ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Somewhere on the ripe frontier between science and sleep and a hunk of Cheddar cheese, we found our next guest.
Mr. NIGEL WHITE (Secretary, British Cheese Board): My name is Nigel White. I am secretary of the British Cheese Board. The misperception has been that eating cheese before you go to bed gives you nightmares. We wanted to see whether or not we could prove or disprove this myth.
BLOCK: And this is where science comes in. Tell us about the study.
Mr. WHITE: Well, we asked for a number of volunteers to eat a small piece of cheese about half an hour before they went to bed.
BLOCK: How small?
Mr. WHITE: Well, the amount of cheese was two-thirds of an ounce.
BLOCK: Not a lot of cheese.
Mr. WHITE: Not a lot of cheese. And the idea was that they would keep a diary of the type of sleep that they had, and also, if they did dream, could they remember what they dreamt about.
BLOCK: And what did you find?
Mr. WHITE: And they did this for a week, and we found that about three-quarters of everybody said that they slept well every night, and most of those people could remember the dreams that they had. So that was pretty encouraging. And the science of that, we think, is that there is an essential amino acid in milk called tryptophan. Now tryptophan is known to be something which is helpful in normalizing sleep and reducing stress levels. That seemed to make sense to us. What was really wacky was that the type of cheese that people were eating seemed to give them different types of dreams.
BLOCK: Oh, and this would be consistent? In other words, the cheese was the determinative factor here?
Mr. WHITE: Well, as far as we can tell. What we found was that those who were eating blue cheese, Blue Stilton, were coming up with some quite vivid dreams that I'm sure the sleep psychologists would have a field day with in terms of interpreting.
BLOCK: Can you share some with us, or are you bound by science cheese privileges?
Mr. WHITE: Yeah, I mean, one of the volunteers said that she dreamed of a vegetarian crocodile who was upset because he couldn't eat children. And another one dreamed that they had soldiers fighting with each other with kittens instead of guns.
BLOCK: I would think you could consider those two examples you just gave us bad dreams, no?
Mr. WHITE: Not nightmarish. I mean, nightmares are where you're being chased by somebody, you're about to be pushed off a cliff or you fall off a cliff or you get run over by a car. But these weren't scary; they were just wacky.
BLOCK: OK, well, that was Stilton. What other cheeses did you put to the test?
Mr. WHITE: Cheddar is the most eaten cheese in this country, and there seemed to be a theme there where the volunteers were dreaming of celebrities. We have another famous cheese called Cheshire. The people who ate Cheshire said they had nice sleeps, but they were dreamless.
BLOCK: Were you only testing British cheese here?
Mr. WHITE: Yes. And the other cheeses we did were Red Leicester and Lancashire. With the Red Leicester, it seemed to be very nostalgic dreams that people were having about things that happened in their childhood or with their families. As far as the Lancashire was concerned, they'd seem to dream about work. Actually, one even dreamed of being the prime minister of the country. Well, I can assure you it wasn't the prime minister who took part.
BLOCK: Well, Mr. White, thanks for talking with us about your research into dreams and cheese.
Mr. WHITE: Melissa, it's a pleasure.
BLOCK: Nigel White, secretary of the British Cheese Board. He admits he might have a vested interest in the study, but insists the science is good.
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Americans have long been bewildered by the French paradox: that despite consuming a dream diet full of cheese, baguettes and red wine, people in France have generally low rates of coronary heart disease. By some estimates, the average French person eats 57 pounds of cheese each year—more than in any other country—while the average American eats a measly 34.
Scientists have yet to solve the puzzle. Some point to the resveratrol in red wine as one possibility; a more likely reason, say a growing number of experts, is that we were wrong—or at least partially wrong—to condemn saturated fat as a primary cause of heart disease. A small new study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry suggests yet another delicious possibility: cheese.
More research is needed, but in this paper—funded in part by Arla Foods (a Danish food company that produces dairy products) and the Danish Dairy Research Foundation—Danish scientists analyzed data from 15 healthy young men who ate three diets for two weeks. All of the diets had the same amount of calories and fat, but one was rich in 1.5% fat milk, another required eating 1.7 grams of cow cheese per day, and there was a third control diet. The researchers analyzed the men’s urine and feces to figure out how dairy is metabolized and what effect it had on markers of blood cholesterol levels.
When people gorged on dairy products—but especially cheese—their microflora seemed to change. In their feces, researchers saw some metabolites that they know are related to the metabolism of the microflora: short-chain fatty acids like butyrate and propionate both appeared at increased concentrations compared to the control diet. They also had lower levels than the control group of TMAO, a metabolite produced when the body metabolizes choline, which is found in many animal-derived foods, especially red meat. (Lower levels seem to be a good thing; other research has shown that TMAO may help transport cholesterol to the arteries and predicts mortality rates.)
The findings suggest that cheese and milk might help modify the gut bacteria to decrease production of TMAO, the authors write. “I was surprised,” says study co-author Morten Rahr Clausen, a postdoc in the department of food science at Aarhus University in Denmark. “I didn’t expect to find anything in the cheese that would change the microflora.”
MOREShould I Eat Cheese?
The researchers can’t be sure whether the increase in gut-friendly compounds came directly from the cheese or if they were formed by the microbiota, Clausen adds—but they could still have a beneficial effect either way. “I’m not completely sure why, but it seems like the cheese and also milk, but mainly cheese, affects the microbiota after eating cheese and that might affect the composition of the lipids in the blood,” he says.
The study adds a new dimension to our understanding how fermented milk products interact with the body. “The previous mechanism was that calcium binds the fatty acids and they’re just flushed through the gut,” he says. “Our study suggests another mechanism that the cheese might work through.”
More research and studies on bigger, more diverse populations are needed before we definitively solve the French paradox, but these results are promising. “We didn’t know beforehand what to look for,” Clausen says. “Sometimes you find something that you didn’t expect.”
Read next: People Who Love Grilled Cheese Sandwiches Have Way More Sex Than Those Who Don’t
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