Waking up in the Middle of the Night? Your Big Dinner Could Be to Blame

Photo: Getty Images / Dmitriy Bilous
Does 3 a.m. roll around and you can’t help but stare at the wall, wide awake, unable to fall back asleep? Ugh, the worst.

If you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night, it might not necessarily be because your room is too hot or your partner is snoring. It might be what you had for dinner—especially if it was a really big meal.

“Negative sleep and health outcomes have been associated with populations who eat a majority of their daily food intake in evening hours. [And] regular meals and smaller, well-balanced snacks have a positive association with sleep,” says Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN.

Why? “This occurs because your body is less sensitive to insulin in the evening, and insulin helps control your blood sugar levels," says Juliana Dewsnap, RD, LDN, CPT, a dietitian for Baze. "[So], eating too close to bedtime may lead to varying blood sugar levels, which can impact your quality of sleep." For example, having a sudden drop in blood sugar triggers an increase in certain hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that can lead to night sweats. (And who has ever had a restful sleep when they're sweating?)

It's not just the lateness of the hour—big meals in the evening can affect sleep, too. “High intake of total energy, fat, and sodium has also been associated with higher blood pressure while sleeping. This may in turn cause poor quality sleep, night sweats in some, and even bad dreams in others,” Jones says.

If you have heartburn, indigestion, acid reflux, or GERD, then you may find your usual symptoms get worse if you go to bed on a full stomach. “When you’re lying down on a full stomach, gravity works against you and can cause stomach acid to start creeping back up your esophagus, which causes a burning sensation and overall discomfort,” says Dewsnap.

Worst of all, poor sleep quality can lead to imbalanced hunger hormones (ghrelin and leptin), which can disrupt hunger and fullness cues when you're awake, Jones says. So, if you’re trapped in this cycle, you’ll keep reaching for more and more food throughout the day (including the p.m. hours) because you're tired—but that "night cheese," to quote Liz Lemon, may keep disrupting your sleep.

Looking for a sleep-friendly p.m. snack? Here's one herbalist's case for cacao before bed: 

That's why both experts say it's a good idea to leave a few hours between your last meal and bedtime to mitigate the consequences of potentially disrupted sleep. Dewsnap says a good rule of thumb for the best time to eat dinner is at least two to three hours before getting into bed. However, “there technically is no research-backed optimal time to leave between eating and bed time," says Jones. So play it by ear and see how you feel.

It's also a good idea to consider making dinner smaller than your breakfast and lunch. After all, "the key is to eat enough earlier in the day to prevent consumption of much of your day's calorie intake at dinner or after dinner," says Jones. “Typically, eating large amounts of food at night is due to lack of adequate intake earlier, or due to poor balance of meals and snacks. For example, if you don't eat a balance of carbohydrates, fiber, fat and protein at dinner, and instead have just refined carbohydrates, there is a greater chance you will still feel hungry and may overeat afterwards,” she says.

Plus, don’t skimp on breakfast, even if you’re not hungry from the night before. “If you continue with a pattern where you eat larger amounts of food later in the day, it can be hard to break the cycle [since] when you wake up in the morning, your body has the excess energy from the night before, and may not be hungry for an adequate breakfast,” says Jones. So even if it's just a piece of whole grain toast with almond butter, just that small step can help promote healthy changes in the long run.

Looking for good dinner ideas that fit the bill? Try a nutritionist's go-to meal for busy weeknights. And the "Core Four" formula makes figuring out tonight's dinner a cinch.  

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