Can’t Sleep? A Metabolism Scientist Says This Is the #1 Solution for Sleepless Nights

This surprising practice could be subtly damaging your sleep hygiene. Here's how to fix it.

Late-night tossing and turning can make you desperate for a fast, effective sleep solution. According to The American Academy of Sleep Medicine, up to 35% of adults in the U.S. experience symptoms of insomnia, which means about one in three people are in need of a better night’s rest. One new study suggested a weighted blanket was more powerful than melatonin, while maybe you’ve also tried the recommendations to carefully craft a bedtime routine or try a little feng shui in your room—but what about what you shouldn’t do?

Dr. Benjamin Bikman, PhD, is a cell biologist and co-founder of HLTH Code. A thought leader in metabolic science, Dr. Bikman says good sleep goes hand-in-hand with another habit: if you’re eating too close to bedtime, chances are pretty good you’re sabotaging your sleep.

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How does eating before bed hurt your sleep?

Dr. Bikman says the problem lies with your sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which controls processes in your body that you usually don’t have to think about such as your breathing, heart rate and digestion. While your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is in charge of relaxing you, your SNS is in charge of helping you respond to stressful or dangerous situations by speeding up your heart rate and “making you ready for action,” as Dr. Bikman says. Eating too late into the evening, he explains to The Healthy, could be kicking your SNS into gear.

“When we eat, there is a natural increase in body temperature.” Dr. Bikman says this rise in temp indicates that the body is working to digest food.

“Additionally,” he says, “if the meal or snack happens to increase blood glucose levels (and, if we’re being honest with ourselves, most evening snacks will…), that activates the sympathetic nervous system that makes us feel anxious—increasing heart rate and blood pressure.”

Dr. Bikman says many people believe those are simply symptoms of anxiety, and may blame their poor sleep on feeling stressed out. “However,” he explains, “it’s just the body’s response to overeating the wrong foods before bed.”

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When—and what—should you eat at night?

Dr. Bikman says the timing of your evening bite depends on what you’re eating or drinking. “The unfortunate tendency is to crave snacks that will spike blood glucose,” he says. “Ideally, blood glucose is at fasting levels (below 90 milligrams per deciliter) by the time a person is getting ready for bed. Based on this, a span of about three to four hours would usually be enough to return glucose levels to normal.”

If you need to sneak in some extra calories before you wind down for the day, Dr. Bikman says you shouldn’t eat anything too filling, and you should avoid foods that will increase your glucose the most. “Usually, the big offenders are foods and snacks that are sweet and gooey or salty and crunchy.”

For a sleep-smart evening meal, Dr. Bikman has three rules:

“1. Control carbohydrates (i.e., don’t eat refined starches and sugars);

2. Prioritize protein (i.e., protein helps you feel full and control cravings);

3. Don’t fear fat (i.e., in nature, fat comes with protein—let it come). The latter two (protein and fat) will have little or no effect on blood glucose.”

So if it’s almost time to turn in but your tummy is growling, just make sure you’re at least three hours out from hitting the hay, and skip the warm milk and cookies. Instead, choose something packed with protein or a healthy fat to help you get a good night’s sleep.

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Miranda Manier
Miranda is the Associate Editor for TheHealthy.com and The Healthy section of Reader's Digest magazine. Previously, Miranda was a producer at WNIT, the PBS affiliate in South Bend, Indiana; and the producer in residence for Minneapolis TV news KARE 11, where she won an Upper Midwest Regional Emmy Award for producing gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Derek Chauvin trial. Miranda also interned at Chicago’s PBS station, WTTW, and worked as the managing editor at the Columbia Chronicle at Columbia College. Outside of work, Miranda enjoys acting, board games, and trying her hand at a good vegan dessert recipe. She also loves talking about TV—so tell her what you’re watching!