Following a tweet from the very charming Stephen Fry, it seems that myths about cheese and nightmares continue to flourish like Penicillium roqueforti on a well-needled Stilton.
Stephen reports dreaming like an LSD fiend after a midnight snack of stilton. This experience seems to reinforce the urban myth that bedtime cheese causes nightmares. However, the wonderfully named British Cheese Board commissioned a study in 2005 that indicates we can choose our dream content by the type of cheese that we eat before going to bed.
According to the study, cheese does not cause nightmares but actually induces pleasant and relaxing dreams. The British Cheese Board also stated that it hoped to use the results to encourage more cheese eating before bed. So no commercial bias there then.
The report also quotes Dr. Judith Bryans, a nutrition scientist at Britain’s Dairy Council, who states that ‘One of the amino acids in cheese – tryptophan – has been shown to reduce stress and induce sleep’. This would initially appear to be strong supporting evidence but many other foods also contain tryptophan. These foods include chicken, turkey, beef and milk, which all have similar tryptophan levels to cheese.
So why does cheese give us nightmares while milk soothes our sleep? The answer is not the tryptophan level of the food but how easily it can be digested. The more digestible a food is, the more relaxed our bodies will be when we sleep. Cheese takes quite a bit of effort to digest so a post-cheese sleep is often very restless.
The more restless our sleep, the more likely that we are to drift in and out of wakefulness. This makes us far more aware of our dream content and because our body is not fully relaxed, our dream content is often less than relaxing as well. This also happens with other foods that we can find hard to stomach, such as tandooris and vindaloos.
Anything that prevents our bodies from fully relaxing during sleep will tend to make our dreams seem more vivid and intense. The scariest of these are the dreaded nicotine nightmares caused by wearing a nicotine patch in bed. Smoking tends to reduce the intensity of our dreams so when we give up smoking our dreams often come flooding back in full I-MAX splendour. Recent ex-smokers attempting to sleep while buzzing on slowly absorbed nicotine will have some of the wildest dreams that they can possibly imagine.
So despite a brave marketing ploy by the British Cheese Board, cheese does not always give us pleasant dreams and there is no real evidence that we can choose our dream content by our choices at the cheese counter.
If there was, The Shamen might have been singing ‘Cheese is good, cheese is good’ rather than ‘E’s are good, e’s are good’ on their 1992 hit ‘Ebenezer Goode’, bouncers everywhere would be frisking clubbers for concealed Cheddar and methods of smoking cheese would have become vital lore in our (cheese) counter cultures.