your natural self

The Importance of Dreams: From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Sleep Hygiene

Published on September 25, 2023

By Lisa Stockwell

Lisa Stockwell

Lisa Stockwell has worked as a copywriter, writer, author, and editor for 35 years, specializing in the field of healthcare since 2009. She recognized the need for reliable health information while supporting friends through unique health challenges and refocused her career to bring clarity and compassion to healthcare communications. Lisa is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and a lifelong Northern Californian.

Have you ever woken up from a dream exhausted and felt like you just survived a wild chase? Or maybe you've had a dream where you're flying through the sky, gliding effortlessly, and you don’t want to wake up? 

Dreams are like puzzle pieces that many believe have the potential to unlock secrets about your emotional state. But could they also be telling you something important about your body?

Since ancient times, dream interpretation has been seen as an art requiring intelligence or divine inspiration. Today, scientists, with modern neuroimaging techniques, are uncovering intriguing connections between dreams and our psychological and physiological states, drawing us closer to a more comprehensive understanding of their significance.

Traditional Wisdom: Dreams in Cultural Healing Systems

Across the history of human cultures, dreams have held a revered place as messengers from beyond consciousness. These age-old practices offer a unique perspective on dreams as not just flights of imagination, but potential clues to overall health.

Dream Meanings in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), dreams are regarded as integral pieces of the health puzzle. The Five Element Theory, a cornerstone of TCM, connects different organs and emotions to elements like wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Dreams are believed to reflect imbalances within these elements. 

A recurring dream of wandering lost in a forest, for example, could hint at a potential disharmony in the wood element, possibly indicating liver or gallbladder issues. Dreams featuring water, such as floods or drowning, might be linked to imbalances in the water element, suggesting potential kidney or bladder issues. Dreams involving fire, like infernos or burning, could point to disturbances in the fire element, potentially indicating heart or small intestine concerns. 

Since emotions and colors are also associated with the Five Elements, a dream that involves anger, associated with Wood, may suggest an issue with the kidney, and a dream with lots of white imagery, associated with Metal, could indicate a problem with the lungs.

By interpreting these dream symbols, TCM practitioners aim to gain insight into imbalances before they affect the physical body adversely.

Dream Meanings in Ayurveda

The ancient Indian practice of Ayurveda also links dreams to well-being. Ayurveda sees dreams through the lens of doshas, elemental forces that govern the body and mind. When the doshas are balanced, a person experiences good health, while imbalances can lead to illness and disease. 

An Ayurvedic practitioner would consider a dream filled with heat, fire, or intensity (such as one involving problem-solving or intellectual activity) as a symptom of a Pitta dosha imbalance, suggesting potential digestive or inflammatory issues. 

Dreams of love or lust may relate to the Kapha dosha and an imbalance in emotional health or appetite. Just as Ayurveda seeks harmony among the doshas, Ayurvedic dream analysis serves as a means to uncover disharmonies in both mental and physical states before they cause poor health.

Dreams in Native American Healing Practices

In Native American cultures, dreams were considered bridges between the seen and the unseen, offering both practical and spiritual guidance. They were seen as conversations with nature and ancestors: messages sent from spirits and animals, guiding individuals on their life journeys. In some cases, these messages might provide warning of impending sickness or guidance for finding plants to cure illnesses or food to keep from starving. 

Dreams in Homeopathy

In Homeopathy, the oldest form of complementary and alternative medicine in Europe (originating in 1796), dreams are often considered part of an overall health assessment. While dream analysis is just one aspect of the broader diagnostic process, the themes, emotions, and events within dreams may be used to shed light on underlying emotional issues, stressors, fears, or unresolved conflicts that affect a patient’s mental state. 

Homeopaths consider dreams in conjunction with other physical and emotional symptoms to develop a comprehensive understanding of the patient's health. Their goal is to determine the best remedies to address the underlying causes of health issues, whether they are physical, emotional, or mental in nature.

