By Rachel Welch
Have you ever noticed a connection between what you eat before bed, and your sleep quality? Do you find that certain foods make your dreams particularly vivid or strange? Perhaps your sleep quality is drastically altered based on the type of food or timing of food that you consumed before bed. As it turns out, diet and nutrition have a strong connection to the quality and quantity of our sleep.
Sleep: Our Super Important Superpower!
Sleeping is a crucial part of life. Beloved by many, and neglected by others, sleep is a key time for our bodies and brains to refresh, rejuvenate, rebuild cells, and absorb information. Sleep is important for people of all ages, although there may be different recommendations depending on the age bracket you fall into. Here is a quick guide from the CDC, that gives us a glimpse into recommended sleep, separated by age:
Recommended Hours of Sleep Per Day
14–17 hours (National Sleep Foundation)
12–16 hours per 24 hours (including naps)
11–14 hours per 24 hours (including naps)
10–13 hours per 24 hours (including naps)
9–12 hours per 24 hours
8–10 hours per 24 hours
7 or more hours per night
65 years and older
The amount of sleep you get, based on what is recommended for you is a key factor into your overall health and wellness. If someone is sleep deprived (or not getting enough sleep), they may experience unpleasant side effects (1).
During sleep, the brain is still highly active. While many of our conscious neural functions take a much-needed rest, sleep triggers other valuable brain functions to work for us while we sleep. Essentially, our brains use sleep to process information from the day. This means unpacking all of the information we took in during our waking hours. The brain then runs it through the proper channels, and makes sure our memory absorbs the information. Additionally, our brain works to remove waste and toxic buildup that accumulates in the body. Our brain also signals the body to repair cells, restore our energy, and release a fresh supply of hormones and proteins. With this multitude of important jobs while we sleep, it’s no wonder that a lack of sleep can cause issues. This is especially true if someone experiences long-term insomnia (the inability to sleep). In the case of long-term sleep deprivation, the side effects can be numerous and dangerous. Some of these include:
Memory Issues: If our brain doesn’t have the chance to correctly process and store our daily information while we rest, then the information may be lost. This can result in issues with memory and comprehension.
Mood Changes: Considering that our brain regulates our hormones while we sleep, it makes sense that the lack of sleep can throw hormonal balance into chaos! This can lead to difficulty managing emotions, and as a result, mood changes.
Trouble thinking/concentrating: The brain works nonstop during the day, with its only chance to rest being while we are asleep. If it doesn't get that chance, then its performance is likely to suffer the next day.
Accidents: A decreased ability to think, focus, and concentrate, may lead to accidents. Whether you’re driving, crossing the street, or boiling water for dinner, if your brain is sluggish from a night of no rest, you may find yourself becoming more accident prone.
Weakened Immunity: By removing toxic build up and waste while we sleep, our brain helps to keep us healthy. Without the chance to filter out the garbage, our immunity and health may suffer.
High Blood Pressure: When you are asleep, your blood pressure goes down. Without sleep to help give your blood pressure a break, you will have a consistently higher blood pressure than normal, for longer than normal. Studies show that adults who sleep less than 6 hours a night, are at a higher risk of high blood pressure, and this can lead to an increased risk of illness such as heart disease or diabetes (2).
Weight Gain: Lack of sleep causes many bodily functions to go a little crazy, and this can include your weight. When we are sleep deprived, we are more likely to reach for high-calorie snacks and foods. This means that an all nighter could lead to some bodily urges to make less healthy choices, that can ultimately lead to changes in our weight. Studies have also shown a strong correlation between insufficient sleep, and a higher risk for diabetes.
Did you know that you actually burn roughly the same amount of calories while sleeping, that you do sitting on the couch watching TV? Depending on an individual’s weight and metabolism, we all burn calories while at rest, and this remains true even while we sleep (3). This means that if you’re weighing your options of watching another episode on the couch, or going to sleep, you should probably just go to sleep.
If I haven’t convinced you to dive under the covers yet, then stay tuned, because it’s time to talk about the connection between nutrition and our dreams!
Hopefully you know the importance of balanced nutrition. In case you need a refresher, we have some lovely articles on our blog! Balanced nutrition should include a healthy balance of proteins, vegetables, fruits, and whole foods. An ideal diet would only include a small amount of processed foods and sugar, and would instead be full of fiber, vitamins, and overall goodness!
