Drugs, Effect on Dreams

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As with alcohol, prescription medications can have a negative effect on sleep patterns, such as REM sleep.

Drugs, Effect on Dreams


While there has been significant research on the relationship between various kinds of drugs and sleep, there have been far fewer studies on the effects of drugs on dreams. Most of the relevant findings concern the impact of drugs on rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the phase of sleep marked by vivid dreaming. Studies of alcohol and dreams, for example, indicate the quantity of REM sleep decreases and Stage 4 (deep) sleep increases with excessive alcohol consumption, creating the impression that one has slept more deeply and more soundly under the influence of alcohol.

REM sleep also decreases under the influence of barbiturates, drugs that in the past were regularly prescribed to help stressed-out patients sleep and relax. As with many other drugs, REM sleep initially decreases under the influence of barbiturates, but later returns to a normal level if the drug is used regularly. Withdrawal is difficult, however, and regular users experience vivid dreams and nightmares when they attempt to stop using such drugs. The markedly negative effects of barbiturates have caused them to be replaced by other, less disruptive drugs.

Some over-the-counter allergy medications have been shown to cause dreams and nightmares that are so intense or unusual they are now mentioned as a possible side effect of taking the drugs. Nicotine patches and melatonin, an over the counter sleep aid, are reported to increase the vividness of dreams and nightmares. The nicotine patch, in particular, is said to intensify dreams to the point of distraction; often causing the dreamer to awaken.

The impact of many prescription drugs has also been studied. Drugs that are used for regulating the endocrine system, controlling blood pressure, and the treatment of neurological disorders can wreak havoc on the form, content, and frequency of dreams. “Alpha-one blockers” that are used in the treatment of hypertension are among the drugs recognized for causing nightmares, rather than simply intensifying dreams. This category also includes anti-Parkinson treatments such as L-dopas, bromocriptine, and selegeline, which have been known to cause psychosis. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI) such as Prozac®, Paxil®, Zoloft®, and Celexa® increase the frequency and intensity of vivid dreams in the non-REM stage of the sleep process. Although the effects of these drugs on dreams are profound, it must be noted that stopping their intake will cause a sudden occurrence of vivid dreams and nightmares that is normally associated with REM rebound and is not recommended without the approval of a doctor.

The influence of illicit drugs on dream content is also a topic of interest. LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) floods the nervous system with serotonin and results in hallucinations involving all the senses—visual, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile. This phenomenon is quite different from the hallucinations associated with schizophrenia, but in terms of biological responses it is the closest thing to a dream-like experience a person can have without being asleep.

The link between hallucinogenic drugs and dreams has been recognized since the time of the oldest societies. Belladonna was the drug of the ancient oracles of Delphi; it was used to induce trances and dreams. Haoma was used by the early Persians for the same general purpose. The use of drugs is common in almost all ancient societies for the purposes of more easily achieving a dreaming state or a dream-like trance.

The Dream Encyclopedia, Second Edition © 2009 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.