After a night of spicy Thai takeout, you might have experienced the consequences to your unconscious — perhaps you wake in a start after dreaming of a plane crash, or cower at the memory of some horrifying monster. Should you blame it on the curry?
While the actual scientific evidence behind the effect of these foods is fuzzy, there has been science that corroborates it: Certain foods could actually cause bad dreams. But spicy foods aren’t the only foods that tend to give people nightmares. A study from 2015, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, found associations between types of dreams and three major food groups.
Researchers polled 396 students on their dream types and quality for two weeks. The students were also asked to record dietary habits and patterns. The findings revealed that food really did appear to influence their dreams. Of the study participants, 17.8 percent actually voiced their belief that food impacted their dream life; this proportion was significant, from the researchers’ point of view.
Ice cream, for instance, failed to deliver dreams as sweet as each spoonful. Dairy products, including milk, cheese, and ice cream, caused disturbing and bizarre dreams for 44 percent and 39 percent, respectively, of those who believed food had an effect.
Spicy foods were next on the list, delivering disturbing dreams in 19 percent of reports. Sweet foods tended to cause dreams that were more bizarre than anything else — not necessarily horrifying or scary.
Of course, all of this evidence is anecdotal. It’s possible there is no chemical effect that’s causing participants to dream up these nightmares. As Emmanuel Mignot, director of the Stanford University Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, explained to the The Wall Street Journal, these correlations could be caused by other factors.
When you consume a spicy food, for instance, like a hot chile pepper or a spoonful of wasabi, your internal body temperature rises. Since your ideal temperature for falling asleep is much lower than you might think, this internal heat wave keeps you up at night. Your sleep might not be as deep, making your dreams inherently more memorable. For all you know, you could be regularly dreaming of that freakish ghoul from the horror movie you saw last month — it was only the effect of the spicy food that brought the nightmare to the surface.
Alternatively, Mignot explained, certain proteins can push you further into REM sleep, resulting in dreams that are more vivid and complex. However, these amino acids are not associated with certain types of dreams; they only intensify their memory.
In general, however, the lower your sleep quality, the more likely you are to recall your unconscious dream dramas. If you want to remember your dreams, you have to be willing to sacrifice your deep sleep. But there are definitely foods that can help you on your quest to sleep worse, if you think it’s worth it.