Sleep is fickle. The quality of your sleep is altered by decisions you make throughout the day—even choices that seem inconsequential can improve your night, or take a toll. More than a third of Americans don’t sleep enough, according to the CDC, even though a good night’s rest is essential to overall health and wellbeing. So, it's important to do what you can to get the most out of each night.
Look at a screen right before bed? You’ve likely suppressed your body’s production of melatonin, the sleep hormone that should increase by day’s end, causing drowsiness by bedtime. Eat or drink the wrong thing too close to bedtime and you may experience acid reflux, or find your sleep disrupted throughout the night. We spoke to experts and learned how food can help—or hinder—your sleep.
1. When you eat is as important as what you eat
Eating right before bed is like asking your body to multitask, according to Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, a nutrition and wellness expert with a virtual practice based in New York City. It may seem as if your experience of food ends after you chew and swallow, but in reality, your digestive tract is chipping away long after your last bite. In fact, it can take food six to eight hours to pass through your stomach and small intestine—so if you eat a lot right before bed, your digestive tract could be up all night.
The ideal situation: Curb eating two to three hours before you plan on hitting the hay. (Unless you have specific nutritional needs, such as athletes working to build muscle who may need a protein-filled snack before bed, Cassetty says. People with diabetes may also have bedtime snack considerations)
2. How much you eat throughout the day can affect your night
Going to bed with a growling stomach isn’t great, either. There are two metabolic hormones that are front and center when we talk about food: Leptin, and ghrelin. Leptin signals when your body is satisfied, and ghrelin makes you hungry. Scientists suspect that with enough leptin, you’ll sleep through the night. However, if you go to bed hungry, or didn’t eat enough throughout the day, elevated ghrelin might cause you to wake up, or have a shorter sleep duration.
An estimated 45 million Americans diet each year. But if you’re too calorie restrictive throughout the day, you may feel more inclined to snack at night, according to Marie-Pierre St-Onge, an associate professor at the Columbia University Institute of Human Nutrition, who studies sleep and diet. “If you’re not restricting so much, then you’re not going to have that much of a [drive] to eat later at night,” she says.
3. Making healthy dietary choices across the board will benefit your sleep
Try to reach for whole foods and complex sugars all day, not just before bed. If you opt for plant based whole foods, like fruits, legumes and veggies, which are high in fiber and important nutrients throughout your day, your sleep will likely benefit, Cassetty says.
Overall sugar intake can interfere with sleep—regardless of when you pick up that doughnut or cookie, according to both Cassetty and St-Onge. “We've seen that when people consume more simple sugars during the day, they have more arousal that night. When they eat more fiber they tend to have deeper sleep,” St-Onge says. So sticking with fibrous and nutritious foods is always a good bet.
4. Nighttime cravings and actual hunger can be different things
When you get snacky right before bed, Cassetty suggests taking a moment to think about whether you’re truly hungry, and your stomach is growling, or if you’re reaching for food because you’re bored. Some researchers think boredom snacking may serve as a distraction, and found that people in this situation often prefer unhealthy food.
If grabbing a quick nighttime bite has grown into a routine, Cassetty suggests replacing it with something else—like a jigsaw puzzle, soothing coloring books for adults, or quick meditation and deep breathing exercises. St-Onge recommends people set a time for the kitchen to close—say 7 or 8pm, depending on how early you like to go to bed—and stick with it.
5. Not all evening snacks are equal
You’ve done everything right throughout the day, eaten well, and dinner was several hours ago. But even as you’re getting ready to brush your teeth, your stomach keeps growling and being under the covers won’t make it stop. You determined you're not experiencing boredom hunger, so what now?
Cassetty says one of the best things people can eat at night is kiwifruit. Researchers found that eating two kiwis an hour before bed may improve sleep onset and duration. If a couple of the fuzzy fruits isn’t enough, you can pair them with a few walnuts or pumpkin seeds, she says.
Kiwi isn’t the only fruit, or fruit based substance, thought to improve sleep. Researchers found that older adults experiencing insomnia, who drank tart cherry juice (made from fresh, tart cherries, not concentrate or another blend) had a modest, but beneficial, impact on the participants’ sleep. St-Onge says that certain foods may help because they have naturally occurring melatonin, but we need more research on how, and why, these foods might help you doze off.
6. Nightcaps are a bad news for sustained slumber
Even though the name sounds promising, nightcaps and other alcoholic drinks are a bad choice before bed. You might think that you sleep well after drinking, and in some ways you do. Alcohol generally makes it easier for people to fall asleep, and can cause you to succumb more quickly to a deeper sleep. However, researchers found that for both heavy and light drinkers, alcohol tends to cause increased “wake after sleep onset,” which refers to how much a person wakes up after initially falling asleep.
Alcohol also changes REM, or rapid eye movement, throughout the night. Moderate to high doses of alcohol cause a decrease in REM sleep. This stage of sleep is hypothesized to be important in memory, and could be connected to our ability to regulate emotions.
7. A post-dinner cappuccino isn’t the best way to wind down
Drinking caffeine late in the day can make it harder for you to fall asleep, Cassetty says. Stimulants can take up to six hours to wear off, and for people who are more sensitive to caffeine, it could be even longer. “Decaf is a better option, but even that has some caffeine, so if you know you’re sensitive to the effects, go for an herbal, decaffeinated tea instead,” she recommends.
Even heavily relying on caffeine during waking hours could take a toll on your sleep. Studies found that people with caffeine dependency are prone to experiencing more nighttime disturbances, and have lower sleep quality overall.
It’s hard to skip your morning and afternoon cup of coffee or tea, so even if that’s out of the picture, don’t drink caffeinated beverages too close to when you’re planning on calling it a night.
8. Large, rich meals close to bedtime are a recipe for bad sleep
Set aside foods that are high in fat and very rich, like bacon cheeseburgers with a side of fries, well before you go to bed, Cassetty says. Eating meals right before sleep is bad in general, but especially those that are rich and fatty. This is because this type of meal and food takes longer to digest, and “even healthy people may experience reflux after eating a meal this big and rich,” she says.
No matter what type of meal you eat, even if it’s healthy, you’re more likely to experience gastric reflux, have delayed digestion, and be less comfortable all around after lying down for the night, St-Onge says.
9. Sriracha, tabasco sauce, or other spicy foods may really fire you up
As if lying down and the possibility of feeling some acid reflux wasn’t enough, spicy foods can make it all worse. The acidity can even make it harder for people with sleep apnea to catch some zzz’s, because it may irritate the airways.
It’s no secret that being warm often makes it harder to sleep. Researchers even theorized that maybe an increase in body temperature after eating extremely spicy food affects sleep quality. Tabasco sauce, for example, has an ingredient that can stimulate the metabolism.