You’ve had a busy day: worked late, got caught in traffic, attended your niece’s school play, and arrived home at 10:30pm without having even thought about what you’re going to eat for dinner! Here’s where you need to decide if you’ll order takeout from the Chinese place around the corner, throw that frozen pizza in the oven, put together a salad with the contents of your fridge, or just skip eating altogether and go to sleep.
As you wait for the pizza to cook, you begin wondering if it’s bad for you to be eating at this time of night. But you’re really too tired to care so you quickly shove the greasy pizza down your throat and head off to try to get to sleep by midnight. After all, you can’t sleep if you’re hungry.
Going to Bed on a Full Stomach
Digestion is a fairly complicated biological process your body goes through every time you eat. If digestion goes well, you hardly even notice it because it’s all happening in the background. But eating before going to bed means that your body is trying to perform this processing of digesting food while you are supposed to be sleeping. Sort of like trying to work and rest at the same time—which is admittedly difficult to do!
Your mom probably told you shouldn’t go to bed on a full stomach, but you may now find yourself wondering if that is a myth along the same lines as not swimming immediately after eating! Is it true that you shouldn’t go to sleep after eating? If so, how long should you wait after eating before going to sleep? And what will happen if you don’t?
How Dangerous Is Sleeping on a Full Stomach?
It’s certainly a bad idea to starve yourself for hours prior to sleep as a gnawing hunger will keep you from sleeping. A small, healthy snack in the hours between dinner and bedtime is not likely to cause too many problems. On the other hand, if your stomach is extremely full when you go to sleep, this can cause some serious physical health problems as well as possible emotional issues.
Here is a rundown of some of the problems you can face when you go to bed after eating a large amount of food:
Heartburn and Acid Reflux
After you have eaten, your stomach begins to release digestive juices that help your body to process food. This stomach acid works very well when it stays where it belongs, but if it flows back up the digestive system into the esophagus, it can cause discomfort and pain related to heartburn and acid reflux.
Studies have shown the people who eat dinner within a short amount of time before going to bed may have significantly more problems with symptom related to reflux. This is likely related to the fact that lying on your back means that gravity is not helping to keep the stomach acids where they belong, allowing them more easily to flow back up and make you uncomfortable. In general, especially if you have gastro-intestinal problems, it’s a good idea to avoid eating dinner within 3-4 hours of bedtime in order to be sure that your stomach is clear before you lie flat to sleep.
Of course going to bed when you are hungry is a bad idea, so a light snack may be in order. If you do need a snack before bed, choose something that won’t upset your stomach and could even help you sleep. Try foods that are easy to digest, such as a cup of fat free yogurt, a handful of nuts, a few raw vegetables, or a banana.
While this is a hot topic that not all experts agree upon, some studies have linked eating before going to bed with gaining weight. This could be related to the fact that willpower may be at its lowest in the evening when you are tired. In this case, it might not be the fact that you are eating before bed, but more the decisions about what you are eating before bed that matters. If you are tired, you may be more likely to make poor eating choices in what you eat, or in how much you eat.
Or if you’re eating while distracted (for instance, watching television) you may be less likely to make wise eating choices. Some people have a tendency to eat out of habit simply because they are tired and not because they are really very hungry. Junk foods eaten during the evening can lead to unhealthy cravings, overeating, and a large increase in your daily calorie intake.
Some people are actually thirsty when they think they are hungry, so drinking a glass of water before getting a snack may be just the thing to satisfy. If you’re sure that you’re not eating more at night, but you’re just eating your calories later, then an evening snack probably won’t do much harm. But be sure to keep the snack light and healthy.
When your body begins digesting food, your metabolism is given a boost and your body temperature raises during the process. When you are warmer and your metabolism is increased, you’re likely to have more brain activity during sleep. And some people take this to mean that you have more dreams or nightmares. While stress and emotional anxiety are the strongest factors that trigger bad dreams, there may also be a correlation between nightmares and late-night food.
Just to be safe, it’s a good idea to leave between one and three hours between eating and sleeping so that your body has time to digest your food. This will help to clear your stomach which avoids heartburn and acid reflux, reduce the risk of nightmares related to an active metabolism, and potentially lower the possibility of gaining weight related to going to sleep on a full stomach.
Just like in most situations, a healthy lifestyle is filled with balance and moderation. If you’re hungry prior to bedtime, get a small snack like a handful of almonds or piece of fruit. But downing a massive plate filled with spicy nachos piled high with the works? Well, that might be best saved for a time when you aren’t about to go to sleep.
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