Eating a meal directly before bed can come with consequences. After you eat, it takes several hours for your body to move food from your stomach to your small intestine—a process that is far more difficult when you are lying down.
So, is it bad to eat before bed? Eating before bed can make it harder to fall asleep, and it can also trigger nighttime heartburn. Not to mention, having a meal when you are tired can lead to overeating—a habit that may eventually cause more health problems down the road.
This article will go over what you should know about sleeping after eating. You'll learn about what happens if you go to bed too soon after you eat, as well as how different foods can help you get (or keep you from getting) a good night's rest.
Why Your Bedtime Routine Matters
Should You Eat Before Going to Bed?
Eating a large meal before bedtime may do more harm than good. Research shows that eating a meal before bed comes with some health risks, including:
- Poor sleep
- Slower metabolism
- Acid reflux
Additionally, studies show that eating late at night is less satiating (less filling) and leads to greater caloric intake compared to eating earlier in the day. In other words, eating before bed can cause you to feel less full despite eating more than you would at other times during the day.
Over time, chronic overeating can lead to metabolic syndrome—a group of conditions that increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.
All in all, eating before bed should be avoided unless you have a medical reason for doing so. If you must eat before bed, take care to avoid overeating and make healthy decisions about what you consume.
Best Time to Stop Eating Before Bed
As a general rule of thumb, nutritionists will tell you to wait about three hours to sleep after eating. For example, if you have dinner at 6 p.m., try to wait to go to sleep until 9 p.m. This allows some digestion to occur and gives time for the contents of your stomach to move into your small intestine.
Your body's circadian system, also known as its sleep-wake rhythm, prepares your body to be more efficient at digesting, absorbing, and metabolizing food earlier in the day. For this reason, it's best to eat larger meals during the first half of the day, then have a smaller nutritious meal in the evening, a few hours before bed.
What Are the Risks of Eating Before Bed?
Eating before bed can lead to a few health problems, especially when it becomes a habit. Some people may be more prone to the negative health effects of late-night eating than others.
GERD, Acid Reflux, Heartburn
Lying down shortly after eating makes it easy for what's in your stomach to back up (or "reflux") into your throat (esophagus).
This can lead to nighttime heartburn, an uncomfortable burning sensation in your chest, and other gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) symptoms, such as a bitter taste in your mouth (or "burping up" food).
GERD is a chronic condition that happens when there's weakness in the ring of muscle (sphincter) at the lower end of the esophagus. This weakness makes it easier for stomach acid to creep back up into the esophagus. At night, the symptom is more likely to occur if the stomach has not fully emptied by bedtime.
Nighttime heartburn can interfere with your ability to enough sleep because you have trouble falling or staying asleep (insomnia).
Why Acid Reflux Can Cause Choking in Your Sleep
Eating a meal too close to bedtime can harm your sleep, especially if it's a large amount of food. Research shows that the closer a person eats before bedtime, the more likely they are to wake up throughout the night.
Eating also prompts the release of insulin, a hormone that helps your body use food for energy. This process can shift your body's circadian rhythm by telling your brain to stay awake and interfering with your ability to fall asleep.
One study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found a strong link between eating late and poor quality sleep. People who ate late were also more likely to develop severe sleep apnea, a sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly starts and stops.
You won't gain weight simply by going to bed right after you have a meal, but the habit can be a factor in weight gain. Researchers have seen a link between later meal times and weight gain but they aren't exactly sure why there's a connection. It likely relates to many factors, including metabolism and insulin.
There is also some evidence that chronic poor sleep is linked to weight gain in the long run.
Should You Go to Bed Hungry?
Going to bed hungry can interrupt your sleep. If your blood sugar gets too low at night, your body will want you to be awake and go look for food.
What Are the Benefits of Eating Before Bed?
There is some evidence that eating a nutritious snack before bed can actually be beneficial, although it likely depends on what and how much you eat.
May Stabilize Blood Sugar
Everyone's blood sugar levels fluctuate throughout the day. In people with type I and type II diabetes, blood sugar tends to swing in the early morning, resulting in hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) or hyperglycemia (high blood sugar). These early morning fluctuations are known as the dawn phenomenon.
There is some evidence that eating a snack before bed can help keep blood sugar levels stable overnight. In particular, eating a low-carbohydrate, protein-rich snack, like eggs, has been shown to prevent blood sugar spikes in the morning.
However, a review of studies on this matter concluded with mixed results, showing little difference in overnight glycemic control between those who ate a snack before bed and those who didn't.
May Improve Sleep
Going to sleep hungry can trigger your body to wake in the night in search of food. So, having a small, nutritious snack before bed that curbs your hunger may help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep through the night.
What you eat still matters, though. While eating a large mixed meal before bedtime is not a good idea, a small nutrient-dense snack that is low in calories and carbohydrates is unlikely to harm your sleep.
Furthermore, some bedtime snacks may promote positive changes in your body that help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer, especially if you are also getting regular exercise.
Should You Drink Water Before Bed?
Try to put some time in between drinking beverages and bedtime, as you would with your meals.
Having fluids too close to bedtime can make it more likely that you'll need to wake up to urinate, which can disrupt your sleep. However, if you're dehydrated, that can also negatively affect your sleep.
Are There Foods That Help You Sleep?
Some foods have substances in them that may enhance your sleep. For example, turkey, pork chops, and whole milk contain a substance called tryptophan. When it is metabolized by your body, tryptophan turns into serotonin and melatonin—both of which play a key role in sleep.
Melatonin can be found in many plant foods as well. Mulberry leaves are known for having a high concentration of melatonin, making mulberry leaf tea an ideal bedtime drink.
Other foods that contain higher concentrations of melatonin include:
- Nuts, especially walnuts and almonds
If you want a snack before bedtime, choose a low-carbohydrate snack that contains melatonin to help you relax and increase drowsiness.
Can I Have a Bedtime Snack?
Having a light snack before bedtime might have some benefits. A 2015 study in the journal Nutrients found that having a small snack (150 calories or less) before bed might even be beneficial for some of the processes in your body that take place when you sleep, like muscle tissue breakdown and rebuilding and metabolic health.
What’s the Best Sleeping Position for Digestion?
Foods to Avoid Before Bed
When you're planning an evening snack, avoid foods that can trigger heartburn, like spicy and acidic foods such as citrus and tomatoes. Alcohol, chocolate, and peppermint can also worsen heartburn and reflux.
Will Alcohol Help Me Sleep?
While having an alcoholic beverage can make you feel sleepy at first, the effect wears off quickly. Ultimately, alcohol can actually cause fragmented and disrupted sleep. By relaxing the muscles of the airway, alcohol can also worsen conditions like sleep apnea (where you repeatedly stop breathing for short periods during the night).
You'll also want to avoid coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks, and chocolate, which are sources of caffeine.
Caffeine blocks a chemical that makes you feel sleepy (adenosine). When consumed too close to bedtime, caffeine can contribute to insomnia. Caffeine can also make you have to urinate more at night (nocturia). Getting up to use the bathroom can interrupt your sleep.
Not everyone is sensitive to caffeine and people metabolize it at different rates. You might have to experiment with the timing to figure out what time of day you should stop consuming it if you don't want it to affect your sleep.
Why Am I Always Sleepy?
Give yourself about three hours between when you eat your last meal and bedtime. Having a small evening snack that is low in carbohydrates and calories is usually fine. However, you'll want to avoid caffeine and spicy or acidic foods, which can be triggers for insomnia and heartburn that could keep you up at night.
Also, avoid alcohol, which can disrupt your sleep and worsen conditions like sleep apnea.
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