A good night’s sleep after a long day’s work is not always a guarantee.
Many factors affect the quality and quantity of sleep. Shifts at work, jet lag, stress, medical conditions and medications, and the quality of the sleep environment are just some of these factors. Unknown to many, eating habits also have a great impact on how well we sleep and if at all we do.
It matters when you eat
A few years ago, an experiment was done at the Centre for Sleep Research at the University of South Australia to ascertain whether eating before bed time affects our sleep.
In the experiment four students were asked to participate. Two of them were to take dinner three hours before going to bed while the other two were to tuck it in just before going to bed.
Before sleeping, they were all fitted with electrode wires by sleep technician, Sarah Briggs, to monitor signals from their brain activity. She then kept vigil.
The next morning the results were out. The verdict... both the early eaters slept very well but it wasn’t the same for the late eaters.
The late eaters reported to have been restless and complained that it took them very long to get to sleep.
“I tossed and turned a lot, it took me a little while to get to sleep. Normally I sleep like a little baby so it was a bit of a change last night,” confessed one of them.
According to Sarah, the two late-eaters missed out on deep sleep. This is a stage of sleep when the body gets to rest and repair itself ready for another day and it usually occurs in the early part of night.
Dr Clare Collins, a lecturer in nutrition at the University of Newcastle, agrees with the results. According to her, the body simply isn’t designed to cope with a heavy load before sleep. If one has a really full stomach and lies down, they are more likely to get a bit of reflux.
This is because they have their digestion working at full speed when their body should actually be relaxed and calm — more to help them get a really good night’s sleep, she says.
Empty stomach a problem too
She adds that being hungry is as disruptive to sleep as being too full. She advices that taking a light snack such as a banana or a slice of toast with a glass of milk, one hour before bed can help fuel the body for rest.
Apart from disrupting sleep, eating just before going to bed has been found to have other effects on health. For people prone to heartburn (also called gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD), eating just before going to bed has been found to cause trouble.
When you lie down to sleep, the connection between the oesophagus and the stomach becomes horizontal instead of vertical. People with GERD often have more symptoms if they lie down after eating, whether it’s bedtime or not.
That’s why people prone to heart burns are routinely advised to raise the head of the bed (to maintain some element of gravity to keep acid in the stomach where it belongs) and not to eat shortly before going to bed.
Type of food
It has been found that eating too much food, or eating spicy or fatty foods and caffeine one to three hours before bedtime can reduce the quality and length of your sleep, making you fatigued, sluggish and generally not fun to be with the next day. Eating fatty foods before bed will slow down the emptying of the stomach and also aggravate indigestion, while spicy foods can lead to heartburn and indigestion.
As for alcohol, it being a sedative, it is known to have calming effects that promote sleep. However, alcohol-induced sleep commonly leads to awakening just a few hours earlier and it becomes difficult to get back to sleep.
Bursting a myth
There is a common myth that eating just before going to bed makes you fat because the body doesn’t need the energy while you’re asleep.
The truth is so far no research has proven that to be a fact. What is known is that you actually put on weight when you consume more energy than you expend. So, whatever time of day you eat doesn’t affect your weight.
Nevertheless, it has been found that people who ate more at night tended to eat more on the overall and thus were prone to encounter weight issues.
Tips for a good night’s sleep:
•Eat dinner several hours before bed.
• If hungry, eat a light (low kilo joule) supper of protein and complex carbohydrates one hour before sleep.
• No coffee or alcohol just before bedtime.