Does Eating Before Bed Give You Nightmares?

Jonathan Warren

Author: Jonathan Warren



Does Eating Before Bed Give You Nightmares?

The popular theory goes that if you eat before bed, you’re all but set for nightmares. 

But what’s the truth behind it? Does eating before bed cause nightmares, and if so, are there particular foods that make you especially vulnerable? 

Here, we investigate the possible link between food and nightmares, as well as offering food-related advice on how you can avoid tossing and turning throughout the night.

What are nightmares?

In short, a nightmare is a disconcerting or disturbing dream with negative connotations. 

These scary dreams can cause anxiety or fear while you sleep and can cause you to wake up suddenly. When this happens, you can often still feel the effects of your nightmare once you’ve woken up; you may be sweating, shaking or feeling uncomfortable as you body and brain readjust to your waking surroundings. This is because nightmares are extremely vivid dreams which can feel very real to the dreamer as they occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep – the sleep stage linked with intense dreaming. 

Nightmares are most commonly associated with children but can happen in adulthood too. Their exact causes are unknown but sleep experts think they originate from our brains trying to process emotions. But can eating before bed give you nightmares, too?

Does eating before bed cause nightmares?

Turn to the relevant scientific subjects on the matter and you’ll find a variety of answers to the question above. In 2012, the Editor in Chief of Harvard Men’s Health Watch was categorical when discussing late night eating and nightmares. He said that “small studies of individuals who ate immediately before sleep have not shown a consistent relationship.”  
However, we know that eating before bed is generally a bad idea, and this could be where the debate stems from.  

Despite some of us believing that we never dream, we all spend some of our sleeping hours living out bizarre or surreal scenarios in our minds. This is key to understanding the link between food and nightmares. 

Part of the sleep cycle is characterised by REM, or rapid eye movement. In REM sleep, you breathe more heavily and your heart beats faster. During this time, your eyes will switch from side to side, as if they are responding to objects in your vision. This period of sleep is when you will do the vast majority of your dreaming. 

How does this relate to food and nightmares? Eating certain foods late at night gives rise to certain conditions in your body that increase the likelihood of us waking up. If you wake up during the dream phase of your sleep, there is more chance you will recall that dream (be it good or bad). 

Food can interrupt our sleep in a number of ways. It may not directly increase the chance of you having a nightmare on any particular night, but it could make it more likely that you remember the dreams you were having, therefore, seeming like you’re having more frequent nightmares. 

Can eating certain foods cause nightmares?

Whilst the above seems like the most plausible explanation, there are several studies that  delve deeper into this subject by investigating specific foods. Here are three food types with the strongest link to nightmares, what the studies say and what you might take from it.  

Especially in relation to dreams of rats and other critters, your dreams will massively depend on your own relationship with them. For example, if you suffer from a fear of rats, it’s extremely unlikely you’ll have a wholesome dream where you’re breaking bread with a furry friend now is it?

Does eating dairy cause nightmares?

Of all the food products that people consider a thing of nightmares, it’s dairy. Perceived wisdom says you should never eat cheese and drink milk before bed – but does the science match up to this assumption? 

A questionnaire published in the Frontiers in Psychology in 2015 did establish dairy products as the foods most likely to give you a nightmare. They found that 18% of their 383 participants had found a correlation between late-night eating and influenced dreams. The foods most often cited were cheese, milk and ice cream.  

The study did consider a few possibilities for its conclusion (alongside encouraging more lab-based research). First, it could be that certain foods induce particular moods or alert levels that affect the kind of dreams you have at night. Their second suggestion was the same as the one above – that food affects your dreams indirectly by affecting your sleep. 

One final explanation is simply the public’s perception. Common folklore suggests that dairy (and cheese in particular) gives you nightmares. Those who participated in this study may simply have had a nightmare one night and associated it with the pizza they ate earlier – without that categorically being the cause.  

Back in 2005, the British Cheese Board looked to provide some of the experimental evidence that seems to be lacking. Their week-long study of 200 people found no direct link between eating cheese an hour before bed and having a nightmare. 

Can eating sugar cause nightmares? 

The first of those cited studies above is also relevant here. In the list of foods that participants said affected their sleep, sugary treats came in just behind dairy. This was supported by another study, reported by Lifehacker, that established a link between nightmares and junk food. The study found that sugary treats trigger more brain waves during sleep.  

A more active brain is then more susceptible to nightmares – as seven in ten of their participants found. 

What about spicy foods?

The third significant type of food it’s believed you should avoid before bed is spicy foods. This was established back in 1992 and published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology. An experiment involving six people found that adding Tabasco sauce or mustard to an evening meal disturbed sleep and affected the quality of sleep.  

Apply the logic that food affects your sleep, which in turn affects your dreams, and you might want to rethink having a vindaloo before you hit the hay.  

When you eat spicy food, your body temperature rises as you try to release heat. This can lead to restless sleep or sweating during the night, which is more likely to wake you up. 

What other foods to avoid

Ultimately, eating anything is not recommended before you go to sleep. Any pre-bedtime snack will increase your metabolism, keeping your brain active and disrupting your sleep. It’s especially unwise to sleep on a full stomach.  

