For many of us, an after-dinner snack is a guilty pleasure to indulge in just an hour or two before bedtime. Or maybe we’re middle-of-the-night, can’t-sleep eaters. For many of us, we’re trying to not do the whole eating-before-bed thing, whether it’s to cut calories or go to sleep earlier.
The good news is, if your motivations for not eating before bed are sleep-based, you might not have to totally let go of that nighttime snacking habit. However, the type of food you choose to eat is all-important; some foods will mess up your sleep while others might help. This is because the vitamins, minerals and nutrients in food can affect your body’s ability to go to sleep, stay asleep, and feel rested (or not) the next day.
So, how do we know which foods are sleep-safe? Here are a few of our yeses, as well as a few of our hard no's, to help you get started:
When it comes to a nighttime snack, bananas do double duty. They’re known for their high levels of potassium and magnesium, which are protective and restorative to muscle and nerve function. But bananas also have a whopping 11 milligrams of tryptophan, an amino acid that helps regulate melatonin production and proper sleep cycles.
No: Citrus Fruits
Citrus fruits are great during the day: you’ve got all those good antioxidants and revitalizing nutrients. But citrus is also acidic, sugary, and have a high fiber content. Acids can make your stomache uncomfortable, sugars can spike your energy levels, and citrus are difficult to digest. Keep your citrus consumption for earlier in the day.
Tuna works to help sleep in two ways. First, tuna is high in tryptophan, an important aid in melatonin and serotonin production. Second, tuna is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which work to reduce inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation has been linked to chronic poor sleep.
No: High-Fat Foods
So there are different types of fat. There’s the good stuff you find in fish, and the bad stuff you find in fried foods and snacks like potato chips. Foods high in the bad fats are difficult to digest, so while they may feel comforting while you’re eating, you likely won’t sleep well. Yet another reason to cut out fried foods for your health!
Yes: Tart Cherries
While you should stay away from citrus before bed, that doesn’t mean that a good tart fruity snack is off the table. Tart cherries seem to improve sleep in an indirect and somewhat mysterious way. Drinking cherry juice daily has been linked to higher melatonin (the go-to-sleep hormone) levels in the body, which leads to better, more restful sleep.
No: Spicy Foods
We love a good curry, but not before bed. Spicy foods can cause acid reflux and heartburn, and are more difficult to digest, making it harder to lay down and relax. As well, spicy peppers can actually raise your body temperature, and it’s difficult to get to sleep when you feel too warm.
Everyone knows the after-Thanksgiving-meal nap, and that’s a lot to do with the turkey you just shoveled into your mouth. Turkey is high in tryptophan, which increases serotonin (helps you relax) and spurs melatonin production (makes you drowsy). So making yourself a turkey sandwich is a great choice for a late-night snack.
No: Sugary Foods
Foods high in sugar aren’t a good idea at night for a couple reasons. One, the little energy kick sugar gives you can stop you from being able to fall asleep. Second, the spike and crash in your blood sugar levels keeps your body working, leading to restless sleep.
Oatmeal, whether hot or cold, is a great choice for night-snacking. You can even make a little parfait with Greek yogurt if you want, as it’s also a good sleep food. Oatmeal has magnesium and melatonin, and because it’s whole grains, its complex carbohydrates keep you full during the night, helping you sleep more restfully.
A couple squares of dark chocolate is a popular choice for people who have a sweet tooth but are trying to lay off the ice cream and cookies. But did you know chocolate has caffeine in it? So yeah, a little counterintuitive to getting to sleep.
So what if you’re not trying to eat, but you still want something comforting to help you relax? A cold glass of milk might do it! Or warm milk with just a bit of vanilla – that’s a good one, too. Milk is high in tryptophan as well as calcium. And calcium doesn’t just keep your bones strong; it helps your body use more of the tryptophan you’ve consumed, leading to a drowsy feeling and improving that all-important REM sleep.
While the vast majority of adults have a drink or three in the evening to help us relax, that nightly glass of wine could actually be hurting your sleep health. While alcohol gives a sedative effect, it’s just for a while. Once your body starts to metabolize the alcohol, you’ll wake up, and the rest of your night will be restless.
A Few Last Foody Tips for Better Sleep
There are a few more foiling habits to consider when discussing sleep and food; just as important as the food you choose to eat is how you choose to do it. Avoid these sleep-food foils:
Stop consuming anything caffeinated by 2 pm. Caffeine’s life cycle in the body can last up to 8 hours. And that includes not just coffee, soda and energy drinks, but healthier drinks like tea and kombucha as well.
While that 8-glasses-a-day thing with water consumption is important, don’t save that last glass or two for late at night. Drinking water before bed disrupts sleep, and then you’re up and down from the bathroom at least once a night while you should be sleeping.
Don’t go to sleep actively hungry. If you go to sleep hungry, your blood sugar levels drop, which may cause headaches or dizziness. As well, hunger and sleep are a vicious cycle: going to bed hungry hurts sleep. Failing to get enough sleep leads to overtiredness.
Being chronically tired makes your body produce more ghrelin and leptin, which makes you feel hungry, even when you’re not. And then we cycle back to going to sleep feeling hungry. See? Sleep snacks are a good idea!
A good sleep schedule filled with REM and deep, uninterrupted sleep affects pretty much everything about our long-term physical health, our mood, and daily energy levels. And while you could be sleeping on the nicest custom mattress money can buy, it won’t matter if you’re drinking coffee at 7 pm or indulging in chocolate cake at 10. So, just as you should be doing during the day, when you’re deciding what to eat at night, just be mindful. Make mindful eating a 24/7 thing; you won’t regret it.