Unsolved Sleep Mysteries

Unsolved Sleep Mysteries: Does Late Night Eating Give You Nightmares?

You may feel secretly excited to overindulge this holiday season (or is that just us?). Careful, though—you may end up having nightmares!

It’s commonly believed that certain foods, like dairy or spicy dishes, can cause bad dreams. But is there any truth to this theory? Here’s what we know:

The REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep is when the most dreaming and vivid imagery, including nightmares, occurs. And late night eating can cause you to have more nightmares or disturbing dreams, one study revealed. Eating a big meal before going to bed is never a good idea for other reasons, too.

For one, it negatively affects the quality of your sleep. Women, especially, are more susceptible to experiencing poor sleep after eating a heavy meal or high-fat foods right before bedtime; they tend to take longer to fall asleep and are more likely to wake up in the middle of the night. Also, it’s best to digest food while sitting or standing up—not lying down, which can prevent you from getting good quality sleep, due to indigestion and heartburn.

Another factor: Digesting food revs up your metabolism and raises your body temperature, which isn’t good for sleep either (your body gets cooler throughout the day to prepare you for nighttime slumber). Eating spicy things, like five alarm chili or fiery chicken wings, really turns up the heat, making matters worse. As a result, brain activity increases during REM sleep and can potentially trigger nightmares. One study found that when healthy male athletes added Tabasco sauce and hot English mustard to their evening meal, they slept fewer hours and less efficiently.

Other than buffalo wings, what other foods should you stay away from?

Cheese, milk, yogurt, ice cream, and pizza were the most frequently cited culprits in nightmares or bizarre dreams in a study conducted by Canadian researchers. And because dairy is a common food sensitivity, it can also contribute to poor sleep and waking up multiple times throughout the night.


How can you make sure your eating habits don’t trigger nightmares?


Pay attention to meal timing

Eat your last meal three to four hours before going to bed to ensure that the digestion process won’t prevent you from falling asleep. You should also avoid overeating, especially high-fat foods, anything spicy, or dishes that contain dairy, if you’re sensitive.


Sleep on your right side

A 2004 study looked at the relationship between sleep positions, types of dreams, and quality of sleep. Researchers found that right-side sleepers experienced good quality sleep and positive dreams, compared to left-side sleepers who reported more nightmares.


Try a weighted blanket

It may not be a direct fix for nightmares, but studies show that the deep pressure relief you feel from sleeping under a weighted blanket can reduce anxious thoughts at night (you know, the ones that end up haunting you). Plus, at 20 pounds, our weighted blanket is a much-needed layer of protection against the bad guys in your dreams.

–Kathryn Matthews

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