Nightmares are vivid and realistic dreams that startle you and take you from deep sleep to heart pounding fear. Nightmares don’t just happen to kids; apparently 50% of adults will still have the occasional nightmare!
There are numerous things that can cause nightmares including: medications, withdrawal from alcohol and other drugs/medications, sleep deprivation and sleep disorders, to name a few. Eating late is another commonly blamed culprit. Is this true or is this another one of those unfounded nutrition myths? Can eating habits trigger nightmares and other strange dreams?
We did a search of the literature to see what the science says. Surprisingly, we could find very little on the topic. We found information on how sleep deprivation can increase body weight and additional information on sleep patterns in eating disorders but very little for the average, healthy well-rested adult.
We did come across one letter from William Kormos, the Editor-in-Chief of Harvard Men’s Health Watch; here is his take (1).
A Primer on the Stages of Sleep
There are two distinct phases of sleep: non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM). NREM sleep is broken into four stages, which progress over about an hour (2).
- Stage I: drowsy, easily awoken
- Stage II: light sleep
- Stage III: moderate to deep sleep
- Stage IV: very deep sleep
Dreams typically occur in REM sleep only, which varies individually in terms of duration, and also declines significantly with age. Infants get about 8 hours of REM sleep per day, those in their 20’s have two hours at 20 years, and once you hit 70 years old you only have 45 minutes per night (2)! During a good night’s sleep, you will cycle through REM and NREM (Stages I-IV) several times. For more information on the dreaming brain, we like HowStuffWorks.
Late Night Eating and Sleep Disturbances
When you enter the REM cycle of sleep, you are in the “dreaming phase” of sleep. If you wake up during REM sleep or in stages I or II of NREM, you will remember your dream vividly because it essentially “just happened”. Kormos suggests that late night eating has not been found to directly cause nightmares and that there is no consistent relationship between the two; HOWEVER, late night eating can cause a variety of gastrointestinal problems, like stomach upset or heartburn, which could cause you to wake up in the night. You are more likely to be aware of and remember dreams and nightmares when your sleep is fragmented.
If you happen to wake up close to an unpleasant dream, then indirectly you could attribute that to your late night eating. This is perhaps why spicy foods are often blamed more than easily digested, mild foods.
Kormos (1) also suggests that a late-night large meal that is high in carbohydrates, may result in sweating as heat is generated when your body metabolizes the food. Excessive sweating could cause you to wake up.
Finally, lying down when your stomach is full can trigger reflux (stuff from your stomach, including the acid, coming back up into your esophagus) and heartburn, which again may disturb your sleep.
There is very little research in this area, despite many old wives’ tales! Since there is so much still undiscovered about sleep and dreams, there is the possibility that physical discomfort – whether from spicy food or just too much food – could possibly trigger unpleasant dreams. While you may not suffer a nightmare, we do know that eating too much late at night can lead to poorer sleep. Crispim et al. (3) recruited 52 healthy volunteers to a sleep study and tracked what they ate before sleep evaluation. Eating closer to bedtime, particularly high fat food, was associated with poorer sleep quality, with a more pronounced effect in women.
No Baloney’s advice? Eating late at night might not be the direct cause of nightmares but it may affect your sleep quality. Poor sleep quality will cause you to feel tired and lethargic the next day. Finally, late night eating and snacking can increase your chances of weight gain as your appetite and metabolism are affected. See our previous post What Time Is It, Mr Wolf? for more information on meal timing and weight gain.
Considering the pros (none) and the cons (disturbed sleep and weight gain); we say if you want to rest easy, skip the big late night meals or heavy snacks. Does this mean you should never have a bedtime snack? Of course not! For some people, a light evening snack (ideally > 1 – 2 hours before bed) can do wonders for sleep and even blood sugar control in those with diabetes. If you do have a bedtime snack, have something light and low in fat to avoid an upset stomach.
- Kormos, W. On call. Do people really get nightmares from eating late? Harvard Men’s Health Watch 2012; 16(11):2.
Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al. (eds). Neuroscience, 2nd ed. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001.
Crispim CA, et al. Relationship between food intake and sleep pattern in healthy individuals. J Clin Sleep Med 2011; 7:659-64.