When it comes to sleep, when we eat matters just as much as what we eat. Some sleep experts would argue that it matters more. We know that avoiding coffee and alcohol, regular exercise and sun exposure are crucial for sleep quality, but food can have an equally important impact.
Here are three easy ways to harness your eating routine for sleep based on three of the most common issues I notice in practice.
1. Eat within a 12-hour window
Have you ever eaten dinner late or overindulged in food or drink into the night and felt it all sitting in your gut in the morning?
Night eating syndrome is a rare medical condition but occasional eating after dinner is a common habit for general Western populations. Even among healthy non-shift-working adults, eating around the clock is common. It also doesn't help that the more sleep-deprived we are, the more likely we are to indulge in eating late.
Being conscious of when we normally take our first and last bite of the day can help us recognise when we are eating and digesting around the clock and not giving our organs the chance to rest or our sleep hormones time to repair. We can’t truly have a restful night if we are still digesting.
So, if you normally have your first bite or (non-water) drink of the day around 8am, try to have your last bite or drink of the day no later than 8pm. Research consistently shows that time-restricted eating has a profound impact on sleep quality.
A twelve-hour ‘feeding window’ is safe and doable for most and usually enough to help. If you’re considering adopting a smaller window for a significant lifestyle change, please consult your healthcare practitioner or work with a registered nutrition professional for tailored guidance.
2. Get a daily food rhythm
Our organs love to know when they are expected to work so that they can do their job. Setting routine matters to the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), our master control centre for bodily functions.
Erratic breakfast and dinner times can confuse both your digestive system and sleep-wake cycle. I usually recommend clients have their last meal, snack or non-water drink at least 3 hours before bedtime. If you aim to be asleep at 10pm daily, aim to have your last bite or drink by 7pm at the latest.
3. Have your biggest meals, evening snacks and drinks earlier
After-dinner snacking is often done out of boredom or fear that we will get midnight hunger pangs that will wake us up. This is often only true when we don’t eat enough calories in the day. The only way of finding out if this is the problem is to reverse your meal sizes and have the biggest meal in the daytime. Experiment with breakfasts and lunches full of complex carbohydrates, unsaturated fat and protein and see if you still feel hungry when you should be sleeping. After a week of adjusting, you may notice you have been hungry out of habit.
Calories consumed after dinner will be met with the slowest metabolism of the day and delay sleep in most of us – even if it’s just one cracker or a tiny square of chocolate while we Netflix, unfortunately! We typically choose to eat more simple carbs when we haven’t slept enough, and sleep disturbances are often linked with blood sugar imbalances.
The later we have our evening meal, snacks and drinks, the higher our blood sugar levels rise and stay high for a longer period. At night our gut movements slow down, our pancreas releases less of the blood sugar balancing hormone, insulin. The brain produces its highest levels of the sleep hormone melatonin which also further reduces insulin release.
Watch out for changes in seasons too. Lighter evenings can make the day feel longer even though it’s already your dinnertime.
If you have trouble getting consistent good sleep and you haven’t tried these tips yet I would recommend starting here. Try them for at least a week to let yourself adapt.
If you work in shifts or have a condition, there are plenty of other ways to make your food and routine work for optimal sleep. If sleep disturbances persist, please consult a registered healthcare professional for a safe plan that works for you and your needs.
Jane Aquino is a registered nutritional therapist and anxiety/sleep specialist. Working in nervous system support, she loves helping people living with anxiety, IBS, anaemia and sleep problems. She helps her clients master nutrition to regain calm, confidence and creativity with simple tailored steps. She sees clients both online and in-person at her London clinic. You can find out about her Mind Balance services at www.janeaquino.com, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org, or say hello via Instagram @mindnutritionist .