Originally Published on Van Winkle's (October, 2015)
The latest scientific research supports the undeniable connection between our gut and our brains. What happens in our head — fear, love, anxiety — manifests in the belly, and vice-versa. Our bacterial ecosystem, affected by our diet, may regulate how we think and feel. But does this apply to sleep, too? After all, even Hippocrates claimed that a “surfeit of unaccustomed food” could lead to “monstrous bodies that are seen in sleep and frighten a man.”
Oh great, so now it’s not just indigestion we have to worry about.
Not so fast, cautions Rene Ficek, a registered dietician with Seattle Sutton’s Healthy Eating.
“There is no conclusive proof that eating X food will result in Y dream,” she says. “Many variables dictate how an individual might process a certain type of food.”
However, Ficek says, since food certainly affects our daytime mood, mental alertness and sleep quality, there’s a bit of wiggle room. “Food influences dreams indirectly due to poor metabolism or digestive intolerances. For instance, eating too late could negatively affect the quality of our dreams.”
Almost every expert agrees that overeating, eating too close to bedtime and introducing new types of spicy foods (if you’re unaccustomed) can be a recipe for nightmares.
“In my own research [with clients] I have found that very rich or spicy foods eaten within two hours of bedtime can cause stressful dreams and nightmares,” says professional dream analyst Lauri Loewenberg, author of Dream On It, Unlock Your Dreams Change Your Life. “The reasoning is logical. Rich and spicy foods are more difficult to digest and tend to cause heartburn.”
If your body is working on overdrive to digest a heavy meal too close to bedtime, the churning and discomfort can disrupt your sleep, and your dreams.
Okay, no rich or spicy foods — got it.
But — sugary foods are problematic as well because they’ll trigger a spike in blood sugar and then a dramatic plunge, says Loewenberg. The drop can happen around the time we’re entering REM sleep, which is when we dream.
“Any type of body discomfort can interfere with your dreams, often in a negative way. We call this ‘outside interference dreams,’ where physical conditions, even something like a dog barking, will get incorporated into the storyline of the dream.” Low blood sugar, for example, can cause headaches.
In addition to heavy-spicy-sugary, Loewenberg adds a surprising culprit: “Peanut butter is also a big nightmare giver.”
Okay, no rich or spicy or sweet foods — got it. But I’m not very happy.
If you’re interested in enjoying a pleasant dream, plan on chowing down on “long-acting complex carbohydrates” -- sweet potatoes, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, for instance -- and stay away from alcohol and caffeine, advises Christopher Keroack, M.D. He agrees that neurochemical influences such as blood sugar, cortisol and insulin can have an impact on our dreams.
Looking for more than just “pleasant” dreams? Hoping for a bit more spice? Psychiatrist Bharat Udey, MD suggests trying the classic mood-enhancers.
“Aphrodisiac agents like ginger, garlic, onions, ginseng and dark chocolate, which can enhance arousal and increased sexual sensations, may increase the probability of having sexual dreams, at times with nocturnal emissions as well,” he says.
Now this is getting weird. Is this hard science, or just speculation?
Admittedly, most of this is anecdotal. If you’re looking for hard data, consider cheese.
An informal study conducted by the British Cheese Board using 200 volunteers found that different types of cheese can induce different kinds of dreams. Eating Stilton, for instance, led to crazy or vivid dreams. Cheddar, meanwhile, inspired dreams that were merely pleasant.
Other studies have been held. Tore Nielsen, a director of the Dream & Nightmare Laboratory at the Hopital du Sacre-Coeur in Montreal, enlisted 396 male students to complete questionnaires evaluating sleep, dreams and their dietary habits and motivations. He found that the perception of food-dependent dreaming had a prevalence of 17.8 percent. Dairy products were the most frequently blamed food category for bizarre and disturbing dreams (cheese, again!).
Nielsen noted that those with healthier sleep and eating habits had more vivid dreams, as compared with emotional and binge eaters, who reported “disturbing dreams.”
So, basically, eat healthy, dream happy.
At the very least, follow a moderate, low-dairy lifestyle. Sorry, cheese.