Have you ever considered that the reason you’re lying awake in bed at night unable to sleep could have something to do with the steak you had for dinner? Or the takeaway pizza you finished only an hour before bed? Or the ice cream you indulged in?
Before you turn away from this article in fear that I’m about to tell you to stop eating what you like, STOP! Don’t go! I’m not going to tell you to stop eating meat or ice cream or pizza. In this article, I’m going to tell you why you should reserve some mouth-watering meals for earlier in the day.
How Does What We Eat Affect Our Sleep?
Not all foods are created equal. Some foods take our digestive system a long time to get through, while others don’t take any time at all! Some foods instigate a hormonal response in the body that can interfere with our sleep, while other foods promote good sleep.
Red meat, for example, while very tasty, takes a lot for our digestive system to process. Due to the high-fat contents (which aren’t necessarily a bad thing in moderation and at the right time of day), our digestive system produces acid in the stomach, which can lead to sleep-inhibiting acid reflux. Anything fried or fatty can cause this acid reflux, so it’s best to avoid these types of food for dinner.
How Does Our Sleep Affect What We Eat?
There’s a bit of a spiral effect that happens with our sleep and nutrition. Studies have shown that when we are sleep-deprived, we actually make worse nutritional decisions.
It makes sense when we think about it. When we don’t have enough sleep, we need to get our energy from elsewhere, so we resort to food. Because sleep directly impacts our decision-making process, when we don’t get enough sleep, we’re pretty bad at making decisions.
You might recall sleep-deprived days when you sent an email you maybe shouldn’t have or put together a bit of a questionable outfit. Or maybe, instead of opting for the healthy lunch you had planned, you decide to go for some fast food instead.
So when we’re tired, we will resort to food for energy, and we won’t be in a position mentally where we can make good nutritional decisions as our decision-making process is impaired.
Bad food decisions before bed will lead to more restless nights, resulting in more bad decision-making and over-eating. It truly is a vicious cycle!
So what foods should you avoid before bed? How could they affect your sleep?
Food To Reserve For Earlier In The Day
We’ve already gone into it a bit, but red meat before bed will make it that much more difficult to get to sleep and can interrupt your sleep throughout the night. Red meat takes a lot of effort for our digestive system to get through, which is fine in moderation if your health enables you to consume red meat, and with plenty of time before bed!
The high-fat contents of red meat cause acid to be released in the stomach which can lead to acid reflux, which is not something you want before bedtime!
To avoid heartburn-triggering foods before bed, avoid anything super fatty or fried.
I know I know, it’s sad that pizza’s on the list, but so long as you finish eating it 4 hours before bedtime, you should be fine!
The problem with pizza before bed is similar to the red meat problem. Tomato sauce is acidic, and cheese is rich in fat. This combination often leads to heartburn which will keep you up. Reserving your pizza indulgence for lunchtime instead of dinner is a great option if you’re looking for a better night’s sleep!
Tomatoes on pizza aren’t the only heart-burning culprit. Tomatoes are acidic food, which can cause indigestion, heartburn, and acid reflux. Similarly, grapefruit is high in acidity, which can lead to the same digestive problems just before bed.
These foods are great earlier in the day, as they’re packed with nutrients and goodness! It’s just best to avoid 4 hours or less before bed.
Fermented Foods (Sour Cream, Aged Cheese, Yoghurt)
Fermented foods contain tyramine, an amino acid that’s known to stimulate the brain. Before bed, we want the opposite effect of brain stimulation, so it’s probably best to avoid fermented foods before bed.
For cheese lovers, opting for a Cottage Cheese or Ricotta snack before bed would be better, as these cheeses are unfermented and do not contain the brain-stimulating tyramine.
You might have heard the rumors that cheese causes some whacky dreams, however to date, there is no scientific evidence to back this up. It’s possible that because we often consume cheese with red wine, it’s rather the alcohol causing the crazy dreams, but it’s still up for debate.
“Have a nightcap, it’ll knock you out!” It is unfortunately very bad advice for those who can’t get to sleep.
Yes, alcohol makes us sleepy, and it might even knock us out quicker than sleeping sober, however, alcohol has a BAD effect on the quality of our sleep…
According to research, alcohol reduces REM sleep, a vital sleep stage for health that’s thought to be responsible for memory and mood. The more alcohol we drink before bed, the more pronounced these effects.
Alcohol is deceptive as it can help to induce sleep, but it’s important to remember that overall, alcohol is more disruptive to sleep. Consider reducing your alcohol intake to improve sleep quality, or try allocating one day per week where you sleep sober, adding one sober day at a time to your sleep routine.
