people (i.e., how much we sweat), as well as the diets we consume (a lot of water comes from healthy, whole foods), but a general rule is to consume enough water that your urine is clear, but not so much that you dilute your nutrients. If you are taking certain supplements that make your urine yellow, then you can start out with the formula of drinking ½ to one ounce of water for each pound you weigh. If you weigh 130 pounds, drink 65 to 130 ounces of water a day. Definitely drink when you are thirsty.

EXERCISE

Exercise promotes restful sleep and is important in your overall effort to balance body and brain chemistry. That exercise is beneficial for general health is undisputed. If you are ill, you will want to take it easy, of course, but there is always something you can do to support your body. Do what you can without making yourself feel worse. Exercise in fresh air whenever possible.

EMOTIONAL SUPPORT

Since nightmares may be a signal that we have unresolved fears, emotional support becomes especially important. Practice relaxation exercises, talk to a friend, meditate. Do what works for you to stay mellow. Some of the following relaxation methods may be helpful for you:

ALTERNATIVE THERAPIES

  • Acupressure (http://www.modernreflexology.com/acupressure-points-for-sleeping-disorders/)
  • Acupuncture (https://ctacupuncture.wordpress.com/2013/10/14/acupuncture-helps-relieve-the-nightmare-of-nightmares/)
  • Ayurveda
  • Chinese Medicine
  • Earthing
  • EFT
  • Homeopathy (https://www.drhomeo.com/homeopathic-treatment/20-best-homeopathic-medicines-for-nightmares/)
  • Image Rehearsal Therapy (https://www.verywellmind.com/imagery-rehearsal-therapy-2797304)
  • SCIO

PREVENTION

  1. A wholesome, balanced diet
  2. Adequate hydration
  3. Regular exercise
  4. Low stress levels
  5. Quality sleep–at least treat your sleep time as sacred and prepare for it by following guidelines for the best chance at a peaceful night.

 

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