Is it true that late night eating can cause nightmares? Everyone has had nightmares at least once in their lifetime. There have been theories suggesting that late night eating is what causes nightmares. Is this just another old wives’ tale or is there some truth in it? We sort to find out, and here are the facts.
What Are Nightmares?
These are vivid dreams that occur during the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep leaving you feeling rattled, terrified, and distressed. In severe cases, nightmares can cause sleep disorder and depression. In most cases, a sleeper will be awakened by these ‘too-realistic’ dreams and will usually be sweaty.
Nightmares are common during childhood, and can sometimes follow you into adulthood. While it’s a normal phenomenon to have them, if the dreams start affecting your life, then you might need to speak to a doctor.
Does Eating Before Bed Cause Nightmares?
Scientists haven’t yet found a connection between eating food just before bed and dreams. However, the following point may explain why it’s likely that your sleep will be disrupted at night.
A normal sleep cycle has five stages. In stages, one and two, an individual experiences light sleep and any movement can easily wake them up. Stage three and four involve deep sleep and the body registers slow waves. Blood pressure drops and the breathing becomes slower and deeper. The fifth stage is called REM (Rapid Eye Movement), also called the dreaming stage. In the REM stage, the brain waves are more active, and the eyes dart from one direction to another. The intensity of brain activity is influenced by neurotransmitter signals and any substance or chemical that interferes with these signals, like drugs, food, and alcohol can affect your REM sleep, and ultimately your dreams.
How Late Night Eating Affects Your Sleep
It’s a bad idea to eat right before bed because food increases your metabolism and brain’s activity, which could lead to restless nights or nightmares when you manage to fall asleep. There are certain foods and substances that are known to increase or decrease the frequency and intensity of these dreams. They include:
Several studies have been conducted to investigate the effects of eating spicy food on our bodies, especially our sleep cycle. One study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology reports that when a group of men ate spicy food before bed, they experienced poor quality of sleep than when they ate less-spicy or non-spicy foods. Another study conducted on 396 participants at a Canadian university studied students sleep patterns after eating spicy foods. Students reported having trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. The reason behind the sleep disruption is that spicy food raises your body’s temperature, which interferes with brain activity. As a result, this disrupts a normal REM sleep causing dreams.
Despite alcohol making you drowsy, it actually deprives you of a quality night’s sleep and, you guessed it, leaves you with a killer hangover in the morning. In the first hours, alcohol may help you fall to sleep. However, the sleep will soon vanish and you’ll spend the rest of the night tossing and turning in bed. Normally, you’ll experience several awakenings throughout the night, and if it becomes a habit, you may end developing a dependency on alcohol.
Stuffing your body with junk food (pizza, chips, fries, and fried chicken among others) and sugary foods and drinks (cookies, sodas, juice, ice cream, and cake) will do the opposite of sweet dreams. In the study, 31 percent of the participants reported having bizarre dreams after eating sugary foods and junk food. Chocolate also falls into this category and the caffeine and sugar in it are to blame. So, if you’re the type to eat ice cream or chocolate before crawling to bed, now you know why you wake up in the middle of the night dripping with sweat!
Bread and Pasta
Starchy carbs, including refined pasta and bread, have also been shown to cause nightmares. These starchy foods convert to glucose, hence having the same effect as sugary snacks. Surprisingly, rice was shown to increase the quality of sleep.
Other Issues Affecting Sleep
It’s not only the type of food you eat that may affect your sleep cycle but also the time you eat. Eating too close to bedtime has also been blamed for weight gain. It’s, therefore, advisable to eat at least two hours before bedtime to allow the food to be digested so that when you get to bed, your stomach has already done the hard part.
Can Nightmares Be Prevented?
Occasionally, even as an adult, you might still have nightmares. Although this is a common occurrence, some nightmares can leave you really shaken. So, to avoid nightmares:
- Avoid bedtime snacks. Instead, eat foods that induce and support a peaceful night’s sleep, including nuts (especially almonds and walnuts which contain melatonin), cottage cheese, warm milk, certain melatonin-rich fruits (bananas, pineapples, cherry, and oranges), chamomile tea, turkey, and fatty fish.
- Try sleeping on your right side. Although there is no strong evidence to support this fact, a study found out that people who slept on their right sides had fewer nightmares compared to those who slept on their left sides.
- Practice lucid dreams. A lucid dream is where the dreamer is aware that he/she is dreaming and even has the ability to take a lead role in the dreams and manipulate the outcomes. Practicing lucid dreams can counter nightmares, and eventually help you to completely stop them.
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