Written by Benjamin Semmens, Registered Nutritionist (BHSc)
It’s almost midnight and suddenly you have a desperate urge of hunger. This is completely normal especially if you didn’t eat enough during the day or maybe you feel stressed and anxious and are looking for comfort from food. However, what you choose to eat, or drink can have a huge impact on how you sleep!
If you struggled to sleep when you were younger, you were probably told to follow the old wives’ tale of having a warm glass of milk – turns out they weren’t wrong!
In fact, there are many types of foods and drinks that have a sleep-inducing effect, however, there are also foods that can make your sleep a hell of lot worse!
You may have heard that it’s bad to eat right before bed, but sometimes not eating late at night can have equally disastrous effects for your sleep. For example, if your blood sugar drops too low during the night it’s not uncommon for to awaken in the middle of the night.
That’s why it’s essential to know what foods you should and shouldn’t eat to ensure you get a good night’s rest!
In this blog you’ll be learning about rules for eating late at night, nutrients that support sleep, and the best and worst foods for sleep.
Rules for eating late at night
The first rule to eating late at night is knowing what you should and shouldn’t eat just before bedtime. For example, if its more than 2 hours before bedtime you can indulge in a heavy meal, however if it's less than 2 hours before bedtime you should avoid eating large meals and stick to a nutritious snack that induces quality sleep.
Nutrients that you need to support sleep
Hunger sometimes is inevitable – when you’re hungry, you gotta eat. It’s important to understand what nutrients support a good night’s rest as some foods can improve rest, while others can make getting to sleep a real struggle.
When you’re feeling hungry late at night you need to focus on a couple of key nutrients - tryptophan and magnesium. Tryptophan is an amino acid that helps to regulate your sleep and mood. Magnesium is an essential mineral that has many important roles including inducing relaxation.
Tryptophan and magnesium both have an important role in helping to produce and regulate our sleep hormone melatonin that’s essential to our sleep-wake cycle (aka circadian rhythm) by signalling to our brain that it’s time to go to sleep.
Best foods for sleep!
Let’s kick things off with the OG (original gangster) of sleep-inducing foods. Milk contains both tryptophan and calcium. Calcium has also shown to regulate our sleep cycles with one study showing that calcium deficiency can cause sleep issues and by increasing calcium you can improve sleep. What if I’m plant based? many plant-based milks are fortified with calcium that will have the same effect (1).
Cherries are not only great on top of a cake but are also a natural source of melatonin that regulates your sleep-wake cycles. A 2012 study found that melatonin was significantly increased in people who consumed cherry juice, compared to the people who didn’t. This resulted in increased sleep duration and sleep quality making cherries a great late-night snack (2).
Bananas are a highly nutritious fruit that are high in magnesium and are also a rich source of melatonin that supports healthy sleep. Bananas also contain large amounts of potassium; research has shown that potassium deficiency can cause sleep disruptions. Bananas are the perfect late night snack because they also provide carbs that can help you to feel full until the morning (3, 4).
Walnuts are a tasty snack that can support sleep in a couple of ways. Walnuts are a great source of healthy fats, including omega 3 fatty acids that have a role in serotonin (amino acid) production that can induce relaxation to support quality sleep. Walnuts also contain a large amount of magnesium and melatonin that can help you to improve your sleep quality. Aim for a small handful, as nuts contain a lot of calories (5, 6, 7).
Ever wondered why you fall asleep after a big Christmas lunch? Turkey is one of the highest sources of tryptophan and is one of the most well-known foods to support sleep. The reason why is that tryptophan is converted into serotonin (relaxed brain chemical) and melatonin (sleep hormone) that make you feel relaxed and ready for bed. It’s probably best not to eat a whole roast before going to bed. Instead try something light like a turkey sandwich or turkey on crackers – Yum! (8)
Worst foods for sleep
1. Fried foods
As tempting as it to munch on something fried late at night, its best that you avoid fried foods as they can make your sleep worse. Eating any type of fried food prevents your oesophagus from fully tightening that can cause acid reflux and heartburn. Greasy fried foods are harder to digest triggering heartburn and indigestion. Avoid fried foods late at night (9).
2. Spicy foods
Spicy foods should be avoided before bed as they can cause your sleep to be disrupted. Spicy foods boost your metabolism by increasing your heart rate and producing heat. This causes issues late at night as we need to have a cool body temperature and a lower heart rate to be able to fall asleep. Spicy foods can also be difficult to digest and cause heartburn – making them not ideal for sleep! (10)
While it’s true that chocolate contains magnesium, it also contains caffeine and high amounts of sugar. Caffeine is a nervous system stimulant meaning that it will make you more alert and not in a relaxed state required for sleep. It’s not all bad news though, as mentioned dark chocolate contains high amounts of magnesium and consuming small amounts during the day can be beneficial. Dark chocolate sandwich anyone? (11)
4. Citrus fruits
Citrus fruits including oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruit are delicious and nutritious, however they are also highly acidic that can trigger heartburn and indigestion disturbing sleep. Acid reflux can be even worse when you go to sleep because you are lying down, meaning your stomach acid can flow upwards to your chest causing heartburn keeping you awake. Avoid eating citrus foods too late at night (12).
While alcohol has a sedative effect that can make you feel relaxed and sleepy, it can also contribute to poor sleep and multiple awakenings during the night. Drinking alcohol before bed can cause you to fall asleep quicker, however this type of sleep is typically the lighter stages of sleep as alcohol suppresses your deep sleep cycle (REM) sleep. This reduces overall sleep quality that can lead to shorter sleep duration and more waking up during the night (13).
When you’re hungry you’re hungry for a reason! You shouldn’t neglect your hunger just because it's late at night. It’s important that you’re choosing the right snacks that can help to support your sleep, not make it worse. Try to eat enough during the day to avoid food cravings late at night that can help to improve your sleep.
If you have any questions or need support with your health, feel free to email our head nutritionist Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article does not constitute as medical advice and does not take into consideration your personal circumstances. Please see your medical professional before implementing the above.