The popular theory goes that if you eat just before you go to 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.
Does late-night eating 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 an nightmare. 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.
Does eating dairy cause nightmares?
Of all the food products that people consider a thing of nightmares, it’s diary. 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 brainwaves 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 else 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 in the 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.
How grapes and bananas may help you sleep
If you find that it’s absolutely necessary to eat something before bed, fruit may be the treat you’re looking – especially bananas and grapes.
Grapes are the only fruit to contain the sleep-inducing hormone of melatonin, helping you drop off quicker each night. As for bananas, the high-mineral fruit contains magnesium and potassium, which calm and destress muscles. They also contain the amino acid tryptophan, a sleep-inducing nutrient also found in turkey.
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.