Nightmares? Why Your Diet May Be to Blame

Woman sleeping with eye mask

Image: Seb Oliver/Getty

You are what you eat, especially when you’re having nightmares. Diet, notably what you eat one to two hours before going to bed, can seriously impact the quality of your sleep, including whether or not you’re going to have bad dreams.

The two major things to keep in mind when it comes to food and dreaming: what you ate and when. “When we sleep a number of our bodily systems need to rest and restore,” explains holistic health coach and celebrity nutritionist Mikaela Reuben. “If we have a full stomach or if we have eaten things that are challenging to digest, the digestive tract will be overloaded and cause an increase in brain activity. The increased signaling to the brain during sleep leads to more vivid dream content.” Reuben adds that eating also turns the metabolism up, causing your body temperature to rise, which also affects brain activity. “This is why consuming hard to digest foods or going to bed on a full stomach can both disrupt sleeping patterns and contribute to nightmares.”

“Eating high-sugar foods, like candy bars, before bed can be particularly problematic as they create more brain waves than more healthful food choices,” says Michelle Davenport, Ph.D., RD. Research has also shown that foods rich in tryptophan are linked with greater dream recall and intensity. These foods include chicken, soybeans, turkey, tuna, venison, lamb, salmon, kidney beans, tofu and pumpkin seeds. Similarly melatonin consumption (rice, red radishes, poppy seeds, tomatoes, bananas…), has been linked to more vivid dreams, says Lisa De Fazio, MS, RD, since it controls the sleep-wake cycle.

Lastly, orexin is a protein that recent research has shown may be an important link between diet and sleep because it controls our ability to self-regulate eating, energy balance and wakefulness. While this theory hasn’t been tested extensively, Davenport says that research suggests adopting a low-glycemic, high-protein diet may increase orexin, which would allow for a good night’s rest. “This is easy to do — just swap out the processed sugars for a high-protein substitution (e.g., swap pasta for fish).”

Sweet dreams are only a healthy dinner away.