We all recognize the familiar drowsiness that hits us after a big lunch. It’s why a nap is a part of many people’s routine on Thanksgiving and Christmas afternoons. But does that mean eating big before bed is the key to a good night’s sleep? And, if food makes us sleepy, can it also do the opposite, keeping us wide awake and hindering the fight against insomnia?
In reality, a big meal in the hours before sleep is a bad idea. It may take six or seven hours to pass through the first stage of digestion, the stomach, and the small colon. For some people, that’s not a problem. But the effects of acid reflux and dyspepsia are amplified when you lie down. On top of which, a churning stomach isn’t conducive to relaxation.
So, eating large amounts of anything is bad for sleep. Say no to pizza, even when hunger pangs strike late into the evening. We’ll take a look at what you should do about night-time hunger at the end of this article, but first, let’s take a look at how food affects sleep and some foods that should be avoided altogether if you plan on nodding off quickly and waking refreshed.
How Does Food Affect Sleep?
Your body is an enormously complex amalgamation of systems, each of which can impact the others in subtle ways. Dozens of factors affect sleep, from your emotional state to hormones to environmental stimuli. But food (and drink) play a big role too.
- Indigestion: Indigestion in its various guises is a significant contributor to insomnia, and some foods, as we’ll discuss in the next section, are more likely give you an upset stomach, leading to discomfort, acid reflux, bloating, and Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
- Stimulation: We all know that it’s unwise to drink coffee before we go to bed. Caffeine is a stimulant, but many other foods also contain stimulants. For example, chocolate has both caffeine and sugar, both of which can keep you awake.
- Disrupted sleep cycle: Sleep is divided into phases of light, deep, and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. You switch between phases through the night, and you need to get through them all to wake fully rested. Some food and drink disrupt this cycle. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. It might help you to fall asleep, but it can also prevent you from completing the full cycle, which is why you will struggle to concentrate the next day.
- Inhibited circadian rhythm: The circadian rhythm is a clock that decides when you get tired. It is governed by many interacting hormones and neurotransmitters. The food you eat and its ingredients work with or against the natural rhythm and can contribute to feelings of wakefulness just when you want to go to bed.
What Are the Worst Foods to Eat Before Bed?
Now we’re done with the theory, let’s look at types of food that are the enemy of restful sleep.
- Spicy food: It’s best to avoid hot curries, chilies, cayenne pepper, and other spicy food before bed. It will come as no surprise that spicy food is a major contributor to acid indigestion and dyspepsia. Even people who rarely suffer from a bad stomach feel the aftereffects of a large dose of capsaicin, the active ingredient in chili peppers. Capsaicin also increases your body temperature and accelerates your metabolism, neither of which is helpful when you’re trying to get to sleep.
- Fatty food: Food that contains a lot of fat is hard to digest and a frequent cause of acid reflux. This is particularly the case when fats are combined with proteins. A porterhouse steak or meat feast pizza before bed is a recipe for indigestion. There is also some evidence that a diet high in the saturated fat found in meat and fried foods interferes with the sleep cycle, preventing deep sleep.
- Sugary food: Sugar is at the top of nutritionists’ naughty list for many reasons, including its capacity to reduce the duration and quality of sleep. Eating sugar at night plays havoc with blood sugar levels and the circadian rhythm. A 2016 study found that a high-sugar diet is associated with “lighter, less restorative sleep with more arousals.”
In general, healthy eating is great for sleep as well as physical fitness and your waistline. We’ve covered why you shouldn’t overindulge in the evenings and which foods are bad for you, but what if you do get hungry before bed? Hunger pangs don’t help with sleep either.
What Should I Eat if I Get Hungry Before Bed?
If you need a snack to keep hunger at bay, you should aim to eat fairly small amounts of complex carbs and protein while avoiding excessively fatty or sugary food. The best night-time snack foods include:
- Fruit such as bananas, cherries, and kiwis.
- Nuts such as almonds, walnuts, pistachios, and cashews.
- Whole-grains, oatmeal, and rice.
- Low-fat meat and fish. Poultry is a good choice (although turkey’s soporific powers have been much exaggerated).
For example, a pre-bed snack might be whole-grain crackers with a little low-fat cheese or chicken. Remember, eating large amounts of anything before bed is bad for your sleep, so these should be small snacks, not meals.
To summarize: eat healthily and avoid sugars and saturated fats. Don’t eat at all in the hours immediately before bed, or eat a small snack to see you through to the morning.