All blog posts from Dr. Allott are provided for educational and informational purposes only. As Dr. Allott is also a licensed medical practitioner, we must make it clear that nothing on the blog is intended to constitute medical advice, consultation, recommendation, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are concerned about your health, please seek appropriate care in your area.


Fuel for Thoughts: Preventing Night Terrors

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For years, I had a consistent dream of a bear chasing me. I would wake with my heart racing. I didn’t want to go back to sleep for fear of the bear returning.

How do I fix a problem when I am not even conscious for the event? I started to look for patterns.

I noticed that when I went out with friends and had a drink with dinner, the bear would predictably visit. I noticed that when I had a late dinner with lots of protein and no alcohol, the bear was absent. I moved into a new apartment in the summer and it was hot, so I left the bedroom door open for a cross breeze. No bear. It cooled down and I closed the bedroom door while I slept…bear. Open door, less likely bear. I started a list of what seemed to make a difference. Open door, protein at night, limit alcohol at night: the bear dream was more manageable.

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I started seeing a therapist to address some anxiety about being dyslexic and in medical school. When my therapist showed me how turn into my anxiety instead of trying to ignore it or avoid it, my dream changed. One night, instead of running from the bear, I turned to face it and said “What?!” The bear just stopped and sat down in front of me. I had a sense that I had found a new best friend. Now, I can trust my anxiety to tell me when something is off, and I can look with curiosity until I understand my discomfort.

Later as I started to study the physiology of mental health and how the brain works, I could see why my observations helped. Not getting random hits of adrenaline due to dropping blood glucose from alcohol or not eating protein is helpful.

We all have ancient brains that will scan our environment for safety and make sure we are not being approach by lions (or bears). We all need to figure out what our bodies and brains need to feel safe., especially while asleep.  Nightmares and night waking are a chance to listen deeply for what we need, observe our patterns, and do experiments to learn more about what the body and brain need. Please read the Short Cuts post for more ideas about how to improve sleep. 

Short Cuts for Improving Sleep

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There is a spectrum of sleep disturbances that can affect us: such as nightmares, anxiety dreams, sleep terrors, fitful sleeping, awake in the early morning for two hours (“3AM Committee Meetings"). If you suffer from having your brain wake you up or sleep through horrible stories, you may have tried various prescription medications only to find that maybe you don’t remember not sleeping well but still feel tired and groggy.

I suggest trying an experiment to prevent hypoglycemia and keep you brain oriented to the safety of today. This might help you reduce your medications or prevent the use of medications.

Let’s create check list of things that are likely to decrease sleep disturbances:

  • Go to bed at about the same time every night and wake at about the same time every morning.
  • Sleep in a relatively quiet space
  • Sleep in relative darkness
  • Turn off screens one hour before bed
  • Have any alcohol and dessert shortly after dinner, not on its own away from a meal
  • Have a consistent ritual to indicate that it is time for sleep (drink a cup of herbal tea, take a bath, read a book, play a game of cards…whatever works for you).
  • Remove screens from the bed room; alarm clocks can replace smart phones.
  • Rule out sleep apnea at a sleep clinic

If the above list is basically being adhered to and sleep disturbances still occur, try the following experiments:

  1. Eat protein before bed, such as a piece of turkey or a couple spoonful’s of cottage cheese. This will stabilize your blood sugar. One cause of sleep disturbances is dropping blood glucose and the resulting sudden release of adrenaline.
  2. Have a Lizard Brain Treat ready: a ¼ cup of juice and one handful of nuts will often help you get back to sleep within 30 minutes rather than 2 hours. For early morning nightmares, if they are consistent, and you wake to go to the bathroom, have the juice and nuts - this will keep your blood glucose up and prevent an adrenaline release by keeping your brain fueled. Try this for at least 5 to 7 days to see if it works.
  3. Work with a therapist to address how you understand anxiety and any past trauma.
  4. Create cues of safety during sleep. The problem and blessing of sleep is that you are not time oriented. In your brain, the past can be present and the future can be worried about. Historic memories can replay past trauma or only parts of past trauma, such as the emotions, the sounds, or the sensations. Creating a sensory experience that your brain can monitor will help indicate that it is the present moment and safety is being sustained through the night can help. This takes a little internal work to overcome what your “rational brain” will say. I have clients who just keep asking “what do I need to feel safe while sleeping?” Some women have put a lock on their bedroom door even though the house is locked and they have a large dog. One person tied a string to the door of the bedroom and to a vase that would break and wake them up. Sometimes it just helps to take a flat sheet and wrap yourself in a cocoon. Playing sounds of the ocean might help.

Sleep patterns are challenging to change because for the most part our conscious observer mind is asleep and is only receiving partial information. So when deciding to do a sleep experiment be sure to try it for at least 5 to 7 days. If the experiment works, try to be consistent for at least 6 months to rewire the new sleep habit.

Eat to Support Sleep

This month we are discussing how to improve sleep. Eating protein before bed can help with nightmares, night terrors and night waking.

But what kind of protein and how much?

If we look at the Optimizing Brains Chart (page 2), we see that 3 ounces (about the size of a deck of cards) of any kind of meat or fish is about 20 grams of protein, which is roughly what a person can absorb and muscle can use in an hour.

For sleep we may not need that much. I suggest starting with 2 ounces (not quite a deck of cards), or 10-12 grams of meat or fish protein. I usually just have people have meat without anything else.  For vegetarian sources, 2 tablespoons of nut butter, or ½ cup of quinoa or cottage cheese often does the trick.