The Harvard Men’s Health Watch article points out that a carbohydrate-heavy meal can lead to sweating at night as your body raises its temperature during digestion. High-protein meals are also a no. It leaves your stomach working hard throughout the night and could lead to a bout of late-night indigestion.  

What should you eat before bed?

The relationship between food and sleep is not fully established, but here we’ve explored some of the evidence on the subject. We may not know whether food can cause nightmares, but we do know that food can negatively affect the quality of your sleep which could lead to the nightmare scenario of long, sleepless nights. 

All is not lost though for those partial to a midnight snack – there are many foods and drinks that have been deemed safe to consume pre-bedtime, too. In fact, some healthy snacks may even be beneficial for a healthier, nightmare-free sleep. Here are a few of our favourites below.


Eating fruit before you sleep is a great way to boost your vitamin and mineral intake at bedtime. Some fruits, such as pineapples, oranges, kiwis and bananas have even been shown to increase melatonin (the sleep hormone) a few hours later, leading to a more restful slumber. 

Bananas, for example, contain leep-friendly nutrients like magnesium, vitamin B6 and potassium which promote improve sleep quality. These nutrients work to lower any pre-bedtime anxieties, reduce muscle pains and cramps, and boost sleep-inducing hormones such as melatonin and serotonin.


Yoghurt and other dairy products are also good food sources that can help the body to produce melatonin. Their high calcium levels helps the brain to use the tryptophan in dairy to make us feel calm and sleepy. 

Yoghurts also rank highly as many varieties, such as greek yoghurt, are a rich source of protein, helping the body to avoid any sharp glucose spikes ahead of sleep and help the body to relax and repair overnight.

Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds, including almonds and pistachios, are a great bedtime snack as they contain magnesium, zinc and melatonin. Stray away from salted varieties, and eat nut and seeds plain or as an unsweetened nut butter instead.

Nuts can also raise your internal body temperature and speed up your metabolism too to help you can ready for a good quality kip. Just make sure you only eat a small handful to satisfy your cravings as more than that can have an adverse effect on your health due to their fat content.

Protein drinks

Protein shakes aren’t just for the gym! Having a protein drink before bed is brilliant news for a healthy sleep as they encourage muscle growth and repair, influence daily energy metabolism and improve overall sleep quality. This is because the absorption of protein can increase the levels of tryptophan in our bodies, helping our brains to make us fall asleep faster and keep us sleeping soundly for longer.

Myprotein suggests that when consumed regularly, pre-sleep protein promotes gains in both muscle mass and strength too. That sounds like a win-win to us! Be mindful to choose the correct protein drink, mind. Look for overnight recovery or casein (skimmed milk) slow-release blends that are the best protein shakes for helping your body to recover and repair while you sleep.

Tips for avoiding nightmares

Unfortunately, it’s a sad fact of life that all of us will experience an unwelcome nightmare from time to time. However, thankfully there are steps we can take to make them less of a regular occurrence! 

Most of the tips for avoiding nightmares below chalk up to improving sleep hygiene in order to foster better sleep quality, so take a look at what healthy sleep habits you may be overlooking to reduce the likelihood of having nightmares.

Establish a calming bedtime routine

A regular routine at bedtime is crucial when it comes to calming your mind for sleep and warding away nightmares. Keeping your sleeping and waking hours consistent to balance out your circadian rhythm, even on the weekends! This will mean your body and brain will start to automatically wind down and relax a few hours before sleep, helping your to drift off naturally without stress.

Don’t eat too close to bedtime

While it’s perfectly alright to have a healthy snack or two a couple of hours before bedtime, it’ best not to eat right before you get under the covers. This could lead to heartburn, indigestion and acid reflux, all things which will only make you uncomfortable and negatively impact your rest.

Make your space a sanctuary

Nightmares thrive on stress and emotional imbalance, so ensure your bedroom is a soothing, cosy sanctuary. Invest in comfy furnishings which hold your body in a warm embrace or fan in the summer months to keep you cool. It’s always a good idea to replace a tired old bed frame or mattress too for better support and comfort if you need to. These adjustments can work wonders for improving your sleep quality and keeping nightmares at bay.

Practise mindfulness

Why not swap out a scary movie with something a bit calmer that slows the heart rate instead? Read a book, listen to a podcast or a sleepcast, meditate or even have a little stretch. Any of these activities are perfect for calming your nervous system and getting your prepared for a good night’s rest – you’ll be snoozing before you know it. 

Also, if something’s been troubling you in your waking life, make sure to talk about it with family and friends or even a therapist if things are especially hard. Nightmares feed on bad energy and sleep relies on emotional stability so do yourself a huge favour and share the burden.

Go screen free

It’s called doomscrolling for a reason! No matter how much you want to see what’s trending on socials or catch up on your latest Netflix series in bed, screen time before sleep is a big no no. Electronic devices emit strong blue light which can play tricks on your brain to think its still daylight, throwing off your body clock and causing a restless sleep. Pop you electronics away a couple of hours before bed and engage in some mindfulness instead – your sweet dreams will thank you!

Searching for more ways to boost your sleep quality?

At Time4Sleep we are all about enhancing your sleep quality. Whether you’re looking to explore what dreams actually mean or perhaps you are debating whether to sleep with a pillow between your legs or trying to understand what you should drink before bed, our Time4Sleep blog has plenty of hints and tips on how you can get the most restorative sleep possible