It’s half-past your bedtime but you’re still up trying to binge one more episode before hitting the hay, and there they are: those telltale tummy rumbles telling you that, despite the hour, it’s time to eat. But should you give in and snack or try to make it ’til morning? There’s a lot of science behind the answer to that question. New studies show that indulging in a midnight snack might actually make you hungrier. Turns out that when you eat is just as important as what you eat. Chowing down too close to bedtime is tied to higher rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Nutritionists recommend curtailing the nosh at least three hours before turning in (via Cleveland Clinic).
No matter how we might try, sometimes those nighttime munchies are unavoidable. According to mbgHealth, going to bed hungry could also be detrimental to your health. An empty stomach triggers your body to release the stress hormone cortisol, spiking your blood sugar and potentially disrupting your sleep.
So, it’s better to put a little something in your growling tum than trying to sleep while starving. Choosing a low-calorie, high-protein snack can actually help you rest in some cases due to the presence of tryptophan, an essential amino acid that helps your body produce melatonin, the hormone associated with relaxation and sleep. On the other hand, foods high in calories, salt, sugar, and saturated fats can have the opposite effect. Read on to find out which foods and drinks you should and shouldn’t eat if you absolutely need a midnight snack.
Do drink: Milk
In an effort to cure a bout of sleeplessness, most of us have turned to the tried-and-true mugful of warm milk to get us off to dreamland. Good thing for us insomniacs, there’s solid science to back up this common home remedy.
According to Healthline, protein-rich foods like dairy contain an amino acid called tryptophan. Tryptophan works with the calcium found in dairy to convert it into the relaxing, mood-stabilizing neurotransmitter known as serotonin, a precursor to the sleep hormone, melatonin.
And it isn’t just milk that provides these benefits. All minimally-processed dairy products — like Greek yogurt and cottage cheese — are great sources for calcium and tryptophan. If you exercise regularly, the slow-digesting casein protein found in dairy can also help your muscles grow and recover faster, all while you sleep. Assuming your tummy can tolerate dairy, it’s one of the better choices for a late-night snack.
Don’t eat: Aged cheese
While fresh cheeses like buffalo mozzarella and cottage cheese can help promote sleep, aged cheeses may have the opposite outcome. Aged cheese like cheddar, blue, feta, and others are known to contain an amino acid called tyramine that’s associated with the stress hormones that prompt the body’s fight or flight response (via Beneden Health). In fact, tyramine is named for the Greek word for cheese (tyro), where the amino acid was first discovered and studied in the 1960s.
According to a study published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry (via NIH), the effects of tyramine on people who take MAOI inhibitor antidepressants can wreck more than just your sleep. For them, the consumption of aged cheese can bring on migraine headaches and dangerous spikes in blood pressure, threatening more than just their sleep patterns.
Do eat: Eggs
Eggs are among the most nutritious foods available. They’re packed with protein and nutrients that will help keep you full without loading up the calories. Eggs are also known for containing one of the highest amounts of melatonin of any animal protein (via Sauder’s Eggs). They also have high levels of vitamin D which is commonly deficient among many Americans and is known to disrupt sleep when your body doesn’t have enough.
The most efficient way to consume a bedtime egg is to hard boil it. No matter how you cook it, try to avoid frying your eggs in butter or other saturated fat, or adding too much salt or hot sauce. Keep it plain and simple for the most restful results.
Don’t eat: Ice cream
Don’t tell President Biden, but that sweet, creamy bowl of ice cream you indulge in before bed might be the main culprit in all those restless nights. There are a couple of contributing factors that may be keeping you up. For one, the dairy in ice cream may disagree with you. According to Boston Children’s Hospital, as many as 50 million Americans cannot properly absorb lactose, an enzyme found in dairy, leading to all kinds of stomach trouble that could interrupt your sleep.
Even if the dairy agrees with you (and offers some aid in getting to sleep), the amount of sugar in ice cream and other sweets could spike your blood sugar, making it hard to fall asleep. Then, when your insulin levels crash a few hours later, it can wake you up in the middle of the night (via Saatva). Finally, if you enjoy flavors that involve chocolate or coffee, you might also hijack your sleep with a jolt of hidden caffeine.