A study conducted in 2016 found that people who consume high levels of sugar typically have lower sleep quality. Sugar consumption is pretty detrimental to sleep for a few reasons…
When we consume sugar, we get a surge of energy, which is not what we want just before bedtime. Sugar causes blood sugar levels to rise and our pancreas to release insulin, which in turn helps the sugar to be taken into the cells, which gives them the energy to run on.
Sugar consumption before bed lowers our sleep quality which can lead to sleep deprivation, which as we previously mentioned, impairs our decision-making abilities, especially when it comes to what we decide to eat.
After a bad night’s sleep, it’s going to be more difficult to opt for that healthy lunch you’d planned. Instead, the fast-food option or ready meals are going to be much more desirable, along with snacking to make up for lost energy.
When it comes to sugar, limiting our intake overall is going to benefit not only your sleep but also your overall health. Limiting sugar intake at least 4 hours before bed will improve sleep quality and possibly quantity.
Depending on where you are in the world, spicy foods could be worth adding into your pre-bed diet, or avoiding at all costs…
In order for our body to initiate sleep, our core body temperature needs to drop 1-2 degrees Fahrenheit. Spicy foods increase our core body temperature, which is the opposite effect we’re looking for in the evenings before bed.
HOWEVER, there’s a reason spicy food is so popular in hot countries. It’s because eating spicy foods can offer a cooling effect, as they cause us to sweat, with the heat evaporating the sweat, causing us to cool down!
So the trick with spice seems to be if you’re in a hot country, eat it before bed to cool down as your sweat evaporates, offering a cooling effect.
If you’re in a cold country, you’re just going to get hot and sweaty with no relief, so best to avoid it before bed.
Photo by Anaís Almeida on Unsplash
This might seem like an obvious one, but it’s worth noting in this list! Do we finish a nice dinner out (or in these days) with an espresso coffee? This seems to have become the norm in the modern-day. We look for a pick-me-up after a filling dinner that tires us out as our digestive system is hard at work. If you’re looking for better sleep, try ditching the coffee and caffeine at least 4 hours before bed.
So What Can I Eat Before Bed
I know that seems like a lot of food to stay away from for dinner. Although the good news is there are plenty of foods we can eat that PROMOTE a good night’s sleep!
Not only do these nuts promote health when eaten regularly, lowering the risk of a few chronic diseases. Such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, but they also are a great source of melatonin!
Melatonin is our natural sleep hormone. It is produced and released when the sun sets (and we don’t have any artificial lights interfering) and encourages the body into a sleepy state. Because almonds are a great food source for melatonin, they can help us stay in our sleepy state.
It’s high in protein which may contribute to its ability to promote tiredness, as evidence shows that consuming a small amount of protein before bed could be associated with better sleep.
The real interest in consuming turkey before bed, though, is due to it containing the amino acid tryptophan. This increases the production of our sleepy hormone melatonin.
This is great news for those of us who like ending our dinner with something sweet.
There was a 4-week study conducted in which 24 adults consumed two kiwis an hour before going to bed every night. The study concluded that participants fell asleep 42% more quickly. Compared to when they didn’t consume anything before bed.
On top of that, their ability to sleep through the night improved by 5% while total sleep time increased by 13%.
Why are kiwis so sleep-promoting? They help the production of serotonin! A brain chemical that helps regulate your sleep cycle.
Great for your overall health, and another food that promotes the production of serotonin! Fatty fish are packed with vitamin D. One study showed that men who ate 300 grams of Atlantic salmon three times per week for 6 months fell asleep around 10 minutes faster than men who ate beef, chicken, or pork.
This is thought to be due to high levels of vitamin D in fatty fish, which is linked to a significant improvement in sleep quality.
One of the best food sources of our sleepy hormone melatonin, with an omega-3 fatty acid that’s converted to DHA in the body, which may increase serotonin production, walnuts could be a great food option an hour or more before bed.
One study compared the sleep habits of 1848 people solely based on their intake of bread, noodles, and rice. The study concluded that a higher rice intake could be associated with better sleep compared to bread or noodles, also offering a longer sleep duration.
Why? The answer could be due to the high glycemic index. High GI may promote sleep. However, it’s worth noting that variety in our diets is important, and white rice is best to be consumed in moderation. Due to its low amounts of fiber, nutrients, and antioxidants compared to brown rice.
A Good Rule Of Thumb
If you can aim to stop your food consumption 4 hours before bed, you’ll likely see an improvement in your sleep quality and quantity! While some foods are worth eliminating from your diet altogether. We need to find a healthy balance between taking care of our physical and mental health and indulging without guilt.
If you can tailor your dinners around the list of sleep-promoting foods, only consuming the not-before-bed foods during the day, you’ll be on your way to better, longer sleep!
Who Is The Author?
Gabie Lazareff is a certified health coach, yoga teacher, and freelance nutrition & wellness, writer. She’s on a mission to spread the word about the importance of sleep in order for us not just to survive, but to thrive.