Much of what we believe about sleep isn’t true, especially where eating and drinking are concerned. Sleep has a big impact on our quality of life, and we like to believe that simple behavior tweaks can influence when and how well we sleep.
But modern sleep science shows that many popular tips and tricks for improving sleep are myths — they don’t work, or they actually make it harder to get a good night’s sleep.
Nightcaps Help You Sleep Better
It seems logical that a bedtime tipple would help people to sleep. We often feel drowsy after a small glass of brandy or our favorite liquor. And many people do, in fact, fall asleep faster after a nightcap; alcohol is a depressant after all.
But the problem comes later in the night. Alcohol disrupts the natural sleep cycle by shortening REM sleep and lengthening deep sleep phases. Sleepers wake up less refreshed and rejuvenated. As a 2013 study found, “the effect of consolidating sleep in the first half of the night is offset by having more disrupted sleep in the second half of the night.” Also, alcohol can make snoring much worse.
Big Meals Promote Sleep
If you’re anything like me, a big lunch is often followed by a short nap or at least a period of lethargy. This is a real effect that scientists call postprandial somnolence. It’s tempting to conclude that a big meal late in the evening will do the same for nighttime sleep, but it has the opposite effect, especially when people eat meals with a lot of fat.
Eating a big meal suppresses the release of the sleep hormone melatonin, and it’s hard to sleep while your digestive system is churning away to break food down. Lying down after a big meal can exacerbate gastric reflux, leading to sleep-disrupting heartburn.
Sleep scientists advise against eating a large meal within three hours of your bedtime.
Light Snacks Keep You Awake
If eating a big meal disrupts sleep, does a snack have the same effect? In general, it seems not. Studies have shown that small snacks in the hour before bed don’t make it harder to fall asleep, provided you stay away from fatty foods and stimulants like caffeine and theobromine, which is found in some chocolates and soft drinks.
In fact, it’s better to have a small snack than to go to bed hungry. Your body needs energy, even when you’re asleep. If you’re hungry, insulin levels drop, which leads to disturbed sleep.
The feeling of hunger is primarily controlled by a pair of hormones called leptin and ghrelin. Ghrelin makes you feel hungry, and leptin makes you feel satiated. A small snack before sleep increases leptin production, suppressing your appetite, so you don’t wake up hungry for a midnight snack.
While we’re on the topic, let’s bust another myth: eating before bed doesn’t lead to faster weight gain. If you stick to your recommended daily calorie intake, it doesn’t matter when you eat.
Nicotine Before Bed Helps You Relax
For a nicotine addict, a pre-sleep smoke or vape might seem an essential part of the nighttime routine. Whether that’s true depends on how much you need nicotine. If you wake up every couple of hours for a vape, nicotine obviously disrupts your sleep. However, while cravings can keep you awake, nicotine is a stimulant, and, like caffeine, it interferes with the sleep cycle and prevents a refreshing night’s sleep.
Needless to say, doctors and sleep professionals advise smokers and vapers to quit if they want to avoid disturbing sleep.
You Eat Eight Spiders a Year While Asleep
To round off this article, let’s look at a couple of perennial sleep myths: cheese-induced night terrors and nocturnal spider consumption. As for the first one, there is no evidence that cheese causes nightmares. As we’ve already mentioned, fatty foods aren’t great for sleep, but, despite what Ebenezer Scrooge might have claimed, cheese is no more likely to give you nightmares than other foods.
It will be a comfort to arachnophobes to learn that spiders do not crawl into our mouths at night, seeking a warm and cozy place to rest, only to be swallowed and digested. Spiders are more scared of us than we are of them. While out hunting, they steer clear of people as much as possible, even when we’re asleep.
In summary, to increase the chances of a good night’s sleep: avoid large meals, alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine in the hours before bed; eat a low-fat snack if you’re hungry, and sleep confident in the knowledge that spiders are busy elsewhere.