Tracking dreams and nightmares

Does sleep tea work?

As a semi-lucid dreamer, dreaming has always been a bit part of my life. A rather sudden and weird change happened to me in terms of dream activity, so I’ve been recording my occurrences of nightmares for the last two months.

Earlier this year I went overseas for a break off study. In a strange new continent. Alone. Trying to find myself, discover how I really feel and what I truly believe. Meeting strange people, eating strange food, observing and experiencing strange ways of life. English speakers not always being available. I had only 3 nightmares during those 70+ days.

I came home to having nightmares every other night. At first, the most twisted nightmares I’ve ever had; ones that are not safe to share or remember. I was confident and ready to confront my problems instead of trying to hide from them. Were these nightmares just out of stress, adjustment, or was my subconscious trying to tell me something? Perhaps it was just the nine hours of jet lag and my body complaining about it. Actually, I do know of one major influence: that house triggered my tinnitus. (In fact, I could almost reasonably blame my having tinnitus on living in that house.)

My friend recommended I try sleep tea to reduce nightmares. I bought sleep tea with chamomile and peppermint. Sleep tea is not only meant to make you sleep better, it’s meant to calm you and relieve stress in a manner that one might imagine conducive to suppressing possible nightmares. Whether it was effective or I was simply benefiting from the placebo effect (which is not a bad thing either), I felt like it made a big difference. I tended to wake up too early due to jet lag but sleep tea was able to keep me knocked out sometimes. I set out to prove or disprove the effectiveness of sleep tea on suppressing my nightmares: using statistics.

Two months data

  • I had at least 19 nights with nightmares and up to 41 nights without nightmares. I only tested sleep tea on 8 of these nights for various reasons such as not wanting to wake up late and not finding nightmares to be a tangible disturbance to my mental health except with regard to sleep quality.
  • My average recall of nightmares probably lies somewhere between 40% and 99%. The number of recorded nights with nightmares is therefore an underestimate and the nightmare-less nights is an overestimate.
  • It is easier for me to remember whether I had a nightmare than how many distinct nightmares I had on the previous night. In any case, I had more than 40 nightmares over these 60 days.
  • I encountered new forms of nightmares so it sometimes became difficult to distinguish what was a nightmare and what was just an unpleasant dream.
  • A nightmare is also known as a “bad dream,” but I generally don’t consider dreams that are both good and bad or just mediocre to be a nightmare unless the bad part is disturbing enough that it wakes me up.
  • I did not track dreams, but I certainly had dreams (including nightmares) on the majority of nights.

Results

The experiment failed; I’m pulling the plug. Temporal factors were too significant. The assumptions of probability might have been reasonable for an earlier period of the experiment, but are no longer reasonable. I “lost” (overcame?) my reliable “source” of nightmares. I also don’t have enough data for nights where I drink sleep tea, but even if I did, the results would be skewed in favor of the hypothesis that drinking sleep tea makes a huge difference, when in reality it is most likely the result of other interfering factors too.

Discussion

It would have been an interesting experiment, and I’ll admit it: I just wanted to do it cause I find applying statistics fun sometimes. I wanted to compute a 90% confidence interval for the minimum percentage of dreams supposedly being suppressed as a consequence of drinking sleep tea. But my results are now incredibly biased. The frequency of my nightmares has decreased significantly, and I don’t need statistics to confirm this. For one thing, I moved out of the house, started flatting for the first time in my life, and have been constantly challenging myself to face my problems. Unfortunately for my craving of practical applications of statistics…

Wrapping up the social distance experiment

Quite a success, I’d say.

In response to a particularly rough week in terms of handling emotions, this past week I’ve engaged in an experiment where I’ve tried to reduce interactions that cause unnecessary emotions. I tried to: not initiate contact with friends, abstain from using empathy around people, stop feeling the need to explain myself, and avoid making new acquaintances. Maybe most importantly, I decided to practice being selfish in the way I view friends.

Actually, I violated the terms of the experiment many times. The good thing is that it was always in the back of my mind, my behavior was more conservative, and I simply acknowledged the times when I really wanted to break the rules. I never expected to follow it to a tee, knowing that in the end awareness is the key.

The experiment was successful in that sense. In fact, I made a very significant breakthrough that has been holding me back in forming deeper connections with my existing friends. The specifics do not matter, but my assumptions from one long-term friendship of questionable value was holding me back from all my other friendships. The context of my experiment finally allowed me to recognize and acknowledge my fundamental dissatisfaction in that friendship—which is a feeling that I had been failing to process from a logical and practical point of view for quite some time.

