Can Food Really Give You Nightmares?
We’ve all heard of cheese dreams, but which foods have been proven to influence nightmares when we sleep?
In the spirit of Halloween (pun intended) we want to explore how some food products can help influence what we see when we sleep. Many people associate the consumption of cheese and chocolate before bed with inevitable nightmares. While it may seem unrealistic, there is some scientific evidence to suggest that yes, some foods can cause us to experience nightmares.
What is a nightmare?
Some people may never have experienced a nightmare, however, they are generally recognised as ‘scary’ dreams. There is, however, a little more to it than that. According to Psychology Today:
“Nightmares are lengthy, elaborate dreams with imagery that evokes fear, anxiety, or sadness. The dreamer may wake up to avoid the perceived danger. Nightmares can be remembered upon awakening and may lead to difficulties returning to sleep or even cause daytime distress. Isolated nightmares are normal, but when dreams that bring extreme terror or anxiety recur often they can become a debilitating sleep disorder.”
This can happen in both adults and children and is quite common, especially in the wake of traumatic experiences or similar. If you or somebody you know does suffer from regular and especially intense nightmares, we would always recommend you consult a doctor as this could be a sign of an underlying health problem.
Nightmares happen during the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep. They occur very late in our sleeping phase and can often be vivid enough to cause us to wake up. According to Psychology Today:
“Most nightmares are a normal reaction to stress, and some clinicians believe they help people work through traumatic events. Frequent occurrence of nightmares, however, becomes a disorder when it impairs social, occupational, and other important areas of functioning. Some scientists believe dreams are the cortex’s attempt to find meaning in the random signals received during REM sleep. One theory suggests that, in trying to organize and interpret these signals, the cortex creates a ‘story’ out of fragmented brain activity.”
As I said, nightmares are complicated, they are the result of very complex interactions that occur within the brain during certain phases of sleep. It just so happens that these complex interactions could be influenced by the foods we eat.
What foods can influence my dreams?
Research points towards foods that are high in sugar, starchy, spicy and high meat content as foods that could trigger nightmares, as well as the well-documented dairy culprit. According to Healthline, in 2015 a study carried out by Professor Tore Nielsen found that around 18% of participants (a sample of 400 participants) reported that their dreams had been influenced by the intake of certain foods.
By breaking down the research, Nielsen concludes the following:
43.8% of participants who consumed dairy products before sleep reported disturbing dreams, 38.5% reported bizarre dreams.
12.5% of participants who consumed sugar-rich products before sleep reported disturbing dreams, 30.8% reported bizarre dreams.
18.8% of participants who consumed spicy food products before sleep reported disturbing dreams, 7.7% reported bizarre dreams.
15.6% of participants who consumed carbohydrate-rich products before sleep reported disturbing dreams, 3.8% reported bizarre dreams.
12.5% of participants who consumed meat products before sleep reported disturbing dreams, 3.8% reported bizarre dreams.
15.6% of participants who consumed junk food (deep fried, greasy) products before sleep reported disturbing dreams, 19.2% reported bizarre dreams.
“Closely related to the above, this hypothesis proposes that the perception of food-dependent dreaming may result from nonspecific effects of food intolerances and other adverse reactions to food, the symptoms of which result in bizarre and disturbing dreams. As noted earlier, this notion dates back to antiquity, with Hippocrates himself believing it to be a significant cause of nightmares.”
What should we take from this?
It seems that dairy products are by far the most likely to influence disturbing and bizarre dreams, at least within this piece of research anyway. Indeed, Nielson’s study is tied to the reporting of just those two types of dreams (disturbing and bizarre). We should consider that ‘nightmares’ are subjective and therefore, it’s hard to know if participants would categorise a disturbing dream in the same way they would categorise a nightmare. Even so, the thing that we should take away from this is that it seems evident that food products can have an impact on our dreams.
According to Nielsen:
“Independent of participants’ beliefs in food-dependent dreaming, the present study also found evidence of at least two relationships between food and dreaming. The first relationship, which was also noted for the perception of food-dependent dreaming, reflects a pathological constellation of variables that are uniquely associated with disturbing dreams. The second type of relationship between food and dreaming reflects a constellation of wellness measures uniquely associated with vivid dreams. These measures include better sleep, a healthier diet, longer daily intervals without eating, and less uncontrolled eating.”
It is important to note and is evident through this research that it is more than just the food consumed that is contributing to the dreams experienced by the participants and of course, by ourselves when we do eat dairy products before bed.
Simply put, these findings merely suggest that eating dairy products before bed means you’re slightly more likely to experience a nightmare.
There’s still a lot of research to be done in this area. As stated, one issue is that the idea of a nightmare is subjective, two people could experience the same dream, yet only one of them might consider it to be a ‘nightmare’, therefore it’s not conclusive that food products can cause nightmares. What is conclusive is that the chemicals present in some food types can have an impact on the sorts of dreams we have. Dairy products indeed do look to make the chance of us experiencing a more vivid dream increase slightly. Our advice lay off the cheese before bed and you’ll be far less likely to have a nightmare.
If you do suffer from regular nightmares, disturbed sleep or even symptoms of sleep paralysis, be sure to consult a doctor or medical professional who will be able to advise you further.