The reasons behind our sometimes surreal, vivid, and emotional dreams have long been a mystery. Many people who menstruate report having odd, striking dreams right before menstruation. The reasons behind this phenomenon are hidden in our hormones.
We all dream, even those of us who seldom remember dreaming. Even if you can’t remember your dreams most nights, you probably can’t forget the ones you have a few days before your period. If that sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Many people report experiencing crazy, vivid dreams during this time.
Since the dawn of time, people have wondered about their dreams. Some cultures teach that dreams are visions from the spirit world or messages from our ancestors, that dreams can predict the future or explain the past. The modern view is that dreams are mental images, which arise from regions of the brain associated with memory that are activated while we sleep. We often dream of people, places, and things we’ve seen during the day, but as altered or mashed-up versions of these familiar images. Memory records what we experience, but it is also creative and dynamic—some would say unreliable. What we see in our dreams is our brains’ unique recreation of external stimuli.
We experience two main types of sleep: REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement). NREM sleep can also be categorized according to depth, with Stage 1 being the lightest and Stage 4 being the deepest sleep we experience. As we fall asleep, we drift into Stage 1 NREM sleep then progress through Stages 2, 3, and 4, and finally into REM sleep. This is one sleep cycle. An average cycle lasts 90-110 minutes and we generally need 4 to 6 cycles per night to feel rested. These stages have been identified by measuring the brain’s electrical activity.
Brain activity during REM sleep is very similar to waking brain activity. MRI scans show that the amygdala and the hippocampus (the emotion and memory centres of the brain) are most active in the REM phase, possibly even more active than when we’re awake, according to some studies. As these two centres dominate REM sleep, our dreams often contain strong emotions and vivid scenes stored in memory. Dreams can manifest as sounds, images, emotions, and even sensations, and tend to feel very personal.
Neuroscientists and sleep specialists explain that while we often simply revisit our daily activities in our dreams, they can sometimes carry a deeper meaning, a representation of some current issue or problem.
When we are stressed or anxious, we may dream of being chased, missing deadlines, or skipping important meetings. When we are under pressure or dealing with an emotionally challenging situation, we are more likely to have nightmares.
Some sleep experts believe we process our daytime experiences through our dreams. The subconscious mind may protect the conscious mind from being overwhelmed by filtering experience or masking what troubles us in dream imagery.
We are more likely to remember the dreams we have just before waking up, especially if we wake up in the middle of a REM cycle. REM phases get progressively longer the longer we sleep, so we tend to dream more before waking up.
We are also more likely to remember emotional dreams because they stay with us longer. If you wake up suddenly in the middle of a REM cycle, let’s say to go to the bathroom, you are more likely to remember what you were just dreaming. But what about the dreams we have before and during menstruation? Are they trying to tell us something, or is it just night-time fantasy?
While external experiences play a vital role in our dreams, the cyclical fluctuations of our hormones also affect the subconscious mind and our ability to rest and reset.
The menstrual cycle consists of four phases:
Different hormones are dominant in each phase. At the beginning of the cycle—the menstruation phase—sex hormone levels are low.
Once you have finished bleeding, the follicular phase begins and oestrogen increases. Oestrogen and testosterone levels peak at ovulation. Once an ovum is released, the luteal phase begins— oestrogen levels drop quickly, and progesterone levels begin to rise again.
While progesterone is crucial for overall health and reproductive function in women, it can also cause sleep disturbances. According to sleep specialists, an increase in progesterone is linked to shorter REM cycles and more easily disrupted sleep. In the luteal phase before your next period, you may notice that you have difficulty falling asleep, you wake up more often in the middle of the night, or you oversleep in the morning.
Another factor that can affect your dreams and how well you sleep is your body temperature. Core temperature is elevated in the days before your period begins, and a higher body temperature can disturb REM sleep. This is why you may have had odd, disturbing dreams when you had a fever.
Many women report experiencing vivid, strange, and even disturbing dreams before their periods. Most often, pre-menstrual dreams are just plain bizarre. Stories of pre-menstrual dreams shared on Reddit include very realistic dreams of going to the bathroom or starting a period, dreaming of being stuck in the mud, chased by monsters, and dreaming of teeth hurting or falling out.
One thing most women agree on is that their dreams become more vivid and memorable before menstruation.
This isn’t the only phase of the cycle when dreams get crazy. Many women report having intense dreams during the nights leading up to ovulation, but these dreams tend to be pleasant. Your sex drive revs up around ovulation, so you may find your dream-self in the middle of a romantic or erotic encounter.
While everyone enjoys a pleasant dream, nightmares and broken sleep can affect your mental health and mood during waking hours. Fortunately, there are several simple steps you can take to reduce hormonal sleep disturbances and get a good night’s rest.
The brain thrives on routines. If you go to sleep at the same time every night, you will notice that you naturally feel sleepier around that hour. Our brains can regulate our bodies more effectively when we follow a daily routine. The pineal gland knows when to release the sleep hormone melatonin that helps us fall asleep, and when we wake up each morning at the same time, the brain adapts our sleep cycles to the routine, and we wake up feeling refreshed.
One of the best things you can do to regulate your hormones at night is to get some exercise during the day! Moving your body reduces the highs and lows of hormone fluctuation and makes you tired and sleepy at the end of the day.
If you want deeper, more refreshing sleep, establish a pleasant ritual you can easily follow each night. This sends a signal to your brain that it’s time to prepare for sleep. To calm your mind, you might spend a few minutes journaling or getting ready for the coming day; to calm your body, take a walk, stretch, meditate, or relax in a warm bath or shower; to inspire pleasant emotions, spend time with someone who matters to you, practice positive visualization, or read a good book.
If you struggle to fall asleep or suffer from increased anxiety before your period, certain herbs can have a positive effect. Lemon balm, chamomile, lavender, valerian, and passionflower teas are all good for relaxation, especially if you use them in the late afternoon.
However, drinking tea right before going to bed can make you wake up in the middle of the night to pee.
Menstruation and preparing for menstruation both take a lot of energy, so your metabolism increases accordingly, and you need to eat more to satisfy this greater consumption of energy. And because we fast while we sleep, typically 7–8 hours, our energy reserves quickly run out. To keep your body running smoothly during this phase, try having a small snack before bedtime. A combination of protein and carbs seems to work well, for example, a piece of cheese and nectarine or a small portion of yoghurt with some fruit.
Sleep experts tell us that we sleep best in an ambient temperature of around 18–19° Celsius. Core body temperature rises slightly during the luteal phase, so you might feel more comfortable sleeping in a slightly cooler room. If possible, let some fresh air in before bedtime or use a fan or air conditioner.
Stress can affect you more in the pre-menstrual luteal phase than at other times of the cycle. To improve your ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, and avoid disturbing dreams, it helps to limit stress, excitement, and strong emotions before bedtime. If you have a habit of scrolling social media, watching exciting movies, or reading the news before sleep, consider replacing such activities with a more soothing bedtime ritual.
The more we study the menstrual cycle, the more we understand its far-reaching impact on women’s health. Odd, striking dreams are one of many aspects of the pre-menstrual phase of your monthly cycle. These dreams help tell the beautiful story of our bodies and their ability to create this unique experience.
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