When a long-standing assumption or branch of logic is collapsed in its entirety (in the INTP mind), it often triggers a whole series of re-evaluations and further chains of propagation. There is a sudden clarity to me about the kind of social interactions I desire, and what I think of as high quality interactions. In the past it wasn’t easy to acknowledge desire (for fear of disappointment or rebuke), but even if I’m past that it’s still not always easy to know what you want after neglecting and being out of touch with your own needs for most of your life.

Naturally, my emotions have also been more grounded this past week. I certainly haven’t been avoiding emotions; rather, I’ve given them adequate space while making sure they don’t cause a mess by interacting with each other too much. Gosh, it sounds like I’m raising emotions like a caregiver or something.

Self-reflection; a cause for experiment

“I care about you but I don’t give a shit what you think about me.”

The past week has been an emotional whirlwind. I guess out of naivety more than anything, I ended up testing the idea of being yourself, allowing your vulnerabilities to be seen by others and owning it. Although I learned a lot in the aftermath of being judged online and trying to decipher constructive criticism from veiled superiority, it was definitely not an experience I would like to repeat. I’m able to dismiss abuse and horrible labels, but the cases where semi-intelligible criticisms turn out to primarily serve the ego of the advice giver, these do kind of get to me because it takes being open to vulnerability to sincerely evaluate these messages, only to discover inauthenticity in a more refined state.

Although this poor experience, especially in an online environment, does not represent what may happen in real life interactions, I don’t think further testing is necessary. INTPs are born by nature to be disliked by the greater good, and that is separate from whether we should choose to serve it. It’s down to the way we think, no matter how normal we can learn to act on the outside. It cannot be inauthentic to distance yourself from people in general if that is required to maintain your own well-being. This is a lesson that has taken me a year to figure out for myself. It will take a while yet to become more comfortable with it too.

In Europe, I re-discovered a huge part of myself that has not seen light of day since I was a small kid. It felt like I opened Pandora’s box; if there was an INTP version then Pandora’s box probably contains emotions and feelings. This is not the first time I’ve opened such a box, but boy, I certainly didn’t expect to find a second. In fact, it kind of ruined many of my plans. I half-expected everything I learned in Europe to stay put, but that didn’t happen. On returning home it was a collision of two worlds—mostly peaceful—but I still have to figure out how to sort this mess and clear out what end up classifying as garbage.

A key difference between traveling and normal life is that when traveling you’ll meet and interact with people that you’ll never see again. In a way, the consequences of how you treat these people are irrelevant to you because they’re externalized, whereas at home it’s a small world and your actions may come to affect you and others with observable long-term effects. The idea that you can do whatever you want in another country with people you’ll never see again, that actually makes me feel more safe about expressing kindness, whether or not it is appreciated. Not being around to see the repercussions is good, because I don’t grow attached (and I don’t have the ability to care).

Unfortunately, arriving home, realizing and coming to terms with the fact that I still have friends from the trip—people who I have grown to care about—is rough. When people get to know a certain part of me, I care too much. I’m too emotionally sensitive. And this contrasts greatly with my logical side, which craves a bit more sanity in everyday life. It’s hard for me to maintain a healthy middle ground, and while switching between the two is possible, it’s still chaotic.

Friends are resources that you invest in for long-term benefits. That’s how most people seem to behave, and I should do well to learn that. The whole feelings and attachment thing is counterproductive and just gets in the way. No one feels the same way I do, and no one appreciates it, not even me. It’s a lose-lose thing.

I’ve learned a lot about this week about my state of progress. This new sense of emotional awareness is dangerous. The effort I’ve put into developing my emotional maturity has made a difference, but all the same the things I have to deal with now have escalated beyond my current capabilities. Human interaction affects my mood. My mood affects my emotions and feelings. Strong feelings get overwhelming and distract me from things that matter more. If I can’t process all these feelings, the logical solution is to limit the source, which really comes down to human interaction.

I need to be more selfish. I need to stop caring so much. I need to realize that what people think of me, especially my friends, is irrelevant. People and friends are just resources, nothing more and nothing less. It is extremely difficult for me to adopt such a mantra, and yet I feel like it’s the healthy thing to do.

I care about you but I don’t give a shit what you think about me.

But to really test my theory, over the next week, I will: not initiate contact with friends, abstain from using empathy around people, stop feeling the need to explain myself, and avoid making new acquaintances. The outcome of the experiment does not even matter so much as the distance I’m trying to create and the audacity of continuing to take risks for the benefit of learning, even if it only makes sense to myself.

 

Dark chocolate diet and appetite suppression

None of this is sound advice. It’s a mix of opinion, speculation, and research. A personal experiment.

