bedI woke up this morning and thought to myself, “Another night full of weird dreams.”

I have this ongoing problem: My dreams are really, really, really vivid. And weird. And intense. And they go on forever. It’s like I’m living a whole second life. Which can often make me wake up feeling exhausted–despite having just slept a full eight hours.

Since dreaming was on my mind, I was planning to write a bit about dreams and the menstrual cycle today when, lo and behold, I discovered that a new study about dreams has just been published–and may partly explain the reason behind my bizarre nocturnal imagery. And why you get weird dreams, too.

So, before I get into the hormone connection behind dreams, I thought I’d share a bit about the new dream research. If, like me, you get strange dreams, you might find this interesting:

According to a new study in the journal Dreaming, the longer you sleep, the more peculiar your dream content becomes.

The researchers discovered this by rousing 16 sleeping volunteers out of their slumber four times throughout two nights and getting them to record what they were just dreaming.

What they found: Your brain churns out different types of dreams depending on how long you’ve been sleeping.

In the first few hours of unconsciousness, your dreams tend to focus on details you picked up from movies, TV, the newspaper and other media during the day and evening leading up to your bedtime.

As the night goes on, your dream topics switch to events that occurred recently, like going to a meeting, and objects, such as new shoes you bought.

And for those who like to sleep a good seven to eight hours or go for an even longer lie-in to catch up on sleep debt, then your dreams are prone to taking a very odd turn. That’s because your dream content becomes more surreal and emotionally intense–including both positive and negative emotions–the longer you snooze.

Since as a health journalist I’m well aware of the many benefits of clocking enough sleep nightly–it reduces migraine frequency, lowers your risk of heart and stroke by reducing inflammation, sharpens memory, boosts mood, lessens anxiety and revs your metabolism–I stick to a strict eight-hour sleep schedule. Which is good for me, but clearly has this one annoying side effect of making me visit Surreal-land every night as I sleep. Okay, so one mystery solved.

So, what about dreams and your hormones–what, if any, connections are there?

Well, this is a bit of a good news/bad news situation. Let’s get the bad news out of the way first:

A study out of the University of the West of England reveals that women are more likely to have intense and fearful nightmares than men–especially during the second half of your cycle (Week 3 and Week 4).

One theory why: Progesterone triggers a slight spike in body temperature right after ovulation, which may lead brain changes that prompt the scary scenarios.

Want to have more pleasant dreams? Try putting a bowl of potpourri by your bedside (far from curious pets or kids) or spritzing on your favorite perfume or essential oil before bedtime. Research shows that breathing in a pleasant odor as you sleep makes you more likely to have positive dreams.

Now the good news about dreams and your hormones:

During the first half of your cycle–Week 1 and Week 2–you’re more likely to have pleasant dreams and, my favorite, erotic dreams.

In fact, I’ve found only one benefit to my dreams being so intense and vivid: On many occasions, I’ve had such realistic x-rated dreams that I’ve woken up right in the middle of an O. Though my premenstrual nightmares are annoying, I’m definitely not going to complain about the universe throwing me a nocturnal freebie every once in awhile to make up for it.

And now that this new study reveals how to impact the content of your dreams–by simply reading a book, perusing a website, watching a video or having certain experiences leading up to bedtime–I think I’ll work on steering my dream content a bit more. I hear there’s a particularly sweltery bare-chested photo of Ryan Gosling flying around the Internet–and it seems like a pretty good time to go hunt that sucker down….

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