Deciphering ‘Melatonin Dreams’: What are they & how can I avoid them?

Why does melatonin give me whacky dreams? Is this a side-effect? Will it go away? If you’re asking yourself any of these questions, you’re not alone.

Melatonin is our body’s hormone responsible for our sleep-wake cycle, or more specifically it tells our body when to go to sleep. With our modern-day lifestyles and overuse of electronics, many are turning to melatonin as a natural supplement that assists with sleep onset, staying asleep, and achieving deep sleep. A common observation noted by melatonin-users is the presence or increase of ‘whacky’ or ‘bizarre’ dreams. Is there any evidence behind this phenomenon and if so, what’s the cause and how can I avoid them?

Are ‘Melatonin Dreams’ Real?

Yes, there is some evidence to suggest that melatonin can increase “dream bizarreness” in subjects.1 Interestingly this was more evident in women than men. However, it seems that ‘melatonin dreams’ may simply be a by-product of deeper and longer sleep.

Our nightly sleep cycle consists of 4 stages of sleep that cycle. REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is when we dream the most and we experience most of our REM sleep in the second half of the night. Melatonin can therefore increase our experience (and memory) of dreaming by helping you fall asleep faster so you’re asleep for longer and thus increasing your time in REM stage sleep.2

An additional factor involved the concept of “REM rebound”, defined as “the compensatory increase of the frequency, depth, and intensity of rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep following sleep deprivation or significant stressors.”3 As many of the people who take melatonin are experiencing sleep disruptions, the effect of intense dreams could be more to do with REM rebound than melatonin itself.

Why Are Melatonin Dreams Strange?

Dreams has always been a fascination for humans and we’re still understanding the functions and implications of dreaming on health. We often look for meaning in our dreams and many of them feel so real, the emotional charge behind them can follow us throughout the day. While researchers haven’t been able to confirm many of the theories behind what our dreams mean, our emotional state does have an impact on our dreams.4 For example, a stressful day can mean stressful dreams. This is an important point to remember if you’re finding your dreams are more anxiety-provoking, disturbing, or graphic than usual.

If your dreams just seem bizarre, welcome to wonderfully strange world of REM sleep! This is completely normal as our brain takes this time to go into abstract mode, which has been shown to support creativity, problem-solving, emotional processing and more.4-6

 

Tips for Intense Dreams

Although dreams have several proposed functions, we don’t always feel very relaxed waking up from an intense dream. Here are some tips for mitigating stressful dreams:

  1. Don’t skip chill time

Melatonin isn’t a magic pill! Sometimes it can be tempting to take melatonin after a stressful day as a substitute for winding down. This could mean that by not taking a breath and relaxing before bed, you might be setting yourself up for that internal stress to manifest in dreamland. Therefore, sleep hygiene tips like bedtime meditation, a relaxing evening bath, and a break from electronic not only help you get to sleep, but also will support a restful state with less stressful dreams.

  1. Micro-dose melatonin

Although there haven’t been any studies evaluating how melatonin dosage affects dreaming, micro-dosing melatonin (typically defined as doses of less than 0.5mg) does results in fewer side-effects than higher doses like 3mg. The side-effects studied include headaches, dizziness, nausea and morning lethargy.  Read more about micro-dosing here.

  1. Sleep consistently

While we can “catch-up” on sleep to a small degree, constantly creating sleep debt puts you at risk for the more intense dreams experienced in REM rebound.3 Getting the 7-9 hours of recommended shut-eye consistently will help you avoid this effect.

 

So if you’re experiencing more intense dreams when taking melatonin, think of it less as a side-effect and more of a sign you’re getting more REM sleep. If you’re working off a sleep debt, the dreams may ease up over time, but dreaming is actually a healthy function. Try our tips to have a more restful sleep and remember, if you are taking melatonin, to always opt for a high-quality pharmaceutical-grade supplement.

References:

  1. Kahan, T.L. & Hays, J. & Hirashima, B. & Johnston, K. (2000). Effects of melatonin on dream bizarreness among male and female college students. Sleep and Hypnosis, 74-83.
  2. Kunz, D., Mahlberg, R., Müller, C., Tilmann, A., and Bes, F. (2004). Melatonin in Patients with Reduced REM Sleep Duration: Two Randomized Controlled Trials. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 89(1): 128–134.
  3. Feriante, J. and Singh, S. (2020). REM Rebound Effect. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK560713/
  4. Glucksman ML. (2001). The dream: a psychodynamically informative instrument. J Psychother Pract Res, 10(4):223-30.
  5. Purves, D., Augustine, G.J., Fitzpatrick, D. et al. (2001). The Possible Functions of REM Sleep and Dreaming. Neuroscience 2nd edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK11121/
  6. Hutchison, I.C., and Rathore, S. (2015). The role of REM sleep theta activity in emotional memory. Frontiers in psychology, 6:1439.
Rachel

Rachel Erwin, Nutritionist & Content Writer

Rachel is a Nutritionist with a BSc in Biology and Global Health from the University of Toronto, and a Postgraduate Diploma in Human Nutrition from the University of Ulster. She has counselled and educated clients in Hong Kong, whose health goals ranged from weight loss to detox and hormone balancing. Her love of writing led her to complete ‘Writing in the Sciences’, offered by Stanford University, and since then she has contributed several evidence-based health articles to various publications.

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