Dreams as Windows into the Subconscious Mind

By the end of the 19th century, psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were developing theories about dreaming and their potential to help understand the body-mind connection in a way that might lead to treatments for mental illnesses. Freud presented the concept of dreams as a way for humans to deal with repressed emotions and satisfy unfulfilled desires. He saw dreams as a way of dealing with issues from our past.

Jung believed that dreams were windows into the unconscious mind and were symbolic, suggesting something about the dreamer’s potential future. In his book, The Symbolic Life, he wrote,” “Dreams prepare, announce, or warn about certain situations, often long before they actually happen. This is not necessarily a miracle or a precognition. Most crises or dangerous situations have a long incubation, only the conscious mind is not aware of it. Dreams can betray the secret.” 

Freud’s and Jung’s theories gave rise to psychoanalysis, which is still practiced today but has become far less common.

A more modern theory of dream analysis suggests that dreaming is a form of emotional regulation. Dreams often contain emotional content that mirrors our waking experiences. This content might be directly related to events from our lives or could be symbolic representations of emotional themes. Dreaming is thought to provide a safe space for the brain to revisit and process emotions associated with past experiences. This could potentially help individuals come to terms with their emotions subconsciously and even promote emotional healing during sleep.

The Science of Sleep and Dreams

In the 1950s, a physiologist named Eugene Aserinsky discovered the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep, leading to the understanding that sleep is not a complete state of rest and that the brain remains active at different intervals during sleep. From then on, sleep research has focused on the stages and quality of sleep and the part dreams play in our mental and physical health. 

Today, using techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), electroencephalography (EEG), and positron emission tomography (PET), researchers can observe and map the brain's activity through each of the sleep stages.

While some people remember their dreams explicitly (the average person remembers one to two dreams a week), others draw a blank. However, research indicates that even those who don’t recall their dreams experience REM sleep and its potential benefits.REF#2877

REM sleep, which makes up about 20% of total sleep time, is marked by heightened brain activity and vivid dreaming, with significant activity in emotion-related areas of the brain. Compared to periods of wakefulness, some brain activity during REM sleep is heightened and some activity decreases. Research suggests that REM sleep helps your brain reach a state of homeostasis and prepares you to function emotionally and socially the next day. 

Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) sleep is a period when the brain is still active but at a much slower pace than during wakefulness and with dramatically different patterns of activity compared to REM sleep.REF# 2878 You still dream during NREM sleep, but fewer people remember their dreams if woken up just after this phase.

It is now believed that sleep deprivation, especially the lack of REM sleep, can affect brain function and potentially reduce activity in areas of the brain associated with attention, decision-making, and emotional regulation. Additionally, insufficient sleep may alter the connectivity between different brain regions, leading to impaired cognitive performance.REF#2879

Dreams and Physical Health

Neuroimaging has provided remarkable insights into the intricate workings of the brain and underscores the importance of sleep for cognitive function and emotional well-being. Several studies have also provided glimpses into how dreaming and dream content might be linked to physical health:

  • Dreams and heart health: Individuals who report having frequent nightmares may exhibit higher levels of physiological markers associated with stress, such as increased heart rate and blood pressure during sleep. Nightmares may suggest a higher risk for cardiovascular disease.REF#2880
  • Dreams and neurological health: Exploring dream patterns could offer insights into future neurological concerns Physically acting out dreams in the REM state in a condition called REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD) might signal a neurodegenerative disorder like Parkinson's disease or Lewy body dementia if no alternative explanations are present. 
  • Dreams and sleep disorders: Dreams can also provide information about sleep quality and disturbances. Individuals with sleep disorders often report different dream patterns and content. Analyzing dream content in conjunction with sleep data might help identify underlying sleep issues and contribute to a better understanding and management of sleep disorders.

It's important to note that while these studies suggest intriguing connections between dreams and physiological health, the field is complex and still evolving. Dream interpretation remains challenging due to the subjective nature of dream experiences. 

