Saturday, April 26, 2008

Dreams, Depression, and Alzheimer's

First, a disclaimer: This post feels incredibly rambly and all-over-the-place to me right now (you know, as opposed to all my succinct posts to date), but the idea has been rolling around in my brain for a while now, and it was time to get it out of my head and onto paper, as it were. As it turns out, this is quite fitting, given the post itself. I will try to revise this and make it more succinct, but for right now, it is what it is. So, without further ado:

Dreams, Depression, and Alzheimer's
What do all these things have in common? That's what I'm hoping to piece together here. I've been reading various things lately that make me think (way too optimistically, I'm sure) that in dreaming could lie the cure for Alzheimer's disease. Well, maybe not the cure, but at least something that might lessen its effects. Okay, hear me out.

My theory: This article discusses a recent study which suggests that Alzheimer's is more likely to develop in people who have suffered from depression than in people who have not. According to

this book people who suffer from depression show improvement when they start recalling dreams. Ergo, dream recall may help ease patients' suffering from Alzheimer's. (BTW, I don't know how this widget got here or how to get rid of it. I realize its placement is extremely tacky, but I don't know what to do to remove it, so apologies.)

I'm currently reading a book called The Three "Only" Things: Tapping the Power of Dreams, Coincidence, and Imagination by Robert Moss (see link above). On page 49, the author states that "clinical studies strongly suggest that people suffering from symptoms of depression start to recover when dream function increases-as monitored by brain waves and/or the length of the phases of rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep-and that they experience a decisive shift for the better when they increase their dream recall and their sharing of dreams." He does not reference any of these clinical studies, but his theory seems, at least in part, to be based on his discussions with a Dr. Robert Weissberg, who sometimes works with depressive patients, and "has noticed that the patients who are most successful in remembering dreams are often the ones who experience the most rapid improvement in their condition."

We've been hearing for years about how dreaming is restorative, but Mr. Moss adds this additional twist about dream recollection that I hadn't heard before. This lead me to think that people suffering from depression are somehow missing out on dreaming, (which makes sense because depression and insomnia are often linked), and, therefore, are also missing the therapeutic effects of dream recollection as well. So it follows that restoration of proper REM function (whatever THAT might be) should be an easy fix for depression. A quick search on the Internet lead me to believe that that pretty much seems to be a load of crap. Well, not entirely, but it's certainly not as cut and dry as I would have liked. From my intensely scientific selection of the two articles that I read (they were in the top 3 results of my Google search and the site names looked somewhat respectable) and objective reading (is there anything here that supports MY theory?) of said articles, I learned that depressed people actually dream a lot more than non-depressed people. Huh. Perhaps Mr. Moss did not have Google handy when he was writing his book.

Not to be deterred, I have amended my theory. Actually, scratch that. I just reread my theory, and it still stands up. I just have to rearrange the reasoning behind my theory a little bit. Isn't that how the best theories work? Hey, do you think Newton had gravity all figured out in one sit- down blog session? The initial theory was good (SOMETHING just made that apple fall out of that tree and down to earth.) The supporting arguments just needed to be worked out.

Depressed people dream a lot, and according to this web site since we often use dreams to work out issues while we sleep, dreaming tends to result in a lot of stress hormones being present in our bodies, so over dreaming leaves us exhausted. If depressed people are awakened every time they show signs of dreaming, the signs of depression will lift, but they are left feeling anxious and stressed out during the day, presumably from the lack of issue-resolving at night. I'm simplifying a bit here, but the article also indicates that the reason that depressed people dream more is because they tend to worry a lot, so they have a lot of stuff to work out at night. So, it seems to be a bit of a vicious cycle. Lots of worry=lots of dreaming=lots of stress hormones=waking exhausted=generally feeling like crap=worry about chronic exhaustion=additional worry on top of previous day's unresolved worries=more dreaming, etc.

I think this actually strengthens my theory. If a person is experiencing a lot of stress or worry, and he is dreaming about it all the time, writing down those dreams is a good way to start a) addressing the things that are on your mind, consciously and subconsciously and b) working out the solution. Not only does writing it down give you the chance to let go of it-it's written down, you don't have to remember to think about it-but it also allows for some deeper introspection than what you normally do when you just remember a dream or tell someone else about it. I have done this, and there are a lot of times when I write down something that seems perfectly innocuous and irrelevant, but once I start writing out the details and explanations surrounding it, I realize that it totally relates to something that is going on in my life.

So...let's see if I can tie this all together. People who are depressed tend to have a lot of worries. They also tend to dream a lot, which would indicate that they are working out those worries, but they're dreaming about them so much that they are exhausting themselves. Physical exhaustion also leads to mental exhaustion. When you are mentally exhausted you just can't problem-solve well, so all those worries that you are carrying around are just building up. Also, dreams tend to be fleeting and unless you make a concerted effort to recollect and record them, you often have no benefit, no ability to utilize any of the solutions that are being presented to you in your sleep. This leaves you dealing with the same issue again and again. So, written recollection and analysis of dreams could prove beneficial both in allowing a person to "let go" of a current concern and move on to something new since the concern has already been dealt with and the "solution" written down as well as in allowing later follow-up and introspection of the "solution" with a fresher, more rested brain. Even if a solution doesn't present itself, I think dreams often allow a way for a person to voice a concern or issue that perhaps she didn't even realize she was carrying around or didn't feel was a valid concern, something that she feared couldn't be vocalized in the "real" world without seeming petty or ridiculous. That in itself can be very stressful. Theoretically, once these daytime stressors are reduced, night-time dreaming should scale itself back, leading to less exhausting sleep. This leaves one more physically and mentally refreshed and better able to problem-solve during the day, reducing the amount of issue-resolving that needs to go on at night, which leads to less dreaming, etc.

If this "dream therapy" can indeed help ease depression and Alzheimer's is often preceded by depression, then perhaps incidents of Alzheimer's can be reduced as well. I realize that I have taken a highly simplified view on a lot of fronts here. Clinical depression is a complex issue as is Alzheimer's, and there are causal elements that need to be taken into account, but all theories have to start somewhere. Why not here?

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