Medically reviewed by
Dacelin St Martin, MD
Triple board-certified in Sleep Medicine,
Internal Medicine, and Pediatrics.
Most people have experienced nightmares at some point in time, especially during childhood. An event or stress can trigger nightmares; however, they may be caused by other factors.
You’ve probably heard people say they had a nightmare because they ate spicy food right before sleeping.
Sleep is an avenue for our brain and body to reboot and recharge. It’s a dynamic process that is defined as two types: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (non-REM).
Stages of Non-REM
- Stage 1: Short changeover period from wakefulness to sleep, consisting of light sleep, slow eye movements, heartbeat and breathing, and relaxed muscle.
- Stage 2: The period of sleep before entering a deeper sleep, consisting of slow heartbeat and breathing, more relaxed muscles, dropping body temperatures, eye movements stopping, and reduced brain wave activity with occasional jolting.
- Stage 3: The period of deep sleep that occurs during the first half of the night for more extended periods. Breathing and heartbeat levels are at their lowest, brain waves are slower, and muscles are relaxed. During this period, it becomes difficult to wake up.
REM sleep occurs about an hour and a half after falling asleep. As you approach wakefulness, your eyes move rapidly in a side-to-side motion, your breathing becomes fast and irregular, your heart rate and blood pressure increase, and you experience mixed brainwave activity.
Most of our dreams occur during this period, though we cannot act them out since our leg and arm muscles are paralyzed. The older you become, the less REM sleep you experience.
Circadian Rhythm and Homeostasis
The circadian system and the sleep-wake homeostasis controls sleep in the body. The circadian system controls your sleep’s timing by directing your metabolism, body temperature changes, and hormonal release according to a 24-hour rhythm. It operates on a day and night system, telling your body when to stay awake and when to sleep.
Sleep-wake homeostasis regulates your need for sleep and its intensity. If you are sleep-deprived, this system stimulates a sleep drive that makes it harder to stay awake until your body forcefully responds to it.
How Dreams Work
We all dream, although we may not all recollect most of it. We spend up to 2 hours every night dreaming. These dreams are replays of the day’s events, which helps to sort our thoughts. If you have had an anxious or traumatic day, you are more likely to have a nightmare. We can dream at any sleep stage, though we usually dream in the REM stage.
Facts about Nightmares
Nightmares are dreams where we experience fright, terror, anxiety, distress, and many negative feelings. It occurs most times during REM at the latter part of the night and awakens us. We usually recall everything that happened in our nightmare. Here are a few facts regarding the manifestation of nightmares:
- Occur as normal reactions to stress
- More common in females than males
- More pronounced before the age of 10
- Occur in adulthood as reactions to anxiety or trauma
- An episode is usual, except when nightmares frequently occur, causing significant distress, then it is a nightmare disorder
Spicy Food Disrupts Sleep
Generally, eating a few minutes before sleeping can disrupt your sleep pattern. Since the digestive system will be active, keeping the brain busy as well. When you eat something spicy like chili, the reaction is more intense. Spicy food contains an active ingredient known as capsaicin, which increases body temperature.
If you ingest chill or any other similar spicy food right before going to sleep, you might find it hard to sleep. For sleep to occur, your body temperature must be low at the non-REM stage and its lowest at the REM stage. When your body has its temperature deliberately raised, it will interfere with sleep.
The circadian and sleep-wake homeostasis systems kick into action and push for normalcy, causing an internal conflict that translates into restlessness. It can also lead to indigestion and lead to a worsened Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD). You will be restless all night and may suffer from gastric disturbance.
Organic vs Junk Food
Empirical data linking food to nightmares is scarce; however, there is one small correlational study (7 men and 42 women) of dietary preferences and dreaming.
This study found that those participants who preferred organic food reported more frequent dream recall, recurring dreams, and meaningful dreams compared to those who preferred junk food.
Also, those who had a diet in organic food claimed to have more vivid dreams where they reported doing such tasks as flying, risk-taking, sex, and water.
We’re hard-pressed to find any conclusive data that shows a correlation between spicy food and nightmares; however, studies do show that consumption may lead to indigestion, making it difficult to relax and go to sleep.
If your sleep is disrupted, or you’re suffering from chronic daytime fatigue, talk to your doctor. You may have a sleep condition that requires medical attention. Alternately, if you regularly suffer from insomnia, try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT-I). For convenience, there are courses online that use CBT-I to change how you think and feel about sleep.
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (2019). Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep (NIH Publication No. 17-3440c) Office of Communications and Public Liaison, National Institute of Health. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Understanding-Sleep
- Schredl, M. (2018, Aug 9). Nightmares. Researching Dreams, pp. 147-161. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-95453-0_7
- Restonic. (2018, March 5). Does Eating Before Bed Cause Nightmares? Restonic. https://restonic.com/blog/eating-bed-nightmares-2346#
- Yuan, L. Z., Yi, P., Wang, G. S., Tan, S. Y., Huang, G. M., Qi, L. Z., Jia, Y., & Wang, F. (2019). Lifestyle intervention for gastroesophageal reflux disease: a national multicenter survey of lifestyle factor effects on gastroesophageal reflux disease in China. Therapeutic advances in gastroenterology, 12, 1756284819877788. https://doi.org/10.1177/1756284819877788China. Therapeutic advances in gastroenterology, 12, 1756284819877788. https://doi.org/
- Kroth, J., Briggs, A., Cummings, M., Rodriguez, G., & Martin, E. (2007). Retrospective reports of dream characteristics and preferences for organic vs junk foods. Psychological reports, 101(1), 335-338. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00047/full#B23