I consumed copious amounts of chocolate during my trip in Europe. Nesquik for a hot drink when I had a cold. Hot chocolate before I started trying coffee. A surprising number of chocolate flavored items in Romanian supermarkets. Dark chocolate as one of the core safe foods when I caught traveler’s diarrhea. Also, I brought ten blocks of NZ chocolate to give to strangers throughout my trip, and I was paranoid enough to check that they didn’t go bad…

Motivation for diet

I’ll leave out pages and pages of TMI and condense it down to two main things:

  1. I’m a “skinny fat” person and that’s even unhealthier than being just fat. If you’ve never heard of the term skinny fat, it might be worth looking into. Anyway, I don’t want to make this any worse while I haven’t established a consistent exercise routine.
  2. Regardless of my weight or fitness, I genuinely eat too much. I literally just want to eat less overall and think less about eating and be more resistant to hunger. I’m still a student right now, and you don’t need science to verify that thinking hard can increase your consumption in unnecessary ways. (See Why does studying make me hungry.) I can eat up to 50% more than normal on a thinking day, with the worst activity being competitive programming training. (Thankfully I’m mostly retired now.)

There are a lot of other factors that have prompted a change in my diet, but I’ll save that for other posts. This one is mostly about the dark chocolate aspect.

Why appetite suppression rather than calorie counting?

Nutritional information is really a mess these days, and it can be hard to know what to believe. The following is just my personal opinion at this stage, and maybe I’ll be proven wrong one day when I learn more.

Calorie counting. Calorie counting is a conventional method of losing weight that I’ve never tried. I think that it is sound, but there’s one big flaw to it.

One does not simply count their calories and stick to their calorie budget… unless they can, of course.

This sounds stupid with the whole tautology, but I genuinely believe that calorie counting only works if you are lucky enough to be capable of it. That is to say, calorie counting might not just be an inconvenience to your lifestyle, but it also may not be inherently possible for all individuals to sustain in the long term.

At this point, I’m just stubborn and I prefer to believe that you can have a healthy diet while eating as much as you want whenever you want. However, there are multiple lines of reasoning why calorie counting is not for everyone.

Your brain and appetite doesn’t run on calories. Try this TED talk. It’s very brief and only gives a small part of the bigger picture. I’m skeptical of some of it, but I think it’s still relevant.

If you don’t want to watch it, this is my own opinion (not a true summary) on the most salient points:

  1. The hypothalamus has a setpoint for controlling your hungry and regulating your body weight. Dieting doesn’t always change the setpoint. So if you lose a lot of weight on a temporary diet, then stop the diet, you may well just end up gaining it all back because your brain’s setpoint never changed. It’s not really clear what one can do to permanently change the brain’s calibration for your body.
  2. Eat when you’re hungry, and stop when you’re not. Practicing this simple mindfulness can prevent unnecessary eating and weight gain.

 

I do think the setpoint idea may be accurate. I have had two very obvious experiences where my appetite changed significantly due to environmental conditions, and it did seem like my setpoint suddenly shifted in response.

Calories are not equal. A common criticism of calorie counting is that it doesn’t respect the ratio of consumption of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, each of which play significantly different roles in your diet. I’m not confident enough to say much more than that I definitely believe these three sources are not equal both for your appetite and how your body reacts.

Paleo diets, other high fat diets, and ‘eat as much as you want’ diets. The basic idea that affords eating as much as you want is that you should naturally feel full when you’ve eaten enough. Instead of relying on willpower to restrict your calories, the right choice of foods can do that for you naturally. You want foods that are both nutritious and make you feel full. A lot of ‘modern’ and processed food increases your appetite instead, so you’ll want to cut down on those.

You’re not getting fat because you’re eating more, you’re eating more because you’re getting fat. I found this quote hilarious. Again, take this video with a grain of salt. It’s based on “Good Calories, Bad Calories,” which is another book about the increasingly popular topic of whether eating less fat is actually scientifically sound advice for people who are overweight. The Paleo diet and whether the low fat idea we’ve been taught for decades is actually harmful for us are both very controversial topics right now.

My opinion/rant. I believe that every body is unique and you should find what works for you, whether or not there is “science” to back it up. With an engineering and research background and a philosophical interest in biology, I definitely believe that modern science as we hear about it is extremely dodgy and easily mis-quotable when it comes to nutrition and lifestyle. Most peer review science isn’t any more reliable than personal anecdotes. In fact, unless you believe that your body reacts the same way as everyone else’s, then science by its definition is not the place to look for answers. Modern science is extremely young, easily corrupted by conflicting interests, and most of what we thought we knew about human health in the 20th century will probably be proven wrong one day. Listen to your body. My body says that my previous food sources didn’t really work for me.

