Your head is comfortably resting on your buckwheat pillow, the temperature is perfect, your room is dark, and your ultra-soft sheets feel amazing. You are super comfortable (and tired!), yet you toss and turn, unable to sleep. Sound familiar? We’ve all been there!
There are many reasons we can have trouble catching Z’s - stress, medication, caffeine – the list goes on and on. A lesser-discussed sleep disrupter is food. Going to bed hungry or eating too much before bed can prevent you from getting a good night’s rest.
The relationship between food and sleep is complex. There are many conflicting opinions on the topic. That said, there are things sleep experts agree on - how much you eat, what you eat, and when you eat impact the quality of your sleep.
How much you eat
The quantity of food you eat at night greatly affects your sleep quality. This is because of the time and effort it takes to digest the food. Larger meals take longer and require more biological work to digest. A smaller snack is easier and faster to digest and will therefore lessen the sleep-disrupting side-effects.
Eating a large meal before bed can worsen snoring and sleep apnea symptoms. Experts have found that a large meal before bed increases diaphragm pressure, making breathing more difficult. If you are a stomach sleeper and use a stomach sleeper pillow, you may have found that your symptoms are reduced when you sleep face down. Unfortunately, this position won’t help much if you are eating a large meal before bed. Large meals too close to bedtime can trigger the regurgitation of stomach contents and acid reflux, irritating the upper airway.
You can still eat, but it should be a smaller quantity of food. According to a 2015 study published in the journal Nutrients, a small snack is best and even beneficial for your health! The research found that a 150-calorie snack was beneficial for muscle protein synthesis and cardiometabolic health.
A small snack may be better than going to bed hungry. Although some theories suggest intermittent fasting will help sleep, many anecdotal reports and some studies say otherwise. Those who are hungry have just as much trouble falling asleep when their stomach is grumbling. Research has also found that those who are dieting have disrupted sleep making it that much harder to reach their weight loss goals.
Not only does the size of your meal/snack matter, but what you’re eating also makes a difference.
What you eat
According to Carl E. Hunt, MD, Director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research, “we know that certain foods that we consume can interfere with sleep.” Plenty of research has discovered that some foods will help and are considered natural sleep aids, and other foods can trigger wakefulness.
Acidic and spicy foods like citrus, tomatoes, chocolate, and peppermint can worsen acid reflux and heartburn. Caffeine is also a no-go. Coffee, tea, soda, and energy drinks can prevent you from feeling tired, and it doesn’t have to be right before bed to affect you. The National Sleep Foundation reports that caffeine can disrupt sleep, even if you had it 12 hours before bed!
Drinks are just as important as food. Although an alcoholic night-cap may initially make you sleepy, the effects will wear off, and it can fragment sleep. It can also worsen sleep apnea because it relaxes the airway muscles.
Just as there are foods that can prevent you from sleeping, some foods will help you sleep! Pork chops and turkey contain tryptophan, a natural sleep aid that is metabolized into serotonin and melatonin. Warm milk is often dismissed as an “old wives tale,” but there is truth to this natural sleep aid and it’s scientifically proven! Milk contains sleep-inducing tryptophan and some believe when it’s warmed, it relaxes you further making you extra sleepy.
For those with blood sugar issues, eating a low-fat, high-protein bedtime snack can help maintain blood sugar levels. A great option for diabetics and athletes is cottage cheese, as it is believed to support muscle regeneration overnight. If dairy isn’t your friend, try a banana. Bananas contain tryptophan, potassium, and magnesium which sustain blood levels and make you feel sleepy.
Now that you what to eat, you need to time it right.
When you eat
A 2011 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found the eating at night deteriorated sleep quality in several ways. Additionally, they found that women were more vulnerable to the negative effects of late-night eating. These negative effects included taking longer to fall asleep, an increased likelihood of waking up in the night and taking longer to reach REM sleep. As you can see, this could explain why you are tossing and turning at night!
Eating late could also be the reason you are experiencing less-than-pleasant gastrointestinal issues when you lay down. If you suffer from heartburn or acid reflux (GERD), it will be exacerbated when you eat too close to bedtime. If your stomach is full, lying down can cause the contents to reflux into the esophagus, which doesn’t taste or feel good!
Eating too close to bedtime can also cause you to have indigestion or an upset stomach. Additionally, there is evidence that food triggers insulin release, which is linked to circadian rhythm. When you eat, you signal wakefulness that makes it difficult to fall asleep.
Nutritionists recommend leaving two to three hours between your last meal and when you go to bed. Using the advice above, you should have dinner four to five hours before and then have a small, 150-calorie snack about two hours before bed. Snack on sleep-friendly food like a small piece of cheese or banana.
If you are having trouble getting a good night’s rest – take a look at how, what, and when you’re eating. Then tomorrow, plan to eat a small snack two hours before laying down on your comfy buckwheat pillow or stomach sleeper pillow. It’s time to strategically eat your way to sweet dreams and say goodbye to food-induced tossing and turning.