Barbara Schneider doesn't allow herself a morsel of food after dinner, believing that eating before bedtime will keep her awake. "Ever since I was young, I've had difficulty falling asleep. And when I do manage to fall asleep, I wake up around 3 a.m.," she says.
About 70% of Americans have sleep problems, and about half of them, like Schneider, have insomnia. Although Schneider, 51, a victim services coordinator for the Miami police department, mostly attributes her snooze blues to her high-stress job and erratic work schedule, new research suggests her habit of not eating before bedtime may be a factor.
"The connection between what we eat and how we sleep is only just taking shape," says Antonio Culebras, MD, neurology professor at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse.
Why Hunger Disrupts Our Sleep
This relatively new research focuses on leptin and ghrelin, two metabolic hormones that scientists discovered only during the last decade. When we eat, leptin signals that the body is satisfied, while ghrelin stimulates hunger. Researchers speculate that if we have enough leptin to suppress the secretion of ghrelin, we'll sleep through the night without awakening to eat. "They act in see-saw fashion, counterbalancing each other," says Culebras. "If the balance is thrown out of order, it may result in subtle signs that awaken us."
Which Bedtime Snacks Help You Sleep?
To achieve this hormonal balance, people with insomnia may find eating a snack before bedtime helpful. But some rules apply. First, eat only a light snack, not a heavy meal. The digestive system slows down while you sleep, so eating too much can make you uncomfortable, cause GERD (gastro-esophageal reflux disease, when food or liquid travels backward from the stomach to the esophagus, causing heartburn), or even cause you to choke while asleep.
Also, what you eat is important. Carbohydrate-rich snacks may be best, experts say, because these foods likely increase the level of sleep-inducing tryptophan in the blood. Protein, on the other hand, is more difficult to digest (although you can get away with a small piece of cheese or a dab of peanut butter). Good choices include a small bowl of cereal and milk, a few cookies, toast, or a small muffin, says Culebras. Beware of foods containing caffeine, including less obvious choices such as certain sodas and chocolate. Even decaffeinated beverages contain a small amount of caffeine; so do some medications.
Schneider, who's worked hard to establish a bedtime routine, may give the food recommendation a try. "I do everything you would do to induce a young child to fall asleep," she says. So cookies and milk should fit right in.