What does eating have to do with sleeping? A lot, actually! Just as your body has natural rhythms for eating, it has natural rhythms for sleeping. And if you aren’t careful about what and how you eat, these circadian rhythms can interfere with each other.
Don’t Eat Right Before Bed
Eating before bed will mess up your sleep rhythm big-time. While a very small snack can be okay, major snacking or eating a full meal will significantly raise your blood sugar levels and make you more alert.
“But eating makes you drowsy! Everyone knows that.”
If eating makes you drowsy, then sorry, but—you’re doing it wrong. Eating too much makes you drowsy.
Overeating dampens the activity of a brain neurotransmitter called orexin, which is also involved in regulating sleep and restful states. You may feel drowsy at first, as your body gets confused and forcibly shuts down to deal with the caloric flood, but if you do fall asleep, it won’t be restful.
In an attempt to regulate the calorie overload, your body will try to find a way to burn them off. Literally. Ever wake up hot and sweaty in the middle of the night, after a heavy meal? That’s your metabolism trying to do damage control by ramping up.
Not only is it uncomfortable, but it goes against part of the body’s requirement for sleep—your body temperature dropping. And this can’t happen if 3 cheeseburgers’ worth of energy is fueling your insomnia.
You might need to eat a little food with night-time medication, or you might need a small snack because you’ve skipped dinner and can’t sleep with a growling stomach. This won’t do any harm.
What About Tryptophan? Doesn’t That Make You Sleepy?
Tryptophan is an amino acid, or one of the 20 natural buildings blocks of protein. It is also a precursor for the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is needed to produce sleep-inducing melatonin. While it turns out that the tryptophan you find in a serving (or several) of turkey actually isn’t enough to influence sleep, some experts suggest that small servings of tryptophan-rich foods paired with a carbohydrate may do a better job at producing serotonin in your brain. This is the basis for the old recommendation of a glass of milk at bedtime, but a small serving of cheese and crackers or peanut butter and crackers would work, too.
What About Wine or Alcohol?
While its true that alcohol’s sedative qualities may help you fall asleep, it’s also been shown that alcohol significantly compromises the quality of your sleep, meaning you’re less likely to get an uninterrupted, restorative night’s sleep. And we’ve known for a long time that alcohol is also a diuretic, which means that it’ll leach the water from your body and make you need to pee… thus making you wake up and get out of bed in the middle of the night.
And if you drink so much you pass out—did I mention that you’re doing it wrong? It might make you fall asleep, but drinking that much alcohol has other risks. Such as alcohol poisoning.
Are There Any Healthy Foods That Will Help Me Sleep?
If you’re hungry, a small snack–but not a whole, large meal– may indeed help you fall asleep. Experts recommend a small amount of a food that contains both protein and carbohydrate, like that glass of milk, a small bowl of cereal with milk, or a snack of cheese and crackers. Avoiding caffeine (even during the day) and alcohol are also recommended if you experience difficulty sleeping.
But at the end of the day, don’t forget: food is your body’s fuel, and fuel is made to be burned. You don’t put out a fire by piling more wood on it! If you can’t sleep, the answer probably won’t be found in your fridge.