We spend a lot of time researching advice on what you should do to support different aspects of your health. But, just as important as offering tips on what you should do, are the tips about what you should avoid. If you’d like to know about nutrients that will help you sleep, check out this article on R.E.M. Maintenance. If you’d like to know a little more about what not to eat before bed, read on below.
Which foods wake up the brain?
Caffeine is probably the best-known pick-me-up, so those of us concerned with getting to sleep are likely to avoid coffee or energy drinks right before bed. Fewer people may know that the half-life of caffeine is about five hours in non-pregnant people, and closer to eight hours in pregnant people . That means, half of the caffeine ingested is still active in the body five to eight hours later. Having a large caffeinated soda or coffee at lunch may be nearly as disruptive to your sleep as a small after dinner espresso.
As sugar is the fuel source for cellular energy throughout the body, eating foods high in sugar is probably a bad idea right before bed. High sugar meals stimulate a release of insulin from the pancreas, which signals cells throughout the body to take up sugar and keep on running. This can make it hard to stay asleep, even if you are able to drift off. Clinical data link sugar intake and poor sleep quality time and again [2,3].
In addition, high blood sugar and insulin levels decrease magnesium absorption and increase magnesium excretion by the kidneys . Magnesium is a sleep-promoting nutrient, so we want more of it for better sleep, not less.
We must also remember that chocolate also contains both caffeine and sugar. The combo of caffeine and sugar makes chocolate a poor nighttime choice if you’re hoping to sleep well within a couple of hours.
Supplemental B Vitamins
Natural pick-me-ups hide in other food and supplements too. For example, B-vitamins are energizing, as they contribute to the mitochondrial production of energy throughout your body. While B-vitamins are essential to your health, they can keep you up if taken before bed.
Vitamin B-6 specifically, contributes to dopamine production. While dopamine is essential to your mental health, it also makes you feel alert and awake. Taking B-6 in the morning is a great idea, while right before bed, maybe not so much. Anecdotal evidence suggests that taking B-6 before bed can stimulate lucid dreaming, more vivid dreams, or greater dream recall . If what you’re looking for is deep, restful sleep, B-6 is a supplement to avoid before bed.
Digestion and Sleep Disturbance
Eating a big meal before you go to bed is not recommended, no matter how healthy it is. When your body has a large quantity of food to digest, the entire digestive system is on high-power. That means physically churning, synthesizing and secreting digestive juices and enzymes, absorbing newly broken down nutrients, and creating waste products that will need to be excreted.
When your organs are working that hard, and new nutrition is becoming available in your circulation, it is hard for your brain and body to truly relax and rest. If you’re starving before bed, a light snack may be ok, but avoid the ingredients above as well as fat and fiber.
Studies have shown that the more fat a person’s diet includes, the more likely they are to experience sleep disturbances [6,7]. This effect is observed after even a single, high-fat dinner.
Specifically, those who eat high-fat meals before sleeping are likely to experience abnormal breathing while sleeping, more tossing and turning throughout the night, and less time spent in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep [6,7]. REM sleep is the sleep state during which dreaming occurs.
Something to be aware of is how often you eat late, fatty meals on the weekends, due to social situations and restaurant dining. This phenomenon of eating and sleeping at different times on the weekends than you do during the workweek is known as “social jetlag”. It throws off your circadian rhythm and can be responsible for both metabolic shifts and sleep difficulties .
Much like B vitamins, you want to be sure you are consuming plenty of fiber each day… just not right before bed.
While a low-fiber diet is bad for sleep, eating fiber before bed can also be disruptive . High-fiber snacks and meals are difficult to digest, which is part of the reason they’re so good for you. Because the human digestive system cannot break down all plant fiber, it moves through the gut, feeding probiotic bacteria and acting as a bulking agent to move waste through the intestines.
As fiber is broken down by bacterial species in the gut, the byproduct is gas. Gas can cause uncomfortable bloating and cramping. Bloating and cramping are, obviously, not great for falling or staying asleep.
Try eating a high-fiber breakfast, right before you take your B-complex supplement. Then, you can chill out of the rest of the day, knowing you are set up for both balanced nutrition and better sleep.
- Knutti, R., H. Rothweiler, and Ch Schlatter. “Effect of pregnancy on the pharmacokinetics of caffeine.” European journal of clinical pharmacology 21.2 (1981): 121-126.
- Chaput, Jean-Philippe et al. “Sleep patterns and sugar-sweetened beverage consumption among children from around the world.” Public health nutrition vol. 21,13 (2018): 2385-2393. doi:10.1017/S1368980018000976
- Kjeldsen, J S et al. “Short sleep duration and large variability in sleep duration are independently associated with dietary risk factors for obesity in Danish school children.” International journal of obesity (2005) vol. 38,1 (2014): 32-9. doi:10.1038/ijo.2013.147
- Liu, Tina. “The Top 10 Supplements to Lower Blood Sugar Levels.” (2021).
- Aspy, Denholm J., Natasha A. Madden, and Paul Delfabbro. “Effects of vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) and a B complex preparation on dreaming and sleep.” Perceptual and Motor Skills 125.3 (2018): 451-462.
- St-Onge, Marie-Pierre, et al. “Fiber and saturated fat are associated with sleep arousals and slow wave sleep.” Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine 12.1 (2016): 19-24.
- Lopes, Tássia do Vale Cardoso, et al. “Eating late negatively affects sleep pattern and apnea severity in individuals with sleep apnea.” Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine 15.3 (2019): 383-392.
- Mota, Maria Carliana, et al. “Association between social jetlag food consumption and meal times in patients with obesity-related chronic diseases.” PloS one 14.2 (2019): e0212126.