Does Eating Spicy Food Really Trigger Nightmares?

Unless you aren't that fazed by horror films, haunted places, and other frightening phenomena, nightmares are not a very pleasant experience. Bad dreams can affect your entire day, no matter how old you are. Dreams, including nightmares, have been analyzed by neuroscientists, psychologists, and oneirologists for many years. According to Psychology Today, modern laboratory dream studies were first conducted back in the 1950s, when rapid eye movement (REM) sleep was discovered. A Knowable Magazine podcast episode explains that humans have been interpreting the meaning of dreams for millennia — finding patterns and connections, deciphering what they tell us about ourselves, and what causes them.

Over time, scientific research has shown that nightmares, specifically, can be triggered by a number of incidents, such as trauma, anxiety, depression, stress, grief, major life changes, the content we consume, and even the food we eat. It is widely believed that particular foods can activate these scary dreams, especially if they have a spicy kick. So, how, exactly is this possible?

Eating spicy food boosts metabolism, which surges brain activity

Say you knock back a whole plate of buffalo wings or stir fry or ramen with an extra dash of heat then hit the hay shortly after. You then manage to forget your entire class schedule as you roam your old high school, watch your teeth fall out, or are viciously attacked by a wild animal. Suddenly, you wake up and realize that, thankfully, you were only having a nightmare. What gives? Well, you can probably blame the spicy food your body was digesting while you slept. And there is indeed some evidence to back up this flavorful notion.

A 2015 National Library of Medicine study found that participants who ate spicy foods before falling asleep were much more likely to have disturbing dreams than those who did not. Nearly 19% of these subjects reported distressing, creepy dreams after eating spicy food. But as it turns out, consuming almost any type of food too close to bedtime can provoke nightmares. According to Dr. Charles Bae, MD, a sleep medicine doctor at the Cleveland Clinic Sleep Disorders Center, eating naturally increases the body's metabolism and temperature, which therefore leads to a more active brain while we sleep, per NBC News. The result? More vivid dreams — and maybe a rougher morning.

While more research must be done to truly prove the spicy food hypothesis, it's safe to say that peppery dishes pose a few more risks than your mouth feeling like it's on fire.