Disrupted sleep, nightmares could be linked to autoimmune diseases, experts say

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Those who experience vivid nightmares and odd hallucinations might have an underlying autoimmune disease, a new study suggests.

An international research team led by scientists at the University of Cambridge and King’s College London explored the potential link between nightmares and hallucinations and systemic autoimmune rheumatic diseases. 

The study, published in March 2024 in the journal eClinicalMedicine, included 676 people with lupus and 400 people from the medical field, as well as interviews with 69 people living with systemic autoimmune rheumatic diseases, SWNS reported. 

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Those with autoimmune diseases were asked about the timing of their neurological and mental health symptoms, such as disrupted sleep, hallucinations, depression and loss of balance. 

Of the 29 symptoms listed, the participants were asked to rank such symptoms in the order in which they occurred relative to their disease flare-ups.

Desperate girl suffering insomnia

The study looked at not only the issues surrounding sleep, but also when the issues for participants began.  (iStock)

The study found that three in five people experienced “vivid” and “distressing” nightmares that involved being trapped, attacked or falling — resulting in disrupted sleep.

One-third of those immune-compromised participants said they noticed the trend over a year before their lupus onset. 

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Lupus is defined as “a disease that occurs when your body’s immune system attacks your own tissues and organs,” according to the Mayo Clinic. 

One in four participants stated that they noticed hallucinations — although 85% said they didn’t experience the symptoms until the disease onset or later. 

Stuggling to sleep

The study linked patients with an autoimmune disease, such as lupus, to disrupted sleep — including nightmares.  (iStock)

Three in five people with lupus and one in three with other rheumatology-related conditions said they noticed an uptick in sleep disruptions just before their hallucinations would begin, according to SWNS. 

The lead author of the study, Dr. Melanie Sloan of the University of Cambridge, noted in the study that in many cases, patients and doctors will not discuss mental health or neurological symptoms in relation to these diseases.

Three in five people with lupus noticed an uptick in sleep disruptions just before their hallucinations began.

“It’s important that clinicians talk to their patients about these types of symptoms and spend time writing down each patient’s individual progression of symptoms,” she said. 

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Misdiagnosis was also mentioned in the study, as some participants said lupus and other autoimmune diseases were overlooked at first, SWNS reported. 

For example, a participant from Scotland was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder at age 18 before being diagnosed with lupus at 19.

Woman trying to sleep

The study found that three in five people experienced disrupted sleep with “vivid” and “distressing” nightmares that involved being trapped, attacked or falling.  (iStock)

“It was all very close together,” the participant said — noting that it was just a six-month period between “when my borderline personality disorder got under control and my lupus got under control,” SWNS said. 

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Dr. Raj Dasgupta, a California-based chief medical adviser for Sleepopolis, was not involved in the study but shared reaction to the findings with Fox News Digital. 

Dasgupta, who is quadruple-board certified in pulmonary, sleep, internal and critical care medicine, said the study supports the perspective that a “high prevalence of neuropsychiatric symptoms, such as headaches, mood and fatigue” are commonly linked to patients with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). 

Dr. Raj Dasgupta profile

Dr. Raj Dasgupta, pictured, said that sleep issues among patients with SLE need to be discussed in order for people to achieve a better quality of life.  (Sleepoplis)

SLE is a “chronic disease that can affect any organ, including the nervous system,” Dasgupta noted.

“This study also supports the fact that patients with SLE are subject to complications of its treatment, including steroid-related psychosis,” he added.

Misdiagnosis was also mentioned in the study. 

Sleep issues are common in people with SLE, said Dasgupta, with over half of patients experiencing restlessness, poor sleep quality and difficulty falling asleep. 

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“These issues can be caused by pain, medication effects and the disease’s impact on the brain,” he said. 

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Fox News Digital reached out to the eClinicalMedicine journal for further information. 

Sleepoplis consists of a team of writers, product reviewers and sleep experts who provide reviews and sleep health content, per the company’s website. 

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