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Does Sleep Apnea Change How You Dream?


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When you sleep, what do you dream about?   Could the content and quality of your dreams be a symptom of sleep apnea?  In recent years researchers have been exploring the connection between dreams and the Apnea-Hypoxia Index, and they've both debunked common sleep apnea myths and found correlations between sleep apnea and dreaming.

Do People with Sleep Apnea Dream of Drowning?

It's 'common knowledge' that people with sleep apnea are more prone to nightmares, especially nightmares about drowning, choking, or being choked.  It makes sense. Often bits of reality work their way into our dreams, and someone with OSA is being deprived of oxygen multiple times a night.

There’s just one problem.  Over the last two years, multiple studies have failed to find a link between dream content and OSA or the severity of the AHI.   Some people with sleep apnea do have reoccurring nightmares about being choked or drowning, but they’re not more common among people with apnea than among those without.  The content of your dreams is not a good indicator of whether or not you suffer from sleep apnea.

Can People with Sleep Apnea Remember Their Dreams?

One interesting correlation that researchers have discovered is that while the content of dreams appears to be unrelated to obstructive sleep apnea, the ability to remember certain kinds of dreams can be impacted by the patient’s AHI score.

In a 2010 study, researchers looked at the frequency of dream recall in general, and specifically nightmare recall, among patients at a sleep lab.   While they found no effects on general dream recall, patients with higher AHI scores had more trouble recalling nightmares.   The researchers theorized that this is because nightmares occur most often in the REMS stage of REM sleep, and this is the same stage of REM sleep most disrupted by OSA. 

So, while specific types of nightmares may not point to OSA, never having any nightmares at all MIGHT be a reason to ask about a sleep evaluation.