Diving into the meaning of your dreams might help you learn more about your life while awake. Consider this your starter pack for decoding it all.
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Be it a traumatic childhood nightmare you can't forget, a recurring dream about your teeth falling out, or a joyful, magical adventure you could only, well, dream about making a reality, the movies that play in our brains while we sleep are basically our body's way of "trying to teach us something or inspire us. In the dream state, you're able to make connections that when you're awake, logic and reason might stop you and say, 'that's impossible,'" explains Theresa Cheung, a United Kingdom-based dream expert and author of the brand-new book How to Catch a Dream (and dozens of other best-selling dream-related tomes).

But if we take time to reflect on and potentially learn from these sleep stories, we might be able to realize something is off-kilter, in need of more focus or even ready to be invented during our waking hours.

Cheung points to Stephen King ("an incredible source of creativity") as an example. He reportedly writes down his dreams, and many of his books are believed to have been inspired by a vision in a dream. The movie Inception was the result of director Christopher Nolan's dream. Google was inspired by Larry Page's dream.

"During his waking conscious state, it seemed impossible. While dreaming, your ego goes away, and glorious things can happen then," Cheung says.

But it's not just creativity that shows up in our dreams, she adds. Our mental and physical health can play a starring role, too—but it might not be overt.

"Every night when we fall asleep, we have a free therapist working quietly on our behalf. You have to learn your personal symbols and associations. Dreams speak the language of symbols, puns, metaphors and figurative associations," Cheung says. "A dream is basically a poem or a work of art with meanings for you to decode."

Read on to discover more about what you can learn from your dreams, plus the clues they might give you about your well-being.

How to Translate Your Dreams

To learn from our dreams, we can't just live them as we snooze and then go on about our lives as usual. It's important to reflect upon your dreams, even just briefly, to try to make connections and notice patterns.

"You have to associate and brainstorm until you get that moment of illumination of what this relates to. Your dreaming mind is trying to encourage you to rely on your gut instinct to tell you what you need to know for your personal growth. When we're awake, many of us look to other people, things outside of ourselves. Spend time reflecting on your dreams—the more you do, the more you realize patterns of foods, people, symbols. Dream decoding is about being confident in your own ability to know what's right for you," Cheung says.

Take these steps to reflect on your dreams:

  1. Immediately after you notice that you're awake, lie still for 90 seconds and don't open your eyes—"you'll jettison to reality and start to forget," Cheung says.
  2. Spend those 90 seconds asking your dreams to reveal themselves from last night.
  3. Open your eyes, and on the left page of a notebook, take 60 more seconds to write down keywords or draw these tidbits you remember.
  4. Before bed, journal briefly about your waking hours that day on the right page of the same notebook.

"When you have time each weekend, look at your dream journal. Sit down and relax and try to decode. What might be related to your waking and dreaming life? Keeping one side of the journal for your waking life and the other side for your dreaming life offers a holistic version of who you really are," Cheung says, and may reveal some potential links between the two. "The dreams reveal what lies beneath, which can be ugly. This is nothing to fear. It's what you do with that negative impulse—just like in waking life. Dreams are our built-in therapists."

Decoding 7 Common Dreams About Health and Nutrition

So what might these common dreams mean, especially if they're related to food or wellness?

You see food in the dream but aren't eating it—or it tastes terrible or makes you sick when you do eat

The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung believed the food item is a symbol of something you're lacking or need in your life, Cheung says.

"Ask yourself, 'What do I need to enhance my life? Is something malnourished? Even just seeing food if you're not eating it is a sign that you might not be taking in enough of something during your current life," she explains.

This could be a sign of physical hunger, true. But dreams are usually symbolic, Cheung adds.

"Food is essential for survival and is familiar, so it's no surprise that your dreaming mind uses this as a symbol to speak to you. Dreams where you're denying yourself food or it tastes bad may mean that you're denying yourself something and are undernourished in some way," she says.

If you're on a diet in the dream, you might be denying one of your important needs, and food poisoning may hint that you're cultivating toxic ideas, thoughts, friends or habits (that you're better off distancing yourself from).

You dream of eating something specific

"Every item of food carries with it a potent meaning," Cheung says.

It's very common that the food you eat and enjoy will make a starring appearance in your dream. Even if you don't commonly consume them, Cheung has found a few foods to be popular in dreams, such as:

  • Cookies, cake or candy: Symbolizes that you may be focusing on something too much that's trivial.
  • Fruit: Symbolizes that you're using your talents for personal growth and/or are getting the essentials that you need to level-up.
  • Meat: Symbolizes that your basics are covered and that you're feeling nourished.

You dream about your teeth falling out

"Maybe check in with your dentist, just in case," Cheung laughs. "But teeth are usually about communication."

Have you said something recently that you regret, wish you could revisit or redo? Or are you biting your tongue and not saying something you would like to clear up?

Teeth falling out may also be linked to some emotion around your appearance, aging or a fear of change.

Most frequently, it's about that change. Cheung says, "Your dreaming mind is saying change is coming—focus on the positive, change is good," just like a child losing baby teeth is a sign of normal growth and development.

Your dream involves a heart attack or cancer

"A small percentage of dreams are precognitive, or predict our poor health; humans are incredible and mysterious. But that's extremely rare," Cheung says.

The most common interpretation of disease dreams is that something in your life needs to be released, may feel like it is poisoning you or is dragging you down. For instance, cancer might indicate that something is "killing" your feelings of joy and creativity.

If you notice any sort of disease-related dream (and are up-to-date on regular checkups and have a clean bill of health!), Cheung says, "Try to pay attention to self-care and your state of mind. This may be a red flag to deal with a waking issue, then you shouldn't have those disease dreams again."

You're running (or trying to but can't)

Any motion in a dream is a clear symbol of your current direction in life and where you're heading. Are you running effortlessly, tripping or running before you can walk? Each of these can refer to the progress you feel like you are (or aren't) making.

"If you're wading through mud, you don't feel like you're moving along at your desired pace. Your current direction is not helpful. You need to make a shift in your waking life," Cheung says.

You're cooking or dining

Take a look at the scenery: Do you recall eating with others or alone? This may be linked to a need for independence or community.

If you're cooking or serving food to others, consider what you are giving to others while you're awake—and if it might be a little too generous.

And if you sample the recipe and notice it's tasteless, "self-care might be a concern. Your dreams are trying to tell you to love yourself," Cheung says.

You have a nightmare about a serious injury, death or something else very scary

If you find yourself waking up in a head-to-toe sweat after having nightmares night after night, this is likely a sign of high stress and drama that you're experiencing when you're alert, Cheung explains.

It need not be bad, though. Occasional nightmares can be "transformative gifts," she says. Our brain is using vivid, terrifying images because it wants us to remember them so we can translate what is happening.

"Your dreaming mind just wants you to notice it, much like a texting friend you've been ignoring," Cheung says.

The Bottom Line

If you don't remember your dreams, you could be not getting enough quality REM sleep; the phase of sleep that is so deep that your brain experiences vivid dreams, Cheung believes.

"Dream recall is a sign of holistic well-being and of good mental function. But don't immediately panic if you're not recalling your dreams—we all go through periods when we don't," she confirms. "Long-term, however, look into self-care. Perhaps there's some aspect of life that you might benefit from looking into: Stimulate your mind, give yourself what you need emotionally and take care of yourself physically."

And if you struggle with insomnia or have some other sleep disorder, seek treatment from a sleep specialist "so you don't miss all the images dancing behind your rested eyes," Cheung says, and so you can experience all of these very real health benefits of getting enough sleep.