7 Increasingly Common Causes of Nightmares

2011-11-24 | |
Last updated: 2019-10-20

The world of sleep has most likely been afflicted by nightmares since the times of the earliest humans. As far back as 10,000 years ago, our ancient cave dwelling ancestors, in what is now Europe, were painting images of half-human half-wolf creatures. At about the same time, the people of ancient Australia there were depicting images of bat-headed men attacking vulnerable humans. One of the likely sources of such imagery was probably a nightmare.

How Common Is It To Have A Nightmare?

Early in childhood, most people will face their first nightmare and by the time we have become teenagers, many of us will be experiencing nightmares weekly. As we leave our teen years, however, nightmares become less frequent, dropping to be 3 times less common at age 55 as compared to when we were 25. On average, roughly 50% of adults report at least an occasional bad dream while about 7-8% of the population will unfortunately experience nightmares regularly.

Stress And Anxiety Are Well Known Causes of Nightmares

While many of us can expect to experience nightmares occasionally, a number of factors can contribute to frightening, vivid dreams being more frequent. By far, the most common cause is stress and anxiety over issues in our daily lives. If we can learn to manage the stress and anxiety, we will likely be able to eliminate the nightmares. While managing these mental issues is by no means a simple exercise, the cause and effect is reasonably well understood. Most people can relate to stress and anxiety being a cause of nightmares.

What Are The Causes Of Nightmares That Are Less Known?

What we generally know less about are other common factors that can cause us to experience nightmares. Both health issues and medications are among the possible reasons that that our sleep time can become terrifying. This means that if you or a loved one suffers from bad dreams, it is helpful to know the 7 common causes of nightmares. It is also important to be aware that the chances of experiencing nightmares from these various causes is increasing.

1. Nightmares Following Sleeping Pill Withdrawal

One of the causes of more frequent nightmares is as a result of withdrawal from sleep aids containing the ingredient benzodiazepine, an older, but commonly prescribed, medication. With insomnia statistics indicating that roughly 20% of the population suffers from insomnia at any given time, it is not surprising that 3-6% of the population uses sleep aids every single night. Unfortunately, regular use of benzodiazepine leads to dependence on the medication.

As a result, coming off the medication for any reason can lead to withdrawal symptoms in patients and these symptoms can last up to 3 weeks. Called benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome, one of its symptoms is the experience of nightmares. In most cases however, coming off the medication more slowly can eliminate the nightmares. It is simply important to be aware what is causing the nightmares.

2. Melatonin Supplements And Nightmares During Sleep

Directly related to insomnia and the use of sleep aids, melatonin supplements can also result in nightmares. Melatonin is a naturally occurring human hormone that helps to regulate sleep. Supplements of this hormone are derived from plant and animal sources and are often promoted as “more natural” than other sleep aids. In some people and at higher doses, melatonin can cause nightmares.

Since there is no recommended maximum does for melatonin, some people will work on the principle that “more is better” and take the larger doses that can lead to frightening, vivid dreams. Other people will suffer nightmares simply because of their sensitivity to the hormone. In most cases, reducing the dose can prevent the nightmares.

3. Breathing Disturbances And Their Link To Nightmares

Also directly related to sleep, breathing disturbances experienced while sleeping can lead to nightmares. In research by the German Central Institute of Mental Health, researchers found that pauses in breathing while sleeping were associated with more frequently occurring nightmares. Though we might think that the lower blood oxygen levels associated with disturbed breathing are the cause of the nightmares, the researchers found that only the pauses in breathing affected how often nightmares occurred.

What this means is that nightmares may indicate that a person is suffering from sleep apnea, a condition in which breathing pauses during sleep. However, the existence of nightmares is not a perfect predictor by any means. This is because a 2010 study from the University of Chicago found that people with the most severe forms of sleep apnea reported even fewer nightmares than the average person.

4. High Blood Pressure Medications Causing Nightmares

While medications and conditions that directly affect sleep intuitively make sense as causes of nightmares, there are numerous culprits that are less obvious. One such cause of nightmares is from the use of the blood pressure control medications, beta-blockers. This type of medication slows the rate at which the heart pumps to reduce the force experienced by the heart, but is not recommended in many cases because of the numerous side effects.

Despite this, the use of these medications varies globally, and in the UK, for example, beta-blocker prescription increased dramatically between 2000 and 2005. By 2005, 27% of men and 22% of women needing blood pressure medications were taking the drug. This means 4 to 5 times as many people were taking the medication as in 2000 according to the University of London research. As a consequence more people will be experiencing the nightmares that can come with use of the medication.

5. Nightmares Resulting From Cholesterol Drugs

Other nightmare causing medications associated with treating disorders of the cardiovascular system are several in the class of drugs called statins. Statins are used to lower rates of “bad cholesterol” or LDL but some drugs in the group are associated with “significant” sleep problems. Research from the University of California San Diego found the relationship in 2008 research.

For those suffering from nightmares because of these medications, the good news is that there are different statins that do not have the same side effects. At the same time, there are other non-statin medications that can be of value so patients with high cholesterol do have options. This is good because with an aging population and increasing rates of obesity, more people will need options to ensure they can sleep well.

6. Parkinson’s Medication And Nightmares

One last medication to mention that can cause nightmares is a type of drug used to treat Parkinson’s disease. The medication levodopa, which is used to increase levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain, is well known to cause hallucinations and nightmares. With 2 to 4% of people over age 60 affected by the disorder and the number of people in that age bracket expected to double in the next 30 years, a significant number will suffer from nightmares unless other medications are used to treat Parkinson’s disease.

7. Nightmares From Low Blood Sugar Levels

The last condition to mention that can cause nightmares is low blood sugar. While most people with diabetes suffer from high blood sugar, incorrect doses of insulin can result in blood sugar levels going low. This means that for people with diabetes who awaken in the night to a nightmare, it is a good idea to check one’s blood sugar levels. With no end in site to the growing obesity epidemic, more people will be experiencing nightmares and will benefit in knowing why they are happening.

In related research regarding diabetes, obesity and nightmares, Harvard Medical School researchers found increased numbers of nightmares amongst patients who had undergone bariatric surgery to reduce weight. What the researchers found was that the pancreas in these patients had increased its insulin-producing ability to compensate for insulin resistance from excessive weight. This, in turn, led to low blood sugar levels and the subsequent nightmares.


While most of us are aware that stress and anxiety can lead to troubled sleep and nightmares, these are not the only causes. In fact, numerous medications and health conditions can result in us experiencing nightmares. As a result, being aware that there are many causes of frightening dreams is important because it can help lead us to discover the underlying medical conditions that are causing our nightmares.

Related Links


Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Category: Disease Prevention, General Health, Health Risks, Symptom Information

Comments are closed.