Do eat: Honey
It may feel a little counterintuitive to consume honey before bed because it’s such a concentrated form of sugar. But honey, along with its many other health benefits, reacts in your body differently than processed refined sugars. According to a study at the University of Saskatchewan (via NIH), honey may benefit your sleep in some unique ways.
Even when you’re sleeping, your body burns fuel in the form of sugars called glycogen. Your liver is your body’s glycogen storehouse. By fueling up your glycogen levels with a little honey about 30 minutes before bed, you provide your brain with enough energy to function during sleep which is likely your longest period of daily fasting. Additionally, the spike in your insulin levels helps produce tryptophan, thus promoting better sleep.
Even lifehackers like Bulletproof’s Dave Asprey say stirring some raw honey into your herbal tea about 30 minutes before bed can help your brain and body function better at night.
Don’t eat: Chocolate
Some of the best news from nutritional scientists in recent years is that chocolate is actually really good for you. It’s a superfood that’s packed with antioxidants like theobromine that are proven to reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes (via Nutrition Advance). At bedtime, however, the drawbacks of chocolate can outweigh its benefits.
For one thing, not all chocolate is created equal. Dark chocolate is the healthiest version of the treat because it contains far less fat and sugar than its candy bar counterparts. That said, it is a major source of hidden caffeine, a stimulant that can disrupt your sleep patterns. Theobromine, the healthful antioxidant, can also have stimulant effects (via Well + Good).
In any form, chocolate is best reserved for a midafternoon treat to boost you through those sleepy afternoons when your circadian rhythms want you to take a nap, but your boss wants you to turn in those important deliverables by EOD.
Do eat: Nuts and seeds
When the late-night cravings hit, you want to go for something delicious, easy, and effective. Nuts like pistachios and walnuts are a great source of your body’s natural sleep hormone, melatonin (via WebMD), while cashews and almonds contain notable quantities of the muscle-relaxing mineral, magnesium (via Livestrong). A handful of sunflower seeds or pepitas can help you slow down before bed, too. These seeds contain a balance of three sleep-supporting chemicals: tryptophan, magnesium, and zinc (via Healthline).
Be careful not to overindulge as nuts are generally high in calories. Too much of a good thing can work against you. Also, watch out for overly salted nuts and trail mixes or nut butters that contain sugar additives. A handful of unsalted nuts or seeds, or a dollop of sugar-free almond butter on whole-grain toast should do the trick.
Don’t drink: Coffee and caffeinated tea
A lot of us take comfort in a mug of cozy, steaming coffee or tea, but we should probably leave that ritual for the morning. Anything with caffeine in it, especially coffee and black or green tea, can negatively impact your circadian rhythms, also known as your 24-hour internal clock. Circadian rhythms dictate your sleep-wake cycle and the associated neurochemical processes that go along with it (via Sleep Foundation).
Caffeine is a stimulant with wide-ranging effects on your body, both negative and positive. On the plus side, coffee and tea are loaded with antioxidants that some studies show have antiaging and cancer-fighting properties. They can stave off conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s (via John Hopkins University School of Medicine). On the downside, too much caffeine consumed late in the day can throw off your sleep cycles and lead to a range of conditions from obesity to depression and anxiety.
Do drink: Herbal tea
We’re not talking about black teas like English Breakfast or Earl Grey which contain stimulating caffeine. So-called herbal teas are made with edible plants, and there are several that are known to promote restfulness and good sleep.
Valerian root contains naturally occurring sedatives and has long been used as a natural sleep aid (via Sleep Foundation). Both its flavor and its soothing qualities are enhanced when you stir in a spoonful of honey. Brewing tea from dried chamomile flowers is another popular sleep aid. It contains a natural tranquilizer called apigenin, and has been shown to improve sleep quality in many studies. Other herbal teas known to promote a more restful night’s sleep include ingredients like lemon balm, lavender, passion flower, and magnolia bark.