Potential Benefits of Dreaming

While it’s not yet clear that dreams are essential to physical health in the same way that other biological functions like nutrition, sleep, exercise, and hydration are, there is strong evidence that they play a role in mental and emotional well-being and are an important aspect of sleep and brain activity. 

Research indicates that as long as you’re getting sufficient sleep — especially REM sleep — you are dreaming. And if you’re dreaming, you’re potentially enjoying important benefits:

  • Mental and emotional health support: Dreams provide a space for the brain to process emotions, work through unresolved issues, and create scenarios that may not be possible in waking life. Dreams can be a means of exploring and confronting feelings, fears, and desires, which can contribute to psychological well-being.
  • Memory and learning: During sleep, the brain processes information and experiences from the day, which can enhance memory retention and cognitive functioning. Dreams might be a part of this process, although the exact mechanisms are still being studied.
  • Creativity and problem-solving: Some individuals have reported finding solutions to challenges or coming up with new ideas through dream experiences. Dreams may offer a unique space for the brain to make connections and generate novel insights.

To take advantage of these benefits, you must have a consistent sleep schedule, getting eight to 12 hours of sleep every night, depending on your age. If you are experiencing sleep disturbances or deprivation, you may need to improve your sleep hygiene.

Improve Your Diet to Improve Your Sleep

Sleep hygiene involves a combination of behaviors, environmental conditions, and other sleep-related factors that affect your sleep. 

One interesting study has suggested that certain foods may also affect sleep and dream content.REF#2881 Over 11 percent of the participants in the study said that certain foods (especially cheese and spicy food) affected their dreams, while over nine percent said their dreams were affected by eating late at night. 

While this area of research is still evolving and largely anecdotal, most sleep specialists agree you should make the following adjustments if you’re having trouble sleeping:

  • Limit caffeine: Consuming caffeine, especially later in the day, can interfere with sleep onset and quality. This might influence the occurrence and clarity of dreams, particularly during the REM stage when vivid dreams are more likely.
  • Limit alcohol: Alcohol consumption, particularly in excess, can interfere with sleep patterns and contribute to fragmented sleep. While alcohol might induce vivid dreams during the REM stage of sleep, it can disrupt the overall sleep cycle and diminish dream recall.
  • Eat healthy foods: Some foods can contribute to the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter linked to mood regulation and sleep. Consuming foods such as turkey, salmon, spinach, nuts, bananas, and eggs as part of a balanced diet might positively influence your overall mood, sleep quality, and potentially dream content.

Individual responses to foods can vary widely, and factors such as personal metabolism, food sensitivities, and overall dietary habits can all affect how different foods might impact your dreams. If you're curious about how specific foods might be affecting your dreams, consider keeping a food and dream journal. This way, you might identify patterns and correlations between your diet and your dream experiences and even enhance your memory of those experiences.

Support Your Sleep Naturally

It can be hard to settle down and sleep when you’re dealing with trying times or have trouble relaxing. While you can’t eliminate stress completely from your life, certain herbs can help you manage occasional feelings of anxiety and enjoy a greater sense of calm.

For times when you have occasional sleeplessness, consider ending your evenings with a mood-calming herbal supplement or tea, such as Valerian Root, Passionfruit, Chamomile, or Lavender. All these herbs have the potential to help you settle down for a good night’s sleep.

Sweet dreams!


  • 1. , "Evidence that non-dreamers do dream: a REM sleep behaviour disorder model", Journal of Sleep Research .
  • 2. , "Functional Neuroimaging Insights into the Physiology of Human Sleep", Sleep Research Society .
  • 3. , "The Role of Sleep in Emotional Brain Function", Annual Review of Clinical Psychology.
  • 4. , "Nightmares: an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease?”", Sleep.
  • 5. , "Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend: food and diet as instigators of bizarre and disturbing dreams", Frontiers in Psychology..