Q. Is a night’s sleep physiologically beneficial even if it includes emotionally disturbing nightmares?
A. Almost certainly yes, said Dr. Neomi Shah, a specialist at the Mount Sinai Integrative Sleep Center in New York. Despite the problems nightmares can cause, sleeping and having them is better than not sleeping, research suggests.
Nightmares can make it difficult to sleep and interfere with daytime functioning, but physiological indicators of sleep patterns and quality do not differ in people who have nightmares, Dr. Shah said.
Frequent long, distressing and vivid dreams often wake people and cause problems like insomnia and poor sleep quality, she said. Research has also consistently demonstrated that nightmares can harm general well-being, affect mood and elevate stress.
Some studies suggest there are measurable sleep problems for people who have nightmares, while others show no difference. The studies that show such a link found that people who woke up stayed awake longer and that certain stages of sleep did not last as long. But people in those studies who had nightmares also had longer periods of rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep, when most dreaming occurs.
A weakness of these studies is that they were not conducted in the subjects’ normal sleeping environment. A more recent study in such an environment found no differences in so-called sleep architecture, sleep-cycle and REM durations, or sleep patterns for just the nights with nightmares.
Therefore, Dr. Shah said, despite upsetting nightmares, “sleep architecture appears to be preserved, and subjects with frequent nightmares are likely deriving the physiological benefits of sleep.” firstname.lastname@example.org