Don’t eat: Spicy food
There are plenty of things to emulate about Beyoncé, but it might be a good idea to leave that hot sauce in your bag when going in for a late-night snack. Capsaicin, the chemical that makes peppers spicy, has been shown in studies to actually raise your metabolism and body temperature, making it harder to relax at night. Hot peppers can induce a process called thermogenesis wherein the cells in your body convert energy to heat. According to NBC News, the result could be disrupted sleep and an increased occurrence of vivid dreaming.
Spicy food can also wreak havoc on your tummy, causing indigestion and heartburn. So, if you have to snack before bed, try to keep it on the bland side and leave things like curry, salsa, or Buffalo wings for earlier in the day.
Do eat: Hummus
When it comes to promoting healthy relaxation, chickpeas are a fantastic solution. Like most legumes, they’re rich in protein which means they offer a good dose of tryptophan, but that’s just the beginning. Chickpeas contain high levels of vitamin B6 which is associated with aiding the conversion of that tryptophan into mind-easing serotonin, a precursor to melatonin. Magnesium is also on board, which works to help your muscles relax (via Healthy Sleep).
The high amounts of protein in hummus — roughly 10 grams per 200-calorie serving (via Medical News Today) — helps you to feel full without weighing you down. Enjoy a few bites of hummus before bed with some whole-grain pita bread or crackers, but be careful about dipping your celery sticks. They’re mostly water and can act as a diuretic (via The Guardian).
Don’t eat: Citrus
While it might be okay to enjoy a few eggs before bed, it’s best to skip the OJ when trying to get a good night’s sleep. Citrus of all kinds is highly acidic. Fruits like lemons, grapefruits, oranges, and limes contain high amounts of citric acid which cause you to produce more stomach acid. The result can be a bad case of heartburn that could keep you from catching some much-needed Z’s.
Also known as acid reflux, heartburn happens when stomach acid repeatedly flows back into the esophagus, irritating the esophageal lining, creating an uncomfortable burning sensation in your chest (via The Mayo Clinic). Over the long term, chronic acid reflux can lead to more serious medical issues related to your digestion. To avoid late-night heartburn, keep your consumption of acidic foods like citrus to the daytime.
Do eat: Oats and granola
Whole grains in general can be a decent go-to a few hours before bed, but oats are an especially good choice given their natural anti-inflammatory qualities and the high amounts of tryptophan present, a necessity for producing melatonin (via Sleep.com).
Granola is a convenient way to snack on some oats, but as always, watch out for too much added sugar. While the oats themselves can help make you sleepy, spiking your blood sugar will have the opposite effect.
We recommend a steaming hot bowl of oatmeal about an hour before getting ready to sleep. To increase its natural sedative qualities, make it with tryptophan-rich milk, stir in some almond butter for magnesium, or cut up a banana to boost your potassium and B6, all elements that work together to bring you a good night’s rest.
Don’t drink: Alcohol
A lot of us have poured ourselves a glass of wine or a few fingers of whiskey at the end of the night in an attempt to wind down for bed. In fact, according to one study, a full 10% of respondents cited sleep as the main reason for their alcohol consumption. It may feel counterintuitive, but it turns out alcohol consumption before bed might be one of the worst things for promoting restful sleep. While the sedative effects of alcohol may help you get to sleep, it’s what happens during the night that can really throw you off.
According to mbgHealth, alcohol disrupts and suppresses your deep-sleep cycles known as REM sleep. By denying us these deep rest periods, alcohol keeps us from achieving truly restorative sleep. The result, especially in chronic drinkers, can have long-term effects on both our mental and physical health, leading to depression, anxiety, memory problems, and an inability to regulate our emotions.
Insomnia is very common, with as much as 40% of the population suffering from the condition. Among those with a drinking disorder, that number spikes to 72%, underscoring the detrimental effects of alcohol on your body’s sleep functions (via The Recovery Village).
