Having cheese and crackers before bedtime? Read this first

People have unique biologies and our dreams may be how our bodies react to particular foods

The British Cheese Board argued that the high levels of tryptophan in cheese, an amino acid involved in our sleep cycle, meant that cheese actually helped us to fall asleep. Photograph: Getty Images

The British Cheese Board argued that the high levels of tryptophan in cheese, an amino acid involved in our sleep cycle, meant that cheese actually helped us to fall asleep. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Each week, food writer and curious culinarian Aoife McElwain will research questions about food you didn’t even know you had. What is a 99 ice cream made of and why are we still calling it a 99? What makes a chilli pepper hot? Why do certain people hate coriander, and why do Americans call it cilantro? Why do some culinary cultures use a fork and knife and others use chopsticks? Why do we eat turkey for Christmas dinner, and why does it make us so sleepy? For its first instalment, she’s taking on the subject of cheese. Does it really give us nightmares?

“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blob of mustard, a crumb of cheese...” Blaming cheese for bad dreams was how Ebenezer Scrooge rationalised the appearance of the ghost of Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol. But does cheese really give us nightmares?

On my quest for answers I consult Deirdre McSwiney, sleep technician at the Mater Private Hospital, founding member of the Irish Sleep Society and cognitive behaviour therapist specialising in insomnia.

“There is no known link to cheese giving rise to nightmares,” she tells me. Instead it’s more to do with people’s unique biologies, and how our bodies react to particular foods.

If we’re caffeine-sensitive, eating high cacao-content chocolate late at night might keep you up at night. For those suffering from heartburn or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux Disease), late-night snacks have even more potential to create disturbed sleep, particularly alcohol, coffee, tomatoes and garlic, says McSwiney.

As a general rule McSwiney warns against eating a large meal close to bedtime. How are you supposed to sleep if your body is busy at work trying to digest all that food?

McSwiney points me in the direction of a small 2005 study conducted by the British Cheese Board, where participants were given four different types of cheese, while researchers recorded the influence the cheese had on the subjects’ dreams.

No nightmares were recorded, but those who ate Stilton had the most unusual dreams.

The British Cheese Board also argued that the high levels of tryptophan in cheese, an amino acid involved in our sleep cycle, meant that cheese actually helps us to fall asleep. But they would say that, wouldn’t they?

At any rate there is no evidence to suggest that indulging in a late-night snack of cheese and crackers will result in an unpleasant night’s sleep. Finally, some gouda news for us cheese lovers.

Have a food question you would like answered? Get in touch with Aoife @aoifemcelwain on Twitter or by email at magazine@irishtimes.com with “Now we know” in the subject line.

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