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Can Burger King's 'Nightmare King' Really Give You Bad Dreams?

A new, limited-time-only burger at Burger King has a peculiar selling point: It's supposed to give you nightmares.

Yes, Burger King's Halloween-themed "Nightmare King" burger is allegedly "clinically proven" to induce nightmares, according to a press release from the company.

But in reality, the study the burger chain commissioned to find out if the green-bunned combination chicken-beef-and-bacon burger caused nightmares was not designed to prove anything, clinically or not. And what little data there is on food and nightmares suggests that, if anything, fast food should reduce bad dreams. [11 Ways Processed Food Is Different from Real Food]

Marketing with science?

To show that its Halloween concoction actually causes nightmares, Burger King commissioned Florida Sleep and Neuro Diagnostic Services Inc. to track the sleep and dreams of 100 people who ate the burger before bed for 10 nights.

"According to previous studies, 4 percent of the population experiences nightmares in any given night," Dr. Jose Gabriel Medina, a sleep specialist who led the study, said in the company's statement. "But [for people who slept] after eating the Nightmare King, the data obtained from the study indicated that the incidence of nightmares increased by 3.5 times."

Burger King attributed this spooky effect to the burger's "unique combination of proteins and cheese," which the company says disrupt a person's rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. This is the part of sleep when most dreaming occurs.

A publicist for Burger King confirmed that all of the participants in the study ate the new burgers. That means there was no control group of people who ate their regular diet before bed or even a group of people who ate a regular burger as opposed to the three-meat Halloween monstrosity. With no control group, the study can't prove anything about the burger's effect on nightmares.

Dreams and diet

So, what does the actual science say about fast food and dreams? Not much. There are very few studies on diet and dreams. But research does suggest that, if anything, fast food suppresses nightmares.

A 2007 study in the journal Psychological Reports asked approximately 50 undergraduates to report their dreams and their food preferences. People who reported preferring fast food, chips and other carbs were less likely to report remembering their dreams at all compared to people who liked organic food. A larger, 2015 study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology asked almost 400 students about sleep and food, finding that people who reported unhealthy diets also reported relatively few vivid dreams.

For nightmares, specifically, the 2015 study found no link between diet and bad dreams. The 2007 study found that people who reported liking junk food more had fewer nightmares.  [7 Mind-Bending Facts About Dreams]

On the other hand, there is some evidence that fasting leads to more-vivid dreams, according to the 2015 study. Participants in that study who reported going longer between meals or snacks during the day also reported more-vivid dreams. This result could be due to the effects of fasting on the brain, the researchers wrote. Or it could that the people who skipped meals did so because they were sleeping late in the morning, which allowed them to squeeze in extra REM sleep.

Still, many people do believe that certain foods, particularly spicy foods or cheese, cause bad dreams, the authors of the 2015 study wrote. Indeed, 11.5 percent of participants in that study said they thought their dreams were affected by eating specific foods. Some foods do contain nutrients that can theoretically affect sleep, the researchers wrote, so perhaps these participants were correct.

But, the researchers added, the foods could also be causing gastrointestinal upset that resulted in disturbed sleep and disturbed dreams. Or, the scientists wrote, it's possible that people simply attributed their random bad dreams to food because they already believed in the folklore that links the two.  

At any rate, Burger King isn't the only commercial interest that has tried to lure consumers with the promise that a product will infiltrate their dreams. In 2005, the British Cheese Board produced a study claiming that cheese doesn't give people nightmares. Different kinds of cheese prompted different kinds of dreams, according to the study. Cheddar eaters, for example, enjoyed dreams of celebrities.

That study was never published in a peer-reviewed journal and is likely no more trustworthy than Burger King's. Unfortunately for science, it also failed to investigate the Nightmare King's crowning ingredient, American cheese.    

Originally published on Live Science.

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