You’re running down a hallway; running away from someone? Running towards something? Your feet start to lift off the ground and the ceiling opens up. You float higher and higher, and you get the feeling you’re not alone. You turn to your left and it’s Bob Dylan, laughing and calling you “Mr. Tambourine Man”. Suddenly the balloon you were holding onto, carrying you up into the sky, turns into a tangerine and you start to plummet back to earth. Just before you slam into the ground you awaken; sweaty, sheets twisted, wondering what the hell that was all about.
Dreams are weird. Especially if you’ve eaten a lot of cheese the night before.
Or so says the common myth. From Charles Dickens to Arab Strap, cheese dreams have been a part of our popular culture for over the last 150 years. But is there actually any truth in this old wives’ tale?
A study conducted in 2005 by the British Cheese Board attempted to debunk this claim by giving 200 participants 20 grams (roughly 0.7 ounces) of cheese 30 minutes before they went to bed and asking them to record their dreams and quality of sleep. In the study, 67% of participants recalled their dreams, and none reported the presence of any nightmares, something the Cheese Board is calling a win.
Instead of night terrors, the researchers report that the cheese resulted in pleasant nighttime fantasies in most individuals. They even went so far as to test the varying effects different types of fromage had on an individual’s dream-state. From their conclusions, blue Stilton resulted in the most bizarre trips, affecting about 80% of participants and resulting in visions of talking animals, vegetarian crocodiles and warrior kittens. On the other end of the spectrum, Cheshire cheese produced the least memorable nights, with less than half of the participants being able to recall their dreams.
The study (again, initiated by the cheese industry) also claimed that eating cheese before bed actually helped people fall asleep. This is supposedly due to the relatively high tryptophan content in cheese, an amino acid involved in the production of melatonin (and serotonin), which plays an important role in our sleep-wake cycle.
However, it should be noted that there was no report of a control or placebo group in this experiment, such as participants who ate nothing or consumed a soy cheese sample (yum!) before bed. 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.
As for the dream link, there is only one academic paper that mentions the cheese-dream phenomenon, and that is only anecdotally. However, one Internet theory I found (I know, I’m reaching here) proposed that the bacteria and fungal content in cheese, and in potent blue cheeses in particular, might be at the root of the increase in dream vividness. This is due to the potential psychoactive effects different compounds found in fungi, like tryptamine or tyramine, might have, influencing our brains’ chemical systems and thus our state of mind.
Tryptamine is a common chemical precursor for serotonin and other related alkaloids, some of which are involved in the hallucinogenic effects of psilocybin (“magic” mushrooms) and DMT. However, there’s no hard evidence that tryptamine is actually present in the Stiltons and Gorgonzolas of the world, and even if it was, it would be in extremely low doses. After all, when was the last time you felt high after eating cheese?
Conversely, tyramine is a monoamine that works by releasing other neurotransmitters like adrenaline, noradrenaline and dopamine into the body. Another theory is that tyramine’s effect on noradrenaline release in an area of the brain called the locus coereleus, a region important in our sleep-wake cycle, is altering our dream patterns.
Some antidepressants work by inhibiting the breakdown of monoamines (monoamine oxidase inhibitors – MAOIs), and it can be potentially dangerous to eat foods high in tyramine when on this medication as it can result in an excess of these chemicals in your brain and body. The medication mentioned in the old academic paper, pargyline hydrochloride, actually works as an MAOI, potentially explaining the bizarre effect eating cheese had on the patient. There are also reports of foods high in tyramine causing migraines in some individuals, particularly those on MAOIs; however, another study found no evidence of this link.
Finally, there are numerous other types of foods that contain chemical compounds like tyramine and tryptophan affecting our neurotransmitter systems. This includes cured meats, egg whites and soybeans, none of which have the dream-producing reputation of cheese. So for now, it appears to be an untenable link between cheese specifically and these nighttime apparitions.
Then again, I did eat some cheddar last night, which might just explain Bob Dylan’s appearance in my nocturnal activities. According to the Cheese Board, cheddar was linked to visions of celebrities dancing in your head.
(Thanks to Sam Greenbury for the inspiration for this post.)