To sleep, perchance to have hormonally fueled bad dreams

Do women's menstrual cycles make them more likely to have nightmares?

Published September 11, 2008 5:05PM (EDT)

A few nights ago I woke up at about 3 a.m., got out of bed and asked my fiancé -- in a firm and matter-of-fact voice -- if he would please give me my steering wheel. ("You want me to give you your what?" he asked, as I tottered around the room. "My steering wheel," I repeated, in a condescending tone of voice. "Please give it to me." What about this request wasn't clear?)

Inexplicable desires to sleep next to car parts might not qualify as nightmares per se, but I was reminded of my late-night requests by this article in the Daily Mail that claims that women have nightmares more frequently than men do -- and remember them better when they wake up.

In a study of 170 volunteers, British researchers found that when asked to report their most recent dream, 30 percent of the women reported having a nightmare, versus 19 percent of the men. Researchers also found that women's dreams were "more emotional" (whatever that means).

Their hypothesis? That fluctuations in women's body temperatures -- which are related to menstrual cycles -- affect the patterns of their dreams. More specifically, according to the Mail, women's core body temperatures typically rise halfway through their cycle (at ovulation) and fall again just before their period starts. Dr. Jennie Parker, who conducted the study, told the Mail that "women who are premenstrual tend to dream more aggressively, and they are also more likely to remember their dreams."

Critics of the theory suggest that women don't have more nightmares than men -- we're just better at remembering them. And, alternatively, it could just come down to a stereotypical truth: "Women always remember dreams more than men," said Dr. Chris Idikowski, director of the Edinburgh Sleep Center. "They end up talking more about their mental life more than men so there's more ability to remember."

I'm not sure which of these theories is most plausible (probably some combination of the three), but I did find it interesting that Parker identified three main categories of nightmares: being chased or hunted, losing a parent, child or spouse, and being thrown into a weird, new environment for which you're unprepared. And, of course, the underreported fourth category of nightmares: predawn cravings for steering wheels.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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