It’s getting late and you should really be going to sleep. You’ve had your evening meal, but for some reason it just wasn’t enough. So, should you or shouldn’t you listen to your stomach and make your way back to the kitchen?
Given that there is a vast amount of information available and varying expert opinions, we’ve summarised the science, and looked at snacks that can help both satisfy your stomach, and promote better sleep. Sounds good, right?
To begin: What to avoid.
After a long and busy day, the prospect of a cold beer or a glass of wine to help you unwind in an evening can be enticing. However, from a sleep perspective, whilst alcohol might initially help you wind down and make you sleepy, it can inhibit deep sleep and decrease your sleep quality.
You might also want to look at what time you take your last cup of tea or coffee. An interesting study from the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine suggests that caffeine taken up to 6 hours prior to bedtime can have a disruptive impact on sleep. So assuming 10pm is your bedtime, you might consider switching to decaf tea or coffee after 4pm.
When it comes to bedtime snacks, less is more.
If you’re hungry before bedtime, it’s important that you don’t start prepping a fourth meal, but limit your food intake to 250 calories. If you don’t, and end up overeating, “your body is much more likely to store those calories as fat”, says nutritionist Manuel Villacorta.
At the same time, if you overeat, you might risk being unable to go to sleep, as digestion creates body heat. The Sleep Council indicates that this could hinder your sleep, as our body temperature needs to drop for us to turn on the ‘sleep mechanism’.
What kind of pre-bedtime snack is best?
Before we dive straight into the snack suggestions, it’s worth looking at why certain snacks are better than others. This is where the science comes in.
From a sleep perspective, the hormone melatonin is crucial. It is commonly referred to as the ‘sleep hormone’ as it helps induce a feeling a relaxation prior to sleep. It is produced naturally by our pineal gland when it is dark (one of the reasons TV and smartphones are discouraged before bedtime), but there are also some foods that can help melatonin production.
There are very few foods that are a naturally occurring source of melatonin, but cherries (or tart cherry juice) are the exception. A study by the European Journal of Nutrition in 2012 found that the consumption of tart cherry juice can provide an increase in melatonin levels, and was beneficial in improving sleep duration and quality.
If the thought of cherries or cherry juice before bed doesn’t whet your appetite, foods containing the amino acid tryptophan are the next best thing, (when combined with carbohydrates). Once absorbed by the body, tryptophan is synthesised into serotonin and melatonin. But this doesn’t happen immediately, as Tryptophan needs the help of carbohydrates to help boost melatonin levels, (find out more about this process here).
Tryptophan cannot be produced by the body itself, so it has to be consumed through food. Great sources of tryptophan include:
- Poultry (Chicken or Turkey)
- Seafood (Especially Shrimp and Salmon)
- Soy products (Soybeans or Tofu)
- Dairy products (Cheese, Milk and Yoghurt)
- Nuts and Seeds (Cashews, Almonds, Pistachios and Sesame Seeds)
- Legumes (Kidney Beans, Black Beans, Peanuts and Lentils)
When looking at the best carbohydrates to pair with tryptophan rich food, there are a variety of viewpoints. Some studies (such as The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition) have suggested that carbs with a high glycaemic index are more effective at increasing the concentration of tryptophan in the blood, and can shorten the amount of time it takes to get to sleep. However, more popular opinion suggests that the blood sugar high (and the subsequent blood sugar crash) of high GI foods before bedtime can actually trigger an increase in adrenaline and cortisol levels while you’re asleep, that could wake you up again.
So, looking at the impact on sleep quality, we’re going to side with the broader body of evidence that lower GI carbohydrate sources (complex carbs), are best to pair with tryptophan rich foods. An additional bonus of choosing carbohydrates lower on the glycaemic scale is that they can also keep you feeling fuller, for longer.
Complex carbohydrates that are also low on the glycaemic index include:
- Brown Rice
- Steel-cut Oats
- Bran Flakes
- Whole Grain Bread
- Peas (and Leafy Greens)
Some snack suggestions from the health and fitness experts.
We got in touch with 3 health and fitness experts to get their recommendations of a healthy bedtime snack.
Steve, personal trainer and fitness blogger from Hoyles Fitness:
“For ease, you can’t really beat a chopped banana and yogurt as a bedtime snack. It’s a nice mix of carbs and protein, takes seconds to make and you can mix up the yogurt flavours for variety. Though if I’m particularly hungry, I sometimes have this simple dairy-free fruit porridge. Again, it’s simple to make, doesn’t take long and you can tweak it with all kinds of different fruit, nuts, seeds etc.”
Natasha, personal trainer and blogger from Dance Flow Lift:
“Snacking before bed can be tricky, as digesting food overnight can leave you feeling heavy. The amino acid tryptophan is a great one for aiding sleep. Found in dairy and nuts, I often have Greek yogurt with a little fruit or honey before bed. Fruit is high in fibre and will also aid morning digestion. I’m a big fan of a non-caffeinated tea, perhaps with a dash of honey, to help wind down before bed”.
Em Sheldon, health and fitness blogger from EMTALKS:
“A comfort food before bed for me is a slice of wholemeal toast, but I also really enjoy a little bit of popcorn. These are high in carbohydrates, but I simply love them. Can’t beat a bowl of cereals either!”
All of these suggestions have one thing in common: they mix complex carbs (in the form of cereals, whole grain bread and porridge) with tryptophan-rich foods (milk, yoghurt and nuts). This means they will all ensure that your hunger is satisfied, and you body begins to produce more melatonin, triggering the sleep process to help you wind down and drift off to sleep easier.
Come up with some snack suggestions of your own!
The key is to remember that your snack should only contain about 250 calories, and contain a source of melatonin or tryptophan, and complex carbs.
Take a look at the list of tryptophan and low GI complex carb lists, and see what you can come up with!
Some quick ideas might be:
- A bowl of bran flakes with milk and chopped bananas
- A bowl of mixed seeds and nuts
- A smoothie containing tart cherries and bananas
We hope this gives you some tasty ideas for the next time evening hunger calls. Now you can prepare a late-night snack without having to feel guilty, and sleep better because of it!