It’s common folk wisdom that eating cheese can give you nightmares. But is this really the case?
The question hasn’t been extensively studied with scientific rigour, but we might find some answers by looking at how cheese can influence the brain.
Our brains are directed by a range of hormones including serotonin, which promotes relaxation and sleepiness, adrenalin, which acts as a stimulant, and testosterone, which regulates libido, fat distribution and strength.
These hormones and others can influence how we think, how we act and how our internal systems function. Not all of these chemical directors are produced by our body: some are contained within the foods that we eat.
Cheese, for example, contains an amino acid called tryptophan that when consumed can be processed into serotonin, an essential hormone for sleepiness. So there’s at least a tenuous connection between cheese-eating and sleep.
And there is some research to indicate that eating different types of cheese may influence the content of your dreams.
In a 2005 study (admittedly conducted by the British Cheese Board), participants were asked to eat 20 grams of cheese a half hour before going to bed every night for a week. They would then record their dreams in a diary the moment they woke up.
Each participant was assigned a single type of cheese: one of stilton, cheddar, red Leicester, British brie, Lancashire and Cheshire.
Surprisingly, 83% of the participants that ate red Leicester had pleasant dreams, with 60% of dreams being about fond childhood memories. Cheddar, on the other hand, led to dreams about celebrities while Cheshire led to no dreams more than half of the time.
That’s about it for cheese research, but what about other foods?
According to Gary Wenk, a medical professor at Ohio State University, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich may a good before-bed snack.
“Sleep is a very active process and your brain needs a lot of sugar. I actually recommend to people having a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before they go to bed. The bread and the jelly are great sources of simple carbohydrates, which are terrible usually, but great for sleep,” says Wenk.
While a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or piece of cheese may be good for sleep, some foods are worth staying away from.
Chocolate, particularly dark chocolates, contain caffeine, a simulant that is likely to keep you awake rather than drifting off to sleep.
A high calorie meal, such as a steak, can also influence sleep. The energy that our body burns to digest these types of food raises our body temperature, an issue when cooler body temperatures are linked to better sleep patterns.
So while a connection between cheese and nightmares is still in the realm of anecdote, the idea that what you eat can influence your sleep rests on solid scientific ground.
Jake Port contributes to the Cosmos explainer series.
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