In the rich canon of urban myths, the rumour that cheese gives you nightmares is hardly up there with that mad axeman on top of a broken-down car, or the Kentucky-fried rat everyone’s friend of a friend once ate after a night out – it’s the kind of thing that seems credible enough to contain at least a grain of truth.
“the truth proves harder
to come by than a benign hitchhiker on a stormy night in the woods”
Given that great chunks of Stilton and wedges of Cheddar before bed tend to be accompanied by similar hearty amounts of booze (or is that just me?), weird dreams seem fairly par for the course – hell, I’m sure I’ve experienced them myself if only I could remember them.
On closer examination, however, the truth proves harder to come by than a benign hitchhiker on a stormy night in the woods – because, though everyone’s heard of the cheese story, very few people have a shred of evidence to back it up. Witnesses on twitter are prepared to swear blind that their husband always sleepwalks after blue cheese, or that a recent serving of Comte yielded a “beautiful” dream about Ryan Gosling, but sadly in scientific arenas such anecdotes don’t cut the mostarda di frutta.
Even Rhuaridh Buchanan of Marble Arch’s Buchanans Cheesemongers, a man who’s worked in cheese for the best part of a decade, training at London’s oldest cheese shop, Paxton and Whitfield, before setting up on his own in 2014, can’t dredge up a single example of a customer coming back to report strange dreams after eating his wares, though he’s pretty interested in the subject. “I can’t think of any reason for it to be the case,” he tells me, “other than the fact that having a big lump of fat in your stomach before you go to sleep isn’t conducive to a good night’s sleep.”
Cow’s milk cheeses are more difficult for the body to digest than goat’s milk due to the size of the proteins, with ewe’s milk somewhere in the middle, Rhuaridh muses, something anyone who is affected might want to consider, but they’re “probably quite narrow differences”. In fact, he’s of the opinion that dairy in general is a calming influence. Indeed, the link is only mentioned once in academic circles, and then also anecdotally, in a letter to the British Medical Journal in 1964, from a doctor in “Bulawayo, South Rhodesia”, who recounts the tale of a patient who reported “nightmares of a horrifying nature” after taking hypertension medication. “Inquiry produced the fact that he habitually ate one or two ounces of Cheddar cheese with his supper every evening… When cheese was withdrawn from his diet the nightmares
ceased.” The author links this to a reaction between the cheese and the drugs, however, rather than cheese per se.
“a recent serving of Comte yielded a “beautiful” dream about Ryan Gosling, but sadly in scientific arenas such anecdotes don’t cut the mostarda di frutta.”
Surely, though, Swansea University Sleep Laboratory, one of the world’s leading centres for the scientific investigation of sleep and dreaming, will have done work on this– after all, they describe “the aetiology and characteristics of nightmares” as one of their particular areas of interest. But no: regrettably, Professor Mark Blagrove feels unable to offer comment on the subject as it’s not one he’s looked into and, having helpfully asked around amongst colleagues, he comes back empty handed. “It seems,” the university public relations department tells me, “that it falls outside of research carried out at the sleep lab.”
Scrabbling around for anything in the way of cold hard truth, I’m forced to fall back on a 2005 study commissioned by the British Cheese Board. It found that 67 percent of participants given cheese 30 minutes before bed remembered dreaming, and none reported any night terrors, results they trumpeted as proof, there was no harm in a late-night toastie or two. But as Dana Smith notes on nature.com, “there was no report of a control or placebo group in this experiment… Thus, there’s no empirical evidence that it was actually the cheese causing these effects and that it was not just the natural sleep state for these individuals.”
More credible is the Cheese Board’s observation that, far from spoiling sleep, cheese contains tryptophan, an amino acid used in the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with the regulation of mood and sleep patterns. That said, so do lots of other protein rich foods like meat, seeds and nuts, and few people claim a steak before bed is a good idea, so this is probably not a powerful enough link to justify taking gruyere as a medicinal sleep aid.
“having a big lump of fat in your stomach before you go to sleep isn’t conducive to a good night’s sleep.”
In short, though ripe Roquefort and runny Camembert may be the food of dreams, they’re unlikely to cause them, pleasant or not. Norwegian brown cheese, however, is still the stuff of nightmares. Case closed.