Google “food and dreams,” and the results will convince you that everything from cheese to chicken tikka masala is a catalyst for memorable dreaming. Internet lore abounds, resulting in a kind of reverse-placebo effect: Suddenly, any dream—good or bad—can be traced back to that evening’s meal. The proof is, well, in the pudding. Or is it?
“Everyone who is going to read this is going to have an anecdotal story about something they’ve eaten affecting their dreams,” says Dr. Gary Wenk. Wenk is a professor of Psychology & Neuroscience at the Ohio State University and Medical Center, and the author of Your Brain on Food, which discusses how a person’s diet influences brain functioning. We enlisted his help to answer our questions on food and dreaming.
Wenk continues, “Is what I ate for dinner tonight going to influence my dreams? The answer is almost universally going to be no.”
Yes, it’s a rather anticlimactic answer, but one with some major footnotes and concessions. Although there appears to be no real formulaic, empirical connection between our day-to-day intake of food and its impact on our dreams, there is a link: One that’s deeply personal, encompassing not only our history with certain foods, but also our genetic makeup.
Below, we explore a plausible relationship between food, sleep, and dreams, uncovering some intriguing facts along the way.
Active and Hungry: The Brain While Dreaming
Dreams can actually happen in several different phases of sleep, one of which is “slow-wave sleep,” a stage of deep rest where heart rate and breathing drop to low levels. During this time, your body also starts releasing hormones, which not only help metabolize food you’ve just eaten, but also assist in healing a tired body that’s been awake for the entire day.
Slow-wave sleep aside, the most profound, vivid dreaming happens during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. During this stage, the brain is remarkably active, with both brain waves and energy consumption mimicking that of wakefulness.
Wenk elaborates, “It’s really surprising how active the brain is while sleeping and dreaming. People have been following glucose utilization as an indicator of activity and it’s astonishing how much energy our brain uses while we’re dreaming. One author claimed we actually use more energy in our dream state than while we are awake. That may be not proven, but what is clear is that we have a very active brain.”
If food is fuel for the brain—which it is—how does what we eat influence this very active dreaming brain?
Is PB&J the Perfect Dream Food?
A dreaming brain is a hungry brain. “Sleep is a very active process and your brain needs a lot of sugar. I actually recommend to people having a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before they go to bed: The bread and the jelly are great sources of simple carbohydrates, which are terrible usually, but great for sleep,” Wenk states.
The theory here: Not only will you supply energy (sugar) to the busy brain, but you’re also providing it with extra serotonin—the “calming” hormone—to help usher in the onset of sleep.
Photo: Fuss Free Cooking
Does this mean going bed on an empty stomach (sans food) could provoke bad dreams? Perhaps. “If you go to bed hungry, with low blood sugar, you probably will not have a normal sleep pattern,” Wenk remarks. One extreme example of this: Diabetics on insulin treatments that suffer from nocturnal hypoglycemia. This 2007 study reveals that Type 1 Diabetics experienced vivid nightmares and night sweats as a direct result of their low blood sugar.
Drinking Your Dinner? Think Again.
Medicinal, pre-sleep peanut butter and jelly sandwiches do sound awfully nice. As does that extra glass of red—rationalized, perhaps rightfully so, because it’ll put you right to bed.
While alcohol might have sedative effects conducive to putting you to “sleep,” the brain knows better: Booze actually prevents us from having REM sleep, acting as a depressant and inhibiting the ability of a key amino acid, glutamate, to do its job. This transmitter is critical to brain functionality; it’s also a key element of REM sleep, with this 1998 study from the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute for Neuroscience indicating that enhanced glutamate release occurs during REM sleep.
Photo: The Gloss
So if we can’t engage in REM sleep (or dreaming), what happens? Eventually we do, experiencing what Wenk calls “REM pressure,” or a rebound of REM sleep. This is essentially an onslaught of powerful dreaming that we denied ourselves earlier in the evening. Man, can it be intense.
Wenk explains, “So here you are, drinking your dinner and suppressing REM. You go to sleep at midnight and you’ll find at 4am, you start having nightmarish dreams. This is REM pressure, when you haven’t been able to cycle into REM sleep at the early part of the night. You are now experiencing this rebound.” He continues, “Whenever anyone takes medicine of some kind or a drug, it suppresses REM and usually it produces memorable, almost nightmarish dreams.”
Ever wake up from a night of drinking with terrible dreams? That isn’t just your moral anxiety rising—that’s your brain scolding you for getting drunk.
Stay Away from the Late-Night Steak Dinner
You’re tossing and turning, falling in and out of bad sleep…are you hot? Our bodies are actually programmed to become cooler when we sleep, a fine-tuned process that helps us expend less energy and engage in restorative snoozing. Studies like this one reveal that we sleep best when our environment is actually quite cool—60 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit—and that insomniacs might have higher core body temperatures than their sound-sleeping counterparts.
