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Like most questions related to sleep, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to how long one should wait after eating and before sleeping. It varies by type of food, quantity of food, as well as any specific health or sleep conditions one may be experiencing. Here’s what you need to know.
Although everyone is different, the best practice is to refrain from eating a large meal within three hours of bedtime so you don’t engage the digestive system to work on processing the meal, spike your blood sugar levels, or cause bloating/indigestion.
If you find yourself hungry within that window, all hope is not lost. Because contrary to older perspectives on late-night eating — that it should be limited or avoided at all costs in order to maintain or lose weight and improve body composition — newer research (1-4) shows that this is not the case across the board and that negative outcomes of pre-bedtime eating can be avoided for certain groups when the food isn’t a large mixed-meal but rather:
- Small quantity (~150 kcals)
When the majority of one's carbohydrate and caloric intake occurs at night, the result is weight gain. However, when foods are chosen strategically, the practice of eating before bed benefits muscle protein synthesis and cardiometabolic health. (5)
For obese populations, a nighttime snack combined with exercise training has been found to reverse any adverse effects.
In one study (2) of overweight and obese adults, certain participants consumed cereal with ⅔ cup fat-free milk at least 90 minutes after dinner, while the placebo group followed their normal eating and post-dinner snacking behaviors. Following the 4-week study, those who consumed the pre-bedtime snack were found to have:
- Lower total daily caloric intake
- Lower evening caloric intake
- Modest weight loss (-0.84 ± 1.61 kg)
The theory, according to researchers, is that less food was consumed at dinner when it was known that a structured evening snack would be available.
- Type 1 diabetes
For Type 1 diabetics and those with glycogen storage disease, eating before bed is essential. (5)
- Gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Those with GERD—a condition that causes stomach acid to flow back into the tube connecting the throat to the stomach—should refrain from eating within 3 hours of sleep. (6) It's also recommended to remain in an upright position (i.e. esophagus above your stomach) in order to reduce symptoms of GERD.
- Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)
Late meal timing has been associated with poorer sleep quality, sleep patterns, and apnea severity than early meal timing. (7)
- Acidic foods (tomatoes, pasta sauce, citrus fruits), especially if you suffer from heartburn or acid reflux, which manifests as a tightening, burning sensation
- Large meals + late dinners, especially with high-carb, fried, sugary, and/or spicy foods
- Alcohol: although a glass of wine may be relaxing, it can have adverse sleep effects if consumed too close to bedtime (within 3-4 hours), including fragmented and non-refreshing sleep, increased snoring, delayed onset of REM sleep (the dream stage), and more frequent bathroom breaks.
- Caffeine: Found in tea, coffee, soda, energy drinks, and dark chocolate, caffeine has a half-life of 5-6 hours—or longer for people taking different types of medication. Sensitivities vary, but because it’s a stimulant, it may cause difficulties in the onset of sleep if it’s still in your body’s system come bedtime. That’s why, as a general rule of thumb, we recommend limiting caffeine intake to before 2pm; however, if you are sensitive to the effects of caffeine and/or typically go to bed around 10pm, you would want to consume it after 12-1pm in the afternoon.
- Nuts + seeds: natural sources of melatonin as well as the amino acid tryptophan, which plays an important role in the production of serotonin + melatonin
- Dairy products: milk, plain yogurt, + cottage cheese all contain tryptophan (8)
- Bananas: contains tryptophan to support sleep health
- Tart cherries + tart cherry juice: a natural source of melatonin (9)
Refer to our full list of foods to eat and avoid in order to sleep better.
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