Dark chocolate for appetite suppression

I’m no expert, and the truth is, I’m not even claiming that this works. It’s an ongoing experiment. What I do know is that I ate tons of chocolate and that something about my eating and exercise habits on my trip severely reduced my usual food intake. My sudden spike in chocolate consumption was one of the possible factors. It turns out I lost a little bit of weight while believing the whole time that what I was eating was extremely unhealthy until I started doing some research on nutrition lately.

The facts, as far as I’m aware:

  1. Cacao beans and raw cacao are known to act as a natural appetite suppressant.
  2. Cacao has a bitter taste.
  3. The flavonoid content in cacao is responsible for the antioxidant and appetite suppression properties. Most of it is flavanols, and the bitter taste also primarily comes from the flavanols.
  4. Consuming raw cacao (such as in the form of a chocolate drink) is a known weight loss method.
  5. Other than appetite suppression, cacao is generally considered a nutritious health food with several other benefits and relatively few side effects. However, cacao is very powerful and should not be consumed in excessive quantities.
  6. Cocoa powder and cocao powder are nutritionally different. Cacao is better for you. Unlike cocoa powder, cacao is processed at under 47 °C so it retains more of its nutrients and antioxidants from its cocoa bean form.
  7. To clarify, cocoa and cacao are different, but cocoa beans and cacao beans are the same thing.
  8. Dark chocolate is made from cocoa mass and cocoa butter (both of which come from processing of cocoa) and sugar. What you get from dark chocolate is therefore the reduced benefits of cocoa, not cacao. If you add milk powder to the above mix, you get milk chocolate.
  9. Dark chocolate and cocoa still function as appetite suppressants to a lesser extent than cacao. But dark chocolate tends to be more accessible in my opinion.
  10. Multiple sources suggest that dairy can inhibit the body’s absorption of phytonutrients, which applies to the antioxidants in cocoa and cacao. In other words, if you consume milk chocolate or drink milk in the same meal as cacao, you’re losing out on some of the nutritional value of the cocoa/cacao. Unfortunately, dark chocolate generally may contain traces of milk chocolate due to the processing conditions.
  11. As consumers, we have very limited information about how different dark chocolate products are made. Cacao beans are not all equal, so dark chocolate is not all equal either. But in the absence of information beyond product labels and the manufacturer website, the two main tools are the % cocoa listed and the bitterness of the taste. Higher % cocoa is generally better, such as in the range 65% to 100%.
  12. The taste can vary significantly between products with similar % cocoa. The most bitter is probably the best, because it means it either has more cocoa content or it is the least processed in the sense of best preserving the flavonoid content. Dark chocolate may be sweetened, but generally not made more bitter, so the bitterness test is arguably more reliable and more important than % cocoa content, as long as it’s more than 65%. Avoid dark chocolate that isn’t bitter.
  13. In my opinion, bitter chocolate being less addictive is also a valid consideration.
  14. Exposure to bitter taste triggers a temporary reduction of appetite in its own right. Allegedly, the mere smell of dark chocolate also has an observable effect.
  15. Note that a chocolate block may have the word cacao on the front and yet not have cacao as an ingredient, but cocoa instead, specifically cocoa mass and cocoa butter. It’s probably allowed because they’re very vaguely referring to the cacao tree/plant. In fact, you can basically assume that dark chocolate will always be made from cocoa not cacao, unless you’re hunting for a rare specialty dark chocolate, if such a thing even exists. Cacao-based chocolate might be used in some research studies, but it’s not anything commercially available.

Summary

The strongest benefits that health studies might talk about are from cacao, which you don’t get in dark chocolate. Dark chocolate is still a valid appetite suppressant, but it has reduced benefits, it’s not as healthy, and there’s no easy way to check if the dark chocolate you’re buying is really good for the job. In other words, a dark chocolate diet is kind of experimental, and there doesn’t seem to be much reliable first-hand evidence of whether it works. (The cacao weight loss diet on the other hand actually has an established reputation.) It’s far easier to write a people-pleasing page citing vague expected benefits of dark chocolate just because everyone else is on the media bandwagon than to actually test it out personally.

My experiment

Experimenting with your own body often isn’t scientific and it doesn’t have to be. I’ll be eating as much dark chocolate as I want for the next few months, nominally about one block per week, and monitoring my weight. There are numerous other diet changes I’ve started, but there’s no point in having a control. I should reiterate that I’m not trying to lose weight at this stage. I just want to see what happens with the new foods I’m relying on. The rest of my diet is also eat as much as I feel I want to. I should repeat that I suspect the choice of dark chocolate product can make a big difference. Two weeks in, I’ve already ruled out one as not being bitter enough and kind of addictive.