Being overheated not only disrupts sleep, but it can also be an uncomfortable element that gets woven into content of our dreams, particularly during those non-REM phases. Wenk says, “The interesting thing about dream content when you dream outside of REM is that it incorporates things that are going on around you, especially in your body. So, does body state influence how you dream? Sure. Body temperature, having a fever, room temperature—those will all be incorporated into the dream narrative.”
How is food, in turn, integrated into this uncomfortable “hot” dream scenario? To digest food expends energy, which subsequently produces heat. Eating large, heavy meals close to bedtime means digestion is happening while we’re attempting to cool down and rest, potentially posing nightmarish issues. One common culprit could be a rich, high-fat meal—a steakhouse dinner, for example.
Photo: E_Ting Food
Wenk explains, “Dense, high-calorie energy sources—like cheese and meat—come with a lot of fat. What we’ve discovered is that when people do eat densely caloric foods, they tend to wake up hot. That will disrupt your sleep cycle.” He concludes, “Once that happens, it’s hard to get things back to normal.”
Beware of Chocolate and Spices
It’s common knowledge (we hope) that alcohol and drugs have mind-altering effects which can be expressed both in waking and dream states. But how about food? Wenk breaks it down, “From the brain standpoint there is no differentiation between a food and a drug. They are simply molecules that we put in our body that influence us.”
One food he cites is chocolate, a topic he elaborates on a recent blog post for Psychology Today, discussing some of its rather strange side effects for certain individuals. He writes, “Chocolate contains an array of compounds that contribute to the pleasurable sensation of eating it. Many of these compounds are quite psychoactive if they are able to get into our brains.”
He continues, “The main point to take away from this discussion about chocolate is that plants, such as the pods from the cocoa tree, contain a complex variety of chemicals that, when considered individually, are not likely to impact our brain function. However, when considered in aggregate they may exert compound effects throughout the body; some of those effects may be desirable while others may not.”
Spices are prime examples of plant products that could potentially possess psychoactive properties; it’s also no coincidence that spicy food is a commonly mentioned culprit for strange dreams. Wenk provided this example; “Nutmeg has a compound called myristicin that is converted into ecstasy, MDMA, by our bodies.” Ecstasy!? (Here come the Technicolor dreams.)
But will a normal amount of nutmeg—a shaving atop a cookie, for example—trigger powerful dreaming? No. How about abnormally large quantities, mixed with other spices? Now that’s a recipe for something bizarre.
“You have to have enough, and you need to eat a collection of spices. Individually you can’t blame an effect on a spice—unless you’ve eaten an extreme amount—but in aggregate, they may influence brain function,” Wenk summarizes.
Food and Dreams: It’s All a Secret Sauce
The primary difficulty in understanding food and dreams is there exists no conclusive proof that eating X food will result in Y dream. There’s no stock formula—numerous variables dictate how one individual might process a certain type food. It truly varies person-to-person.
For one thing, the properties of a food—and its ability to act as a psychoactive substance—could depend on your personal history with it. If you’ve spent your entire life eating spicy meals, and did so that night, it’s less likely that you’ll experience a vivid dream as a result of your usual meal.
Think of coffee, for example. Personally, I remember my first cup as almost being mind-altering, rendering me a jittery, hyper, and addled 16-year-old. Perhaps it even influenced my dreams. Now, it’s a non-issue. This isn’t by accident.
Photo: The Guardian
“We have a very plastic body,” Wenk says. “Your brain and liver are both going to compensate upon constantly seeing those molecules, such as producing more enzymes to metabolize them.”
Complicating this issue is the fact that our ability to metabolize a substance is, to some extent, inherent and inherited. Women, Wenk points out, can metabolize Ibuprofen faster than men since it “looks” like estrogen to our bodies. Our genome play a massive role in how we process food and, consequently, how that is translated in our dreaming brains.
A final question to ask before snoozing: How much did you eat? Quantity, as basic as it seems, plays a critical role; consuming large quantities of anything can have side effects. In another Psychology Today post, Wenk explains the properties of fat and sugar as one such example. Overconsumption of these foods can actually modify how the DNA in the brain cell’s feeding center behaves in the long-term, and short-term effects most certainly exist, too. “High doses of anything will have an effect on brain function,” he says.
While the recipe for dreaming is arguably a secret sauce, basic ingredients exist. Your genetic makeup, personal history with a certain food, properties of said food (such as plant-derived psychoactive compounds), and the quantity of intake all factor into how dinner gets articulated in tonight’s dreams.