Food and sleep. Two fundamental aspects of living that we can’t ever seem to get right. How much should I eat? Am I getting enough sleep? When should I go to bed? All these questions—which we are sure to have plagued your mind at some point, highlight the complexities of balancing these two core activities.
For many of these inquiries, there are a myriad of conflicting folk wisdom, anecdotal advice, and scientific literature that may leave you more confused than you were when you started.
So, for a query that combines both elements, it is no surprise that finding the right bit of information may be more tasking than you think.
Is it wrong to hit the sack after consuming a meal? In this article, we crunch through the data and analyze all the known facts to give you a comprehensive overview of everything you need.
Is It Bad to Sleep After Eating?
On your journey to optimize your eating and sleeping habits, the chances are that you have come across the advice that you should consume meals—especially large ones, just before bed.
The purported ills that can stem from this frowned upon practice include weight gain, delayed sleep onset and sleep disruption, and the causation or worsening of digestive disorders and other related health issues.
How much merit does this advice hold?
The key to figuring out any potential for harm is understanding the relationship between food and sleep.
How Food Affects Sleep
One of the most significant relationships between what we eat and how we sleep is the connectedness to the circadian rhythm.
The circadian rhythm is a system of 24-hour cycles that act as clocks for our bodies. These clocks regulate everything from brain function, the release of neurotransmitters, how sleepy we feel, and how well we sleep.
In one study, researchers varied the diet of respondents and found that it had a direct impact on how well they slept. In this research, respondents who consumed a tailored low fiber, high sugar, and high saturated fat diet reported more inadequate, less restorative sleep, and more frequent arousals during the night.
Consequently, we can infer that our diets’ nutrient content can affect the circadian rhythms, brain function, sleep, and, by extension, our overall well-being.
Studies into how specific nutrients and food compounds affect our sleep are still in the preliminary stages. However, evidence that points to them having significant consequences are beginning to appear.
One of the most interesting of these pointers is the effect that tryptophan, an amino acid, has on sleep. In one study, researchers found that increasing tryptophan levels in the blood directly increases the production of serotonin and melatonin, two neurotransmitters that help to regulate sleep onset.
Certain protein-rich foods like milk, peanut butter, pork chops, and turkey pack high doses of tryptophan, hinting at why they often feature in late-night snacking recommendations. Also, some research indicates that the melatonin present in some foods like eggs and fish, and some berries and nuts may directly influence human health and sleep quality.
However, the impact food can have on sleep is not limited to what we eat. When we eat, what we eat can also directly influence our sleep quality.
When We Eat
Several studies also point to the possibility of the timing of our meals having a direct impact on sleep. The consumption of food leads to the release of insulin, a process that keys into the circadian rhythm.
Hence, the introduction of the new food into the body may send signals to the circadian rhythm that results in increased wakefulness and delayed sleep onset.
Consequently, varying our eating patterns can directly affect or even reprogram our body clock and our sleep. This relationship can have some far-reaching consequences, as disrupted sleeping patterns can trigger or exacerbate several metabolic, respiratory, and idiopathic diseases.
Poor sleep can also create other negative psychological issues like lethargy and decision fatigue, which can lead to more poor eating habits, creating a perpetual negative spiral.
3-4 hours to fully clear your esophagus and allow some digestion to occur.
Potential Issues that May Stem from Sleeping After Eating
There is a reason why everyone’s grandma recommends you go for a walk after a meal instead of lying passively on the couch.
Due to the body’s design, the most effective position for digestion is upright. When you are sitting or walking in an upright position, your digestive system faces the least resistance. Hence, in this position, you maximize the rate of digestion and food absorption.
On the flip side, when you sleep (we assume that like us you sleep horizontally,) digestion slows down. Slow metabolism, combined with having recently consumed food in your upper digestive system, is a recipe for disaster.
