Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that carries messages between brain cells. Most dreams occur during rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep, when acetylcholine levels are high, as they also are during alert wakefulness. By observing the effects of deficiencies, scientists know that acetylcholine is essential to sleep, dreaming, learning and memory, although the precise nature of the connection is unclear. A healthy diet gives you all you need, but increasing your intake of foods rich in lecithin and B vitamins might help encourage more vivid dreams.
Stages of Sleep
A healthy sleep cycle progresses in five stages, each with distinctive brain wave patterns. The duration of each phase varies with age but on average, one entire cycle lasts about 90 minutes. Stage one is the groggy phase just before you fall asleep. During stage two, an EEG will show sudden spikes in electrical activity as your brain tries to disengage from the waking state and descend deeper into sleep. Stages three and four are restful, when brain waves are slow, strong and synchronized. Most dreaming takes place during the REM, stage, when blood flow to the brain increases, electrical activity parallels a state of high alertness, and the eyes move as though scanning a scene.
The neurotransmitter acetylcholine is a common factor linking sleep, dreaming, learning and memory. When brain wave frequencies are measured by EEG, alert wakefulness and REM sleep appear almost identical. In both states, acetylcholine levels are high and the brain appears to be actively processing information. Conversely, in people with Alzheimer's disease, an extreme form of cognitive impairment, acetylcholine-producing brain cells are among the first to die and patients also typically experience significant reductions in the duration of REM sleep. Acetylcholine deficiency, disruptions in sleep and dreaming, and diminishing ability to retain information and form memories are interconnected, Harvard University researchers say.
Boosting the acetylcholine in your diet may encourage vivid dreams, but dream researcher Ryan Hurd advises exercising caution before taking dream-enhancing dietary supplements, since they can also encourage nightmares. According to Bastyr University, foods containing lecithin, often added as an emulsifier to mayonnaise, sauces and dressings, promote the production of acetylcholine in the body. Eggs, seafood, beans, broccoli, cauliflower, dairy products, nuts and other foods rich in B vitamins are all sources.
Much is known about the physiology and biochemistry of sleep, yet why dreaming is vital to mental and physical health remains a disputed enigma. Some researchers maintain that dreams are the sleeping brain's equivalent of deleting junk email to highlight more important messages. Others ascribe great significance to dream imagery, believing it to be the language used by the unconscious to communicate with the conscious mind. Harvard University emeritus professor J. Allan Hobson, a modern pioneer of dream research, theorizes that whether asleep or awake, the mind has an overwhelming need to extract meaning from experience. A simpler theory holds that sleep and dreams are simply nature's way of keeping us out of trouble at night.
- Dream Studies; Allan Hobson and the Neuroscience of Dreams; Ryan Hurd; Jan. 7, 2010
- "Harvard University Gazette"; Research Links Sleep, Dreams and Learning; William J. Cromie; Feb. 8, 1996
- Macalester College: Physiology of Sleep, Theories of Sleep
- Dream Studies; Guide to Lucid Dreaming Supplements; Ryan Hurd; Oct. 23, 2008
- Bastyr University: How Much Choline Do We Need?
- "Newsweek"; You Will Start To Feel Very Sleepy...; R.A. Stickgold et al.; Jan. 19, 2004