More than one-third of American adults don’t get enough sleep, for numerous reasons. And even when you do manage to get yourself to bed at a decent time, you might find yourself wide awake at 2 a.m., or getting up to use the bathroom a few times during the night. Or maybe you sleep restlessly all night and feel groggy in the morning.
All of this could be due to what you ate or drank the night before, sleep experts say.
Eating too close to bedtime can cause your blood sugar to spike and affect your circadian rhythm, which is your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle, explained Carleara Weiss, a research assistant professor focusing on behavioral sleep medicine and circadian rhythms at the University at Buffalo School of Nursing.
“The consequences include being awake at night with indigestion or heartburn, or waking up the following day with a headache and fatigue,” she said.
It’s a good idea to stop eating and drinking at least two to three hours before bedtime, Weiss said. But there are actually specific foods and drinks you should avoid before going to bed, too ― and it’s not just the obvious ones, like coffee. Below, sleep experts share what they personally avoid. (Keep in mind that diet tips are never one-size-fits-all, and always check with your doctor before making dietary changes.)
“Ice cream and dairy kill me,” said Michael Breus when asked which foods he avoids before going to sleep. Breus is a clinical psychologist, a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and founder of TheSleepDoctor.com.
“I’ve found some nondairy desserts, but then I also need to watch out for too much sugar, as well,” he said.
Dairy can be high in saturated fat, and research published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine in 2016 found a link between saturated fat and lighter and less restorative sleep.
Many people also struggle to digest dairy, which could upset your stomach and keep you up at night, Breus said. He added that hard cheeses, like parmesan and aged cheddar, contain the amino acid tyrosine and tyramine, the byproduct of the breakdown of tyrosine. These substances, which are also found in cured and processed meats, can have stimulating effects and keep you awake.
Dousing your late-night snack in Sriracha might not be the best idea — if you want to get a good night’s sleep, anyway. Breus said spicy foods can interfere with your sleep.
“Researchers believe capsaicin, a compound found in spicy foods, could be a main culprit,” he said. “Capsaicin is thought to raise body temperature, which interferes with comfortable sleep.”
Spicy foods also may be more likely to cause indigestion or acid reflux (or make the conditions worse), which might make it hard to fall asleep and could wake you up during the night.
Sugary and salty snacks
Potato chips, cookies, crackers and candy are often go-to evening snacks. These foods tend to be high in sugar and carbs, which might boost your blood sugar and make it hard to sleep, said Benjamin Bikman, a metabolic scientist and co-founder of HLTH Code.
“If the carbs come in a bag or a box with a barcode, they’re best avoided in the evening,” he said. “This strategy will prevent a blood sugar spike. And if blood sugars stay low, so do body temperature and heart rate, helping you get a better night’s sleep.”
Cereal is something Bikman said he avoids at night, mostly because he can’t stop eating it. “I tend to just keep going, leading me to overeat. Not only do I go to bed with high blood sugar, but I’m also uncomfortably full.”
Research shows that when you eat in the evening, you’re more likely to choose less nutritious items and consume more calories. Traditional snack foods that are high in sodium, sugar and fat will negatively impact your sleep, reduce sleep duration and create poor sleep quality, Weiss said.
Sipping on a glass of wine at night might make you feel sleepy, but research suggests that alcohol truly has the opposite effect, Weiss said. “Alcohol reduces time spent on REM sleep (the sleep stage associated with dreaming and memory retention), increases the number of nighttime awakenings, and leads to poor sleep quality.”
As the sedative effects of alcohol wear off, you’ll end up having a restless night of sleep and clocking fewer sleeping hours, Breus said. “I don’t like drinking all that much, but too close to bed, within one to two hours, is not a good idea for me.”
What to eat if you must have a late-night snack
It’s best not to eat or drink anything a few hours before bed, but that’s not always practical. When you feel peckish in the evenings, there are some options that won’t have as big of an impact on your sleep.
Choose a snack that’s low in simple carbs, but higher in lean protein and fat, Bikman said. For instance, opt for Greek yogurt, steamed or raw vegetables, fruit and peanut butter, or dark chocolate, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
“This helps people get something without upsetting their sleep or their diet,” Breus said.
For more information, read our complete guide to midnight snacking.