You are naked. Naked, running through your school halls and you’re late for your final exam. Where did all these hallways come from? That dream. Again. Could your bad dreams be caused by spicy foods? Yep, that late night Thai food adventure may have caused your nightmare. Well, maybe.
Weird dreams and spicy foods: researchers weight in
There is evidence that eating a spicy meal or snack before bed can bring on some weird and vivid dreams. In a 2015 study by Canadian psychologists Tore Nielsen and Russell Powell, 396 students were surveyed about their diet and dreams over two weeks. The results were published in an article titled Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend: Food and diet as instigators of bizarre and disturbing dreams, in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. The title refers to a comic strip from1905, Winsor McCay’s Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, in which people who ate a meal of cheesy Welsh Rarebit were plagued nightmares and weird dreams (see a panel from the comic strip below)
Neilson and Powell found that 18% of participants believed that food choices could influence their dreams, blaming dairy and spicy foods for causing disturbing dreams. Say it ain’t so!
The study authors were cautious in interpreting their polls, offering several possible explanations and encouraging future lab-based testing to more stringently assess correlations. Humans aren’t immune to the placebo effect and the study results might actually be a product of it.
The researchers allowed for another possibility: maybe that bad dream is just an upset belly telling you to wake up. Sleep disruption is a common symptom of gastrointestinal troubles. When your stomach is upset the discomfort often causes a person to drift in and out of sleep. Since we tend to remember the dreams we wake up from, waking a number of times through the night means we will remember more of them.
It is possible that when you eat just before bed you will still be digesting as your slumber hits REM, the stage of the sleep cycle where dreaming happens. As your body metabolises that late-night taco your internal temperature rises causing increased activity during REM. Consider people with high fevers experiencing vivid, even waking dreams.
Psychoactive properties in spicy foods could cause dream weirdness
Some spices have psychoactive properties that may affect dreaming. For example, nutmeg has a chemical composition similar to ecstasy. Of course, you would need to eat massive quantities to actually get high (please don’t try, the side effects are gruesome) but eating a heavily spiced meal before bed may elicit some strange subconscious activity.
The Nielsen and Powell study has relevance for people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and eating disorders. Emotional eating such as binge eating can disrupt sleep and trigger negative dreaming. It is possible that improving people’s sleep and dreaming quality through better dietary practices could be beneficial.
The researchers also suggest that fasting or dieting can influence the intensity of dreaming. Fasting is a classic method used in dream incubation rituals.
There is no magic recipe to influencing your dreams: one type of food won’t equal amazing, lucid dreams, while another will serve up nightmares. We do know that the size of the meal and the time it is eaten, not the specific type of food, can be the culprit for bringing on weird or disturbing dreams.
A panel from Dream of the Rarebit Fiend