Some of you are nurses and work long days, get home late, and are starving. Others are night students and after a full day of work and class, you need to eat something before bed. Maybe you just tend to work straight through dinner and eat something when you get home late at night. We’ve all found ourselves in this situation at one time or another. So what should you do? Eat then sleep? Will it affect your digestion? Will it affect your sleep? Which foods are best?
When you sleep, your entire body is resting. If you try to sleep on a full stomach, your body becomes confused. What should it do? Digest, or sleep? It’s tough to do both at once, and going to bed immediately after eating will likely cause interruptions in both digestion and sleep. Remember when I talked about the fight or flight response? Well, it applies here. Your entire body focuses on one thing at once, sometimes at the expense of others. If your body is focusing on digestion, your sleep will be less than perfect, and vice versa.
I know from personal experience that if I eat a big dinner right before bed, I always wake up a few hours later. Sometimes I wake up thirsty and have to chug two glasses of water – a sign that my dinner was too high in sodium (this happens mostly when I have eaten out rather than at home). Other times I just feel like I have a big lump sitting in my stomach. It helps if I get up and walk around a bit to get the digestion moving again, but I hate to do this at the expense of my sleep.
One key component of digestion is excretion of anything that is not absorbed and utilized by the body. Therefore, expect to be woken up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom if you eat right before bed. If you don’t get up to go to the bathroom, you may still feel full or bloated in the morning. Breakfast may not be the most appealing idea, and skipping breakfast can lead to nutrient imbalances throughout the entire day. This is a pattern we should all try to avoid, because it creates a body out of balance and weakens immunity.
If you must eat something before bed, try to avoid sugars and other carbohydrates, including grains, ice cream, processed foods and alcohol. These will spike your blood sugar, which makes it difficult to relax, unwind and fall asleep. This can then lead to dramatic drops in blood sugar, and you may even wake up a few hours later feeling hungry or out of balance again. Alcohol in particular inhibits your body from entering the deepest stages of sleep.
Instead, eat something that is easily digested and won’t mess with your blood sugar, such as veggies dipped in hummus, a small bowl of soup, or some nuts and seeds. Sliced apples dipped in a nut butter would be a good snack, as would a few pieces of cheese or some brown rice with cooked vegetables. Avoid foods that tend to make you feel bloated or gassy (common ones could be anything containing dairy or gluten). Also, chew slowly and thoroughly, because the enzymes in our mouth are the first step in proper digestion. When food enters the stomach not fully chewed, our stomach must work harder to break it down and indigestion can occur.
I recommend bringing a snack to work or school with you. This will help you avoid the situation of coming home and being both exhausted and starving. Even if you just keep some snacks in your car, eating on your drive home is better than eating right before you get into bed. I do not recommend stopping at a drive through or a gas station to get food on your drive home… but things like dried fruit, nuts or snack bars are easy to keep in your car (all-natural snack bars with minimal ingredients are best, as some of the more processed bars contain unhealthy sugars and oils). Just keep a soft cooler in the back seat and reload it each week. Be sure to keep some waters in your car too.
If you are able to eat several hours before bed, be sure to include some protein in that snack or meal. The tryptophan in protein breaks down into serotonin, which makes us feel calm, relaxed and in control. When we don’t get enough tryptophan in our diet, serotonin levels drop and this leads to depression, anxiety, insecurity, hyperactivity, insomnia and pain. Naturals sources of tryptophan include bananas, leafy greens, meat, pineapple, avocado, eggs, sesame and pumpkin seeds and lentils. Tryptophan is also a precursor to melatonin, which is stimulated by darkness and regulates our sleep cycles by causing drowsiness. Some people even take natural melatonin supplements to help them sleep at night.
The bottom line: If at all possible, bring some healthy snacks to work or school and try to eat a few hours before bedtime. If this isn’t possible, eat a small, healthy snack that is low in sugar and carbohydrates right before bed. Plan on having a large, healthy breakfast first thing in the morning to help replenish your body with nutrients and energize you for the day. Good luck!