In addition to the feelings of discomfort and unease that can disrupt sleep, eating just before bed can eventually leave you with a host of digestive issues like GERD and heartburn.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) is a disease that stems from improper digestion. GERD occurs when the stomach’s content comes back up into your esophagus, creating discomfort and a burning sensation.
GERD may stem from a host of other conditions, including obesity, pregnancy, and hiatal hernia.
There are a host of other risk factors that can put you at a higher risk of developing the condition, and one of these is eating too soon before bed.
GERD may also cause heartburn.
Heartburn is a painful burning sensation that occurs around the throat and breastbone. This condition often goes hand in hand with GERD. Both issues often stem from digestive problems, which can be triggered by lying down immediately after a meal.
Certain types of food like chocolate, fatty foods, spicy foods, alcohol, and coffee are known instigators of heartburn episodes. Hence, consuming any of these foods and drinks before hitting the sack is just asking for it.
However, heartburns can also be triggered by stress and anxiety, adverse reaction to anti-inflammatory painkillers, and by being overweight.
If you experience GERD and heartburn that doesn’t stop even after varying your mealtimes, you should consider consulting with a sleep specialist for proper diagnosis and treatment options.
Possible solutions in such cases may range from using medications, modifying your sleeping position with a wedge-shaped pillow, or in rare cases, surgery to strengthen the muscle the regulates the flow of food between the esophagus and the stomach.
Contrary to popular belief, eating before bed does not directly lead to weight gain. Weight gain stems from consuming a caloric surplus, and the timing of your meals has little to no say in the matter.
However, there are some peculiarities about night eating that explain why it results in weight gain for many.
Getting more sleep can also help prevent weight gain. Studies show that sleep deprivation can lead to increased hunger during the day due to hormonal imbalances and create a higher propensity to overeat.
First, for many, their late-night snacking often qualifies as an extra meal outside their already hefty daily calories. These add ons can quickly add up.
Furthermore, at night, we would typically have expended most of our willpower, leaving us with reduced resistance for lousy food. Hence, it is no surprise that late-night eaters often opt for high-carb, high-sugar, calorie-dense meals like ice cream, potato chips, and burgers that can do significant damage to your waistline in no time.
Delayed Sleep Onset and Disrupted Sleep
Almost all the other potential problems we highlighted in this article can lead to delayed sleep onset and disrupted sleep.
Furthermore, some specific food types may lead to other issues that can cause sleep disruptions.
Fatty foods can cause bloating, constipation, and stomach pain, which can significantly detract from your sleep quality. Spicy foods can cause indigestion, heartburn, and acid reflux. Stimulants like alcohol and coffee can also considerably impair your sleep.
However, while going to bed on a full stomach can hurt your sleep quality, trying to sleep on an empty stomach will do you no help either. A growling empty stomach can often create as much discomfort as a full one.
The key to finding balance is to allow enough time after your last meal before bed. Furthermore, if you need to snack, opt for lightweight, healthy options that can make all the difference.
Safe Snacks to Eat Before Bed
With our busy lives and changing schedules, eating late at night may be unavoidable for the bulk of the population.
If you fall into this category, a good rule of thumb is to ensure that you get in enough calories during the day. Eating enough food during the day will reduce the likelihood of deep hunger pangs come nighttime.
Furthermore, when eating during late-nights, opt for balanced portions that contain a healthy dose of fiber, protein, and carbohydrates. One sleep expert recommends whole-grain biscuits paired with cheese and milk or Greek yogurt, and a dash of granola.
The best nighttime snacks are those that are low in calories and easy to digest.
You can consider other healthy foods, including high-fiber cereal, almonds, cottage cheese, avocado, and soups.
Recommended Interval Between Your Last Meal and Sleep
Expert nutritionists recommend that you wait three hours after your last meal before hitting the sack. Allowing this interval between meals and sleep will help ensure that the bulk of the early digestive process occurs before you hit the sack.
Adhering to these guidelines can help to reduce the onset of heartburn and other digestive problems significantly. This practice can also help you sleep better and prevent insomnia.