Does Cheese Really Cause Nightmares?

(Image credit: Photo: Getty Images; Illustration: Meg Hicks)

A couple of weeks ago, when I was doing an ultra-scientific study of the best cheeses at Trader Joe’s, a friend warned me not to eat too much Unexpected Cheddar or 1,000 Day Gouda before bed. When I asked why, she said “Because cheese causes nightmares” in a tone that said “You should know this, dummy.”

But should I know this? The idea that cheese can cause your subconscious to seriously freak out isn’t a new one: Back in 1843, Ebenezer Scrooge wondered whether the three Christmas-related ghosts who visited him in A Christmas Carol were related to the “crumb of cheese” he’d had before bed.

Whether it was true or not for Scrooge, the perceived correlation between cheese and the kind of dreams that involve, like, evil giraffes forcing you to eat your own teeth has persisted.

The Cheese Board Makes Its Case Against Cheese and Nightmares

In 2005, the British Cheese Board attempted to put that myth to bed (so to speak), by conducting its own experiment. The Board enlisted 200 volunteers who willingly ate less than an ounce of cheese every night before bed, and then reported their sleep quality and the content of their dreams.

Over the course of that week, 72% of participants said they slept well every night, 67% of them remembered their dreams the next morning, and exactly none of them experienced nightmares. What did affect their dreams was the kind of cheese they’d eaten: Apparently participants who had Red Leicester experienced nostalgic dreams, Cheddar eaters dreamed of celebrities, and those who’d been assigned Stilton had “odd and vivid dreams” including one about a “vegetarian crocodile upset because it could not eat children.” (Dude, that kind of sounds like a nightmare.)

“Now that our Cheese & Dreams study has finally debunked the myth that cheese gives you nightmares we hope that people will think more positively about eating cheese before bed,” Nigel White, the secretary of the British Cheese Board, said at the time. But the fact that the study wasn’t exactly official — and was conducted by an organization that exists purely to promote cheese — means that it’s far from conclusive.

The Correlation Between Cheese and Nightmares Might All Be in Your Head

“That study was not published in a peer-reviewed journal, so I wouldn’t take it too seriously,” Dr. Michael Grandner, the director of the Sleep & Health Research Program at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, told Kitchn. “As far as I know there really isn’t anything out there that documents any serious relationship [between cheese and nightmares]. Some studies have explored the idea, but they tend not to find anything. If anything, a person’s expectations may be a bigger influence than any actual effect.”

Grandner makes a good point: Because we’ve heard that there’s a correlation between cheese and bizarre dreams, if we wake up after being chased by a two-headed version of our least-favorite math teacher, we might attribute that to, say, all of that Unexpected Cheddar we ate before bed.

In a more recent study that attempted to explore the correlation between foods and the content of our dreams, 18% of the participants said that they believed that food could affect their dreams. And a whopping 44% of those people thought that dairy was the biggest dream-shaper.

You Also Might Just Have an Intolerance to Dairy (Sorry)

Still others have suggested that it’s not the dairy itself as much as it could be an intolerance to it. Whether you’ve considered yourself sensitive to dairy or not, if a restless stomach repeatedly interrupts your sleep cycle, you might be more likely to remember your dreams — especially the crazy ones. That could be the cheese’s fault, but the same thing might’ve happened if you had yogurt or milk before bed too.

Weird dreams or not, I’m gonna take my chances with cheese. Do your worst, evil giraffes.