Bad dreams are a bizarre thing. We don't know what causes them or how to control them, and yet a multitude of myths circle around them, many of which have a lot to do with food. You may recall times you've had a particularly heavy or spicy meal and experienced nightmares afterward. Yet there still doesn't seem to be a lot of hard facts on the subject, as recently explored by New York Magazine's "Science of Us."
"Why on Earth don't we have reams and reams of data? Everybody eats, everybody dreams, and yet we don't seem to have any evidence out there beyond anecdotes and myths," says neuroscientist Gary Wenk, a professor at Ohio State University and the author of Your Brain on Food: How Chemicals Control Your Thoughts and Feelings. "No one's reporting this systematically. There's probably a lot of data out there—it just doesn't exist in any organized fashion."
However, a 2015 study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found participants pointing to dairy and spiciness as causes for upsetting dreams. But what this identifies isn't so much a scientific correlation but a perceived association on the part of those reporting. So what's actually at work is what the researchers termed as the "folklore hypothesis," a placebo effect whereby individuals have a preconceived notion—passed down by family and culture—of which foods will affect their dreams. On the other hand, researchers also noted that the pure act of indigestion could be enough to cause unpleasant dreams.
So while more specific research is required to develop a detailed takeaway that might actually list nightmare-causing foods, there are some changes you can make now. If you've been told your entire life that red meat gives you bad dreams, then avoid steak the next time you have a late dinner—years of believing it likely is making it true. The second strategy is even more straightforward: Avoid foods that upset your stomach, and you're less likely to have upsetting dreams.
Do you notice a correlation between eating certain foods and having nightmares? Share your stories with us in the comments below.