What we eat and when we eat can have a big impact on how we sleep. You have probably been told before to avoid eating before bedtime as it will make you gain weight. Well, we have good news for you – this is a myth. In fact, eating before bedtime can sometimes bring you closer to your weight and wellness goals by keeping your blood sugar level and hormones stable and helping you sleep better.
This is not to say everyone should have a big meal before bedtime, however depending on your goals, eating the right foods can help improve your sleep and thus accelerate your weight loss or muscle gain progress. If you are finding that you are very hungry at night, it might be worth first looking at your daily food intake and make sure you are not under-eating. Secondly, making a few simple changes to your diet by incorporating more sleep-facilitating foods and adjusting meal timings can make a huge difference to your hormonal balance and as a result, the quality of your sleep.
Hormones play an important role when it comes to our sleep as they help maintain our sleep-wake cycle. The main three are melatonin, serotonin and cortisol. Melatonin is essential for a good sleep cycle and it also controls how we respond to stress. It is produced in the pineal gland in the brain and when it becomes dark, melatonin levels rise in the blood and we become sleepy. Walnuts and cherries contain their own melatonin and eating them before bedtime can help you fall asleep. Oats, milk and bananas also boost our melatonin levels so you can try swapping your dinner meal for a morning porridge sometimes. Or perhaps this breakfast bircher.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that pays an important role in regulating appetite, mood and – you guessed it – sleeping. A deficiency in serotonin has been linked to anxiety, low mood and depression. Serotonin derives from an essential amino acid called tryptophan, which our body needs to obtain from food. Great sources of tryptophan are turkey, fish, oats, walnuts, lentils, potatoes and whole grains.
Cortisol influences many body processes, including sleep and how we respond to stress. High cortisol levels can affect our food preferences and make us crave saltier and sweeter foods. Cortisol levels are usually higher in the morning and decrease throughout the day. Avoiding caffeine, strenuous exercise and light exposure before bed can help us sleep better and thus keep our cortisol in a normal rhythm.
Apart from tryptophan, key nutrients that can help us sleep are magnesium, calcium, vitamin B6 and potassium. Magnesium helps activate the neurotransmitter that calms our mind and body, and can be found in spinach, nuts, seeds, bananas, meat, dairy foods and brown rice. Calcium facilitates the brain to use tryptophan to make melatonin and serotonin and can be found in milk, sardines, broccoli, tofu, okra, yoghurt, cheese and fortified cereals. Vitamin B6 is also important for the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin and can be found in beef, chicken, oily fish, eggs, soya beans, peanuts, oatmeal and brown rice. Lastly, potassium serves as a muscle and nerve relaxant, but it also helps our digestion. Good sources of potassium are edamame beans, butterbeans, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, squash and bananas.
On the flip side, there are certain foods that can negatively affect our sleep and thus are best to avoid consuming before bedtime. Amongst these are processed meats.
Everyone is completely different of course, but this information should help give you a foundation to be on your way to eating better and sleeping better.
May you have many nights of great sleep.