If you’re struggling with alcohol dependence or abuse, it couldn’t hurt to reach out for a little help.
Do drink: Protein shake
Protein shakes can be a nutrient-dense, low-calorie solution to late night cravings. If you choose the right ingredients, they can even help put you to sleep. Soy protein powders contain a fair amount of relaxing tryptophan, but dairy-sourced protein like whey are an even better source.
Weight lifters will often put down a shake made with isolated casein protein before bed. Not only will it help you drift off, but it’s slower to digest, keeping you from waking up in the middle of the night with hunger pangs. According to the NIH, casein protein also supports muscle growth and recovery while you sleep.
What you choose to add to your smoothie can also promote a good night’s rest. Throw a few items from this list into the blender like milk, bananas, almonds, or honey, but be careful not to overdo it. Smoothies can hide calories and sugar that’ll keep you up if you add too much.
Don’t eat: Hamburgers
A strong case of the late-night munchies may prompt you to pop open that delivery app and order from your favorite hamburger joint. but as enticing as a Big Mac might sound at 1 a.m., especially if you’ve been out having a good time, it’s probably a better idea to call it a night.
Between the saturated fat, high sodium, rich spices, and hidden sugar — not to mention the sheer volume of calories — a burger gut-bomb could keep you up into the wee hours with indigestion, elevated heart rate and blood pressure, and heartburn.
Even if you’re chowing down on a Whopper earlier in the day, fast food can still negatively impact your sleep. If you’re experiencing chronic sleep issues, experts recommend laying off fatty burgers altogether. According to NBC News, a diet high in saturated fat, sodium, and other antinutrients found in hamburgers is linked to poorer sleep overall due to its direct correlation with other conditions like obesity, hypertension, and diabetes.
Do eat: Bananas
We all know that bananas are a potassium powerhouse, which on its own can help the quality of your sleep, especially if you’re prone to muscle cramps. But potassium is only one compound found in bananas that encourages a restful night.
Like potassium, magnesium works to relax muscles and to promote the production of a neurotransmitter known as GABA (Gamma-Aminobytric acid) which slows brainwaves and helps your body achieve deep sleep (via Early Bird).
Finally, you’ll also find high quantities of vitamin B6 in bananas. B6 is an important vitamin that converts tryptophan into serotonin, the neurotransmitter associated with your sense of well-being that helps to calm the mind. Serotonin is also responsible for producing melatonin, the chemical that makes you sleepy at bedtime.
Don’t eat: Pizza
That leftover slice of pepperoni and onion in the fridge may call your name during a late-night Netflix sesh, but try to hold back if you can. Of all the heavy foods to avoid before bed, pizza may be the most notorious sleep disrupter on this list. The gooey melted cheese alone comes with its own sleep-destroying compounds, an amino acid called tyrosine which is known to spike stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline (via Healthline).
The high calorie count and saturated fat content can sit in your gut like a brick, while the spicy (and acidic) tomato sauce can cause a nasty bout of acid reflux. The sodium and spice found in any processed meat toppings only add to pizza’s bad reputation. All of these things combined can result in gas, diarrhea, bloating, and an otherwise unhappy tummy (via HuffPost).
Do eat: Tart cherries
Cherries are an antioxidant dynamo, shown to help reduce systemic inflammation, protect your heart, and help you lose weight. Helping you get a better night’s rest is the proverbial cherry on top of all its nutritional benefits. Cherries not only contain a good amount of melatonin, but they also have a measure of tryptophan, all of which work together to get you to sleep and keep you there until morning (via The Cleveland Clinic).
Not all cherries are equal when it comes to their benefits as a sleep aid. We definitely don’t recommend dipping into a jar of sugary, artificially colored cocktail cherries if you’re trying to promote rest. In fact, the more sour or tart the cherries – like Montmorency cherries – the better they are for your sleep and overall health (via Sleep Foundation).
Cherries are a great addition to a nighttime bowl of oatmeal or protein smoothie, but to really concentrate this superfood’s impact, drink a few ounces of unsweetened cherry juice before bed.