Pillow Talk: What Are Your Dreams Trying to Tell You About Your Health?

Woman and man dreaming during sleep.

Have you ever had a dream where you wondered if maybe there was something more to it than the simple firing of the subconscious? Perhaps you were being chased in your dream and woke up exhausted. Or maybe you had a nonsensical dream that broke from your normal dream patterns.

Fitbit advisor Michael Grandner, MD, director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona, agrees that’s a possibility. “Dreams are what happen when we watch the brain rewire itself,” he says. “They are a window to the internal workings of our brain as it processes the day’s information, plans for the future, thinks about what’s important, tries to solve problems, and goes about its business making connections among concepts and memories and emotions.”

So how can you decode your dreams? There are a couple things to consider.

Dream Recall Can Point to Disturbed Sleep

You usually won’t remember your dreams, even though you likely have several of them a night each time you’re in REM, says Grandner. It’s actually normal to forget even vivid dreams quickly.

“We cannot really form memories while dreaming,” says Grandner. “If we do remember a dream, whether it’s because we woke from it in the middle and our conscious mind was able to catch a glimpse or if it, or because it was a lucid dream where we maintained some consciousness, that memory can fade very fast.”

If you’re consistently remembering dreams in vivid detail, you might not be getting restful sleep. Try adjusting your eating, drinking, or nighttime stress-relieving habits.

“If you have something that disturbs your sleep at the end of the night,” says Grandner—like certain foods and drinks—”you might be more likely to wake up from, and thus remember, a dream.” Alcohol can even suppress REM sleep. “If you consume something that suppresses REM sleep, you can reduce dreaming or even increase REM pressure and have more intense dreams,” says Grandner.

Your Mind Has Its Own Language

Your dream might not make any logical sense—monsters, actions you’d never take, seeing people long gone. That’s because your brain sometimes uses dreams to create faux experiences. “In order to process memory, reinforce learning, and build connections, [your brain] may need to ‘experience’ these connections,” says Grandner. “The reason why dreams don’t make logical sense is that they are not an actual experience that follows the rules of reality. Rather, in order for the brain to build these connections, it needs to exist in a reality that doesn’t follow the normal rules.”

For example, in real life, a person cannot be a house. But perhaps you have a dream where you are indeed a house. Perhaps being a house allows you to watch a specific situation objectively and silently, or it allows your brain to create order out of chaos by taking you out of the action. It could be just about anything, which is why dreams can be so hard to interpret. “When our conscious mind tries to understand it, we often apply structure and rules that dreams don’t actually follow,” he says.

Although there’s no universal language of dreams, Grandner says you can glean certain insights from “your mind’s own language.” If you’re stuck on a dream you’ve just experienced, think broadly instead of specifically. “Maybe you have a dream that you are having a heart attack,” says Grandner. “Perhaps it means that you’re worried about your health, or maybe it means that you feel something bad may happen at work.”

Worrying about health or aging might also manifest in a dream where you’re stuck in a room you can’t get out of, says Grandner. “The content of the dream itself may or may not have anything to do with the actual worry or concern you’re experiencing,” he says. “Remember, the dream doesn’t have to explain itself because your unconscious mind already understands.”

Along the same lines, don’t bother cracking open a dream book. “Those books are not based on sound science,” says Grandner. “They are mostly made up and out of date. A person’s dream language is their own. There may be layers that are not immediately obvious, and it’s possible that people from similar backgrounds may have a similar dream language, but it’s really an individual thing. For example, a dream about palm trees by someone who lived their whole life in New York City (where there are no palm trees and they are unusual) will likely mean something different than if it were dreamt by someone who spent their whole life in LA (where they are everywhere).”

The Bottom Line

No matter the dream world’s content, the simple act of self-reflection about your worries and fears might cause you to identify stressors in your life—and make smart changes to improve your health, whether it’s visiting a doctor, changing jobs, or something else. In this way, thoughtfully evaluating your life through your dreams can be helpful.

27 Comments   Join the Conversation

27 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Wow very cool tracker. Now my daughter tracks my every move lol
    What a perfect
    Can’t wait to see the crazy sleep pattern

  • I used to do lucid dreaming a lot when I was younger, even consciously modifying the dream as it was happening. I have always paid a lot of attention to my dreams because they tell you what you’re worried about subconsciously. I usually find that its most telling to look at how you’re feeling during the dream. Emotions come from a lower level of you brain and usually the higher level brain isn’t aware of the origin of them until they’ve hit full force. Dreams can help with knowing what’s happening at the lower levels of your brain.

  • Before i read this article I suppose dream is what I want deep in my mind, my soul. But it is just my belief. This article give me a science answer about dreams.

  • I feel dreams are very important, and recording and tracking them can be a fascinating discipline!
    True, we don’t know all the answers about dreaming, and that the symbolism is intensely individual. But to say that if one remembers their dreams may mean they aren’t getting enough sleep is not true. You’re unconscious may be trying to get your attention. Try reading Jeremy Taylor’s books. They are useful if for no other reason than to reassure you your dreams are important at some level. Pat Garfield is another writer of “The Healing Power of Dreams”, you might look at.
    Carl Jung, Respected Swiss psychiatrist, spent his life studying dreams.
    I use the sleep tracker and a dream journal. Fascinating.

  • What does it mean when you dream of dead bodies are tied to you and your running around your ship (like a cat with a bag tied to its tail) trying to get loose from it?

  • Miss Jenna Birch,
    With all due respect¡ You wrote: “Your Mind Has It’s Own Language”
    Should it be instead: “Your Mind Has Its Own Language” without the apostrophe after It?

  • I often dream that a spider is coming towards my face and I wake up trying to get it away from me. They are very disturbing and also wake up my husband.

  • I often dream that a spider is coming towards my face and it wakes me up that I’l rying to push it away from my face and making fearful notices and gestures.

  • I feel if I remember a dream it’s important. If it causes concern, then I can direct it to God. After all He made us and He knows us better than we know ourselves. It may be to direct me in a certain way, or to warn me, or to encourage me or it may be about someone else. And the symbolism is usually spot on. And somewhere down the road I encounter a situation and I say hmmmm so that is what that dream meant. I

  • So what about recurrent dreams? I have spent many years having dreams about train journeys: getting in the wrong train, missing a train. This is often substituted with a bus or a car, even an elevator. Always the wrong way, always ending up somewhere I don’t want to be. Whilst I accept the logic that dreams are just the brains way of doing the filing, I can’t help feeling that something somewhere is trying to tell me something!

  • Lately I have been dreaming the same topic over and over again last night the dream finally went!

  • I have had a reacurring thing happen in my dreams for years. Not all the time but a lot of the time. It’s always I have to go to the bathroom but there is always something wrong where I can’t use the bathroom. Either it’s broken, or there r no doors, or there is a window people can see me thru, or I can’t lock the door(s), etc. Always some reason I can’t go to the bathroom. I would really like to know what that cld possibly mean.

  • In high school my dreams (specifically, a singular dream) literally got me through Geometry. I went to sleep one night after having worked on one Geometry proof, just ONE, out of the 10 that I had to have solved before class the following day, and I thought about that proof from the time I got into bed until the time I fell asleep. After I drifted off to sleep my mind never stopped working on that proof…FINALLY, BAM! The solution hit me like a ton of bricks! I immediately awakened from my sleep and went right to work on jotting down the solution to the proof I had so vividly solved in my dreams. It only took that one dream to help me make connections in mathematics, which helped me to excel in not only my high school Geometry and Pre-Calculus classes (my last two high school math classes) but in college level upper level mathematics as well.

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