Eating before bed is a controversial topic. Conflicting advice can be misleading, from recommending a glass of milk before bed to suggesting that pre-sleep eating will lead to weight gain.
So which is it? Is eating before bed really bad for you? Do certain dietary habits support a good night’s sleep? Can others actually disrupt it?
A three-year study conducted in Japan explored how fasting two hours prior to sleep impacted blood sugar levels. The conclusion was that it actually changed nothing.
While most people assume that eating before bed will lead to weight gain, many studies support the fact that the time of day that you consume calories has no greater or lesser effect on weight maintenance. This study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that a control group put on a weight-loss diet actually lost more body fat when they ate the majority of their calories at night.
Conventional wisdom can also weigh in on late-night eating choices. Ingesting stimulants, like caffeine and decongestants, before sleep likely won’t help you sleep. A big meal before bed can lead to heartburn and interrupt your slumber. If you go to bed on an empty stomach your blood sugar may get low enough to wake you up at night. Other people may find an emptier stomach can put your body in a fasting state and actually reduce hunger and cravings. You may think that a drink before bed will help you nod off initially, and it could. But alcohol actually disrupts your body clock and reduces rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep.
So what is the best plan? And how can your eating habits best support a good night’s sleep? It’s easy to feel confused in the face of this question, so here are a few key pointers to keep in mind when deciding if it’s a good or not so great idea to eat before you sleep.
Eating Before Bed – Links to Health Concerns
Different health concerns present different metabolic needs. For instance, a marathon runner, an expecting mother, and a diabetic can be supported by smart eating choices before bed, but each of those choices will look quite different based on their individual needs.
For people with blood sugar issues, eating a high-protein, low-fat bedtime snack may help keep blood sugar levels even throughout sleep and prevent waking up with ravenous hunger. A light bedtime snack can be useful for non-diabetics too. A fibrous, high-protein snack can help athletes’ muscle fiber rebuild overnight. A protein-rich snack, like cottage cheese, can both have a favorable impact on metabolism and help support muscle regeneration.
When it comes to cancer, this study conducted by MCC-Spain found that eating earlier can lower the risk of both breast and prostate cancer. Compared with subjects sleeping immediately after supper, those sleeping two or more hours after supper had a 20 percent reduction in both types of cancer combined. Subjects eating both earlier (before 9 p.m.) and a minimum two-hour interval between mealtime and sleep had an approximate 25 percent decreased combined cancer risk. But it’s not to say that eating late at night is really what can harm your health. It’s about being in tune with your natural rhythms.
“Our study concludes that adherence to diurnal eating patterns is associated with a lower risk of cancer,” said Dr. Manolis Kogevinas, lead author, International Journal of Cancer.
Of course, there are times where disrupting your system in the name of a late-night snack is the best idea for the moment. If you’ve had a few too many drinks, a piece of honey-and-banana toast can be your fast ticket to extra potassium and magnesium thanks to the banana, and better-regulated blood sugar with honey.
If you’ve got a cold, a warm glass of turmeric milk may be helpful. Cow’s milk contains tryptophan, which helps promote sleep. And contrary to popular belief, milk actually does not create more phlegm in the human body. But if milk upsets your stomach, opt for that banana, which is a surprisingly beneficial bedtime snack. Both potassium and magnesium act as muscle relaxants. Bananas also contain tryptophan. The light carbs can make you sleepy, as well as sustain blood sugar levels overnight.
The Effects of Night-Time Eating
While there may be many supporting reasons why eating before bed is healthy, there are few reasons why eating throughout the night is a good choice for your body. It’s often also connected to interrupted sleep patterns.
Night-time eating is not always a conscious choice, and it can become a diagnosable disorder. Night Eating Syndrome (NES) is linked to an upset body clock and can also be connected to other issues, such as obesity, anxiety, and depression. People who suffer from NES remember what happened during the night, and what they ate, which can result in shame, further anxiety, and depression.
The classic image of someone sleepwalking their way to the fridge is a parasomnia known as Sleep Related Eating Disorder (SRED). Linked to potential metabolic issues, weight gain, and injuries while cooking in a dream state, SREDs can pose many risks to people who have them. Though the cases are rare, prescription sleeping medicine has been linked to SRED.
If you eat throughout the night, conscious or unconscious, it’s best to visit the doctor and follow further personal medical advice. Patterns of interrupted sleep paired with eating throughout the night may be a warning sign of a larger problem than simply eating itself.
To Bedtime Snack Or Not to Snack
At the end of the day, your choice to grab a snack come nightfall is ultimately one that should be made from a place of understanding your body and its needs. While some bedtime snacks are much healthier choices than others, there isn’t a one-snack-fits all solution to each sleeper. Each person’s constitution is unique and reacts uniquely to diet and sleep patterns. As Dr. Kogevinas suggests, your body has its rhythms. It’s important to heed those rhythms and make intelligent choices based on them too.