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Can spicy food really give you nightmares?

After a restless night of sleep, filled with nightmares where velociraptors and chainsaw-wielding maniacs chase you down, you wake up and wonder what caused such vivid, frightful dreams. Could it have been that spicy Thai food you had before bed?

Actually, there is some evidence that eating a spicy meal shortly before going to sleep can lead to some wacko dreams. In fact, eating anything too close to bedtime can trigger more dreams, because the late night snacks increase the body’s metabolism and temperature, explains Dr. Charles Bae, MD, a sleep medicine doctor at Sleep Disorders Center at the Cleveland Clinic. Heightened metabolism and temperature can lead to more brain activity, prompting more action during rapid eye movement sleep, or REM.

About every 90 minutes people experience rapid eye movement sleep as they cycle through the stages of sleep. In REM, when people dream the most, the body’s muscle tone slackens. During REM the brain becomes active, like it does when awake, and the eyes flutter behind the lids. Nightmares only happen during REM and while nightmares are simply dreams with negative emotions, they stand apart because they rouse the sleeper. It’s one of the reasons why it’s easier to recall nightmares than run-of-the-mill dreams. While little is understood about nightmares, experts know that frequent nightmare sufferers often show dysfunction in the frontal lobe and it fails to control the amygdala, which regulates memory and emotions. Disturbances in these regions might impact people without problematic nightmares, contributing to vivid dreams.

So can that extra spicy Pad Thai lead to velociraptors tearing through your dreams?

Lisa Medalie, a clinical associate of psychiatry at University of Chicago Hospitals writes via email: “If our bodies are working hard to digest heavy or spicy foods, it interferes with sleep continuity. We typically advise patients to avoid heavy or spicy foods within [two to three] hours of their bedtime.”

It’s not a subject that has been studied often, but one Canadian report suggested that 8.5 percent of the 389 study subjects blamed bad dreams on food.

“It is … possible that spicy foods—or other foods such as dairy or greasy fast foods—at least occasionally induce nightmares or other bizarre dreams. It might be that some people are sensitive to the chemical composition of certain foods,” writes Tore Nielsen, professor at the Université de Montreal and director of the dream and nightmare laboratory at Sacré-Coeur Hospital, via email.

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