Interestingly, it seems that our diet has the potential to affect not only our sleep quality, but also our dreams. Let’s dive in.
Eating and Sleeping
While eating and sleeping, sleeping and eating might sound like the dreamy combination that vacations are made of, you don’t want to have them too close to one another. For instance, if you ate a fabulous, protein-rich meal of steak and veggies, you might find that you are tossing and turning when it’s time to sleep. In this case, your body may have needed more time to digest before trying to shut down.
Research also shows us that nutrients impact our sleep (4). If a person maintains a healthy diet, rich in things like magnesium, iron, electrolytes, vitamin D, vitamin C, etc. they are likely to have an easier time sleeping, and a more productive sleep than someone who is perhaps deficient in one or more of these. Specifically, there is growing evidence for vitamins A, C, D, E, and K and their relationship to sleep problems (4).
Let’s say your diet consisted of a lot of carbohydrates today. Simple carbs that do not contain much fiber, often have a high glycemic index, which determines how quickly your body raises its blood sugar in response to food. Often, processed and sugar-rich foods will have a higher glycemic index, which may cause your blood sugar to spike and drop rapidly (5). This can lead to feeling more hungry throughout the day, and (you guessed it) to changes in your sleep. Studies have found that high-glycemic index diets are correlated with less deep sleep at night, and more frequent awakenings (4). Yikes!
With nutrition’s strong influence on sleep quality overall, it should be no surprise that our nutrition may even affect our dreams!
Eating and Dreaming
Assuming that you are someone who can remember their dreams, or perhaps even a lucid dreamer (ooh, fun!), you might be interested to know that the current consensus is that “you have to wake up within 5 minutes of having a dream to recall it.” If you accomplish this on a regular basis, you may have observed a shift in your dream content as a result of eating certain foods, and you are not alone!
It turns out that people across the globe have reported certain foods triggering certain types of dreams, and impacting the frequency of dreams.
Back in 2018, Burger King released an ominous “Nightmare Burger.” Fully loaded with a quarter pound of beef, a fried chicken filet, cheese, bacon, condiments, and spooky green bun, this burger was a hefty and Halloween-themed meal before bed. This “Nightmare Burger” was advertised as a burger that would trigger your scariest, most haunting dreams by 3.5 times! Cue the spooky soundtrack.
A sleep medicine expert, Dr. Jose Gabriel Medina, was the lead researcher on a study about this burger and the one to thank for the estimated nightmare increase of 3.5 times the normal amount. He claimed that the burger’s protein and cheese combination is to blame for the spooky outcome. While it is unlikely that Burger King and its researcher conducted the proper research to truly support this claim, the marketing tactic was nevertheless, a memorable one (6)!
This fast food fad led the spotlight to an earlier study. It showed that 17.8 percent of nearly 400 undergraduate students reported that their dreams were affected by what they ate, and when they ate it. It seems that the content of their dreams, based on the food they ate, tended to be classified as “bizarre” or “disturbing” and some said that dairy was to blame! Others blamed sugary, spicy, meaty, and starchy foods. Maybe this was a confirmation to their theory, and maybe the dreams were just more memorable, because they were more unique (6).
We have been fascinated by the connection of food and dreams for some time. In fact, an even earlier study in 2005 by the British Cheese Board took a look at the impact of cheese on dreams. They found a few notable results, including that people who ate cheddar had dreams about celebrities, but not nightmares (6). (Sorry, Burger King).
Snacks to Avoid Before Sleeping
A few foods that we know to avoid before sleep include:
Many of these foods cause indigestion, which may make you wake up more easily. In this case, it’s possible that the spicy food, or dairy, or carb-heavy items made you more likely to stir, leading you to wake within the 5 minute window for dream recollection. Was the dream particularly weird because of the food, or did you just wake in time to remember this one?
Seeking crazy dreams? Try a banana.
One food that seems to be consistent at causing wild dreams is bananas. High in potassium, bananas also contain vitamin B6. This nutrient converts tryptophan into serotonin, which leads to the brain staying a little more alert during REM sleep (8). So, if you want some enhanced dream recall and intensity, a banana may be a good option!
Sleep on It
The topic of nutrition and its impact on our dreams continues to be popular, and left with a few questions. What we do know is that good nutrition and a balanced sleep schedule can very positively impact our overall health and wellness. So, have a great meal, and happy dreaming!