Perhaps you prefer to down a glass of water (or, okay, a glass of vino) before you catch your ZZZ’s… only to wake up in the twilight hours to relieve your bladder. Or maybe you’re wary about nighttime snacking thinking it’ll work counter to your sleep and greater health goals… yet you routinely hear your tummy rumble as your head hits the pillow and find yourself ravenous by morning. What gives?
To discover a few bedtime food “rules” and habits we’re led to believe are valid but are actually totally fine to (pardon the pun) put to rest, we asked Brooklyn–based dietitian Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN, for her hot takes on which myths about eating and sleep she'd like to dismantle most.
3 common myths about eating and sleep an RD wants to dispel
1. Alcohol is a valid sleep remedy
After a night of imbibing, you may find that you’re out like a light upon crawling into bed. However, Feller mentions that the overall quality of your sleep is likely to suffer when you have alcohol in your system—even if you do happen to fall asleep more quickly after a drink or two. “Alcohol reduces REM sleep, the sleep state responsible for memory consolidation and when most dreaming takes place,” Feller explains. According to a 2017 review, many health concerns associated with sleep loss (including but not limited to illness, mental health disturbances, and problems with cognition) “result from a silent epidemic of REM sleep deprivation.” Simply put, the importance of REM sleep can’t be underestimated, so you may want to wean off those nightcaps for the sake of better shuteye, dreams, memory, and health across the board.
“In addition, many may experience blood sugar highs and lows during sleep after consuming larger quantities of alcohol, which can have a negative impact on both the quantity and quality of sleep,” Feller adds. (Not to mention the repercussions of these fluctuations on your metabolic health and general well-being.)
2. Melatonin supplements are a fast-acting cure-all
If you have trouble falling asleep, there’s a decent chance you’ve considered supplementing with melatonin (aka the sleep hormone); perhaps it’s even a staple in your nightly regimen. “Melatonin can be helpful when used correctly,” Feller shares, emphasizing this last word. “It is best taken about two hours before bedtime, which is when our bodies should naturally start to secrete melatonin.” If you take your melatonin much later, it may be best to adjust your intake accordingly. “Some people experience grogginess when they take it in the middle of the night or over-supplement,” she continues. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health adds that only short-term use of melatonin is recommended, as there’s a lack of information on the safety of long-term supplementation. Plus, if you experience any undesired side effects from melatonin supplementation or are interested in adding it to your routine for the first time, Feller advises consulting a qualified healthcare professional to customize dosing and evaluate other considerations based on your personal needs.
Tip: In your quest to promote more restful sleep, be sure to set ideal conditions to support your body’s own production of melatonin; one of the best ways to do just that is by reducing your exposure to light in the hour or two before bed. One study found that exposure to bright room light (versus dim light) before bed resulted in a later melatonin onset in 99 percent of healthy young adult participants and shortened melatonin duration by 90 minutes.
3. You should never eat close to bedtime
When it comes to this rule, Feller says that the pros and cons of eating shortly before bed will ultimately vary from one person to the next. For instance, for those affected by acid reflux or GERD, “Eating and then going directly to bed can increase the backflow of stomach contents into the esophagus,” she explains. (The same goes for people with these conditions who recline after mealtime, even if it’s not yet time to hit the hay.)
But in other cases, Feller mentions that it can be beneficial to chow down at night. “For folk who experience dramatic variability in their blood sugar levels or have nighttime hypoglycemia, having a balanced snack—that is, a mix of slow-release carbohydrates with protein—closer to bedtime could be helpful,” she shares.
Moreover, whether or not you fall into these categories, there are other foods and drinks that Feller suggests prioritizing if you’re feeling snacky or thirsty as you wind down. “Eating foods that contain melatonin before bedtime can help improve sleep quality,” she adds. Her top picks include milk and tart cherry juice, which she says can boost melatonin levels and support sleep quality. (Research shows that eggs, fish, and nuts—plus some varieties of mushrooms, legumes, seeds, and cereals—are also fair game.) If you add these into your nightly rotation, you may discover that you won’t have to rely on those melatonin supplements after all.
Learn more about eating before bed according to an RD:
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