How Meal Timing Impacts Sleep


Sleep and meal timing can impact hormonal levels that, in turn, influence satiety and food intake. Studies associate sleeping and eating late in the day with poor dietary quality and higher obesity risk but differences in sleep duration confound this association. The hormones your body makes and deploys rise and fall in quantity throughout the day. At certain times of day you’re hungrier, and at other times you’re not so hungry. Sometimes your body prefers to store fat, and sometimes it would rather burn fat.

One of the hormones known to be sensitive to timing is ghrelin, also known as the hunger hormone. Interestingly, even though ghrelin (from the Proto-Indo-European language root for “grow”) wasn’t discovered until 1999, the titular characters in the 1984 film Gremlins (which looks and sounds a lot like “ghrelin,” does it not?) turn bad when they eat after midnight. Coincidence? I’ll leave that to you.

While eating late at night might not turn you into a Gremlin, it can interfere with sleep quality and brain health. Even small snacks in the late evening can turn on the whole digestive system. If you go to sleep on a full stomach, your body has to split its energy between digestion and all the things your brain needs to do during sleep. (Insulin sensitivity is also highest in the morning, which means that for most people morning is the optimal time to eat.)

Fasting can help or hurt your sleep, depending on timing. Basically, humans evolved to eat during the daytime and not eat at night. If you fast all day and eat a big meal right before bed, your body can get confused and think that it’s time to go out to do stuff just when you’re turning down the sheets. When your body gets a big surge of calories but has no immediate need to burn them, it is also more inclined to store them as fat.

One group suffers even more than the rest when it comes to disturbed sleep: shift workers. They’ve even come to have their very own International Classifications of Disease (ICD) disorder: Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD). Those who work at night (or who have shifts that vary from week to week) are susceptible to the worst effects of sleep deprivation. They frequently have trouble sleeping and experience excessive drowsiness and fatigue that can interfere with overall functioning. They tend to have more anxiety and depression than average, and suffer from worse physical and mental health.

Even in the most extreme shift jobs, though, it’s possible to adopt practices for better, more regular, and more restorative sleep. Food turns out to be a central pillar — including meal and snack timing — as well as specific nutrients that can provide support for a better night’s sleep.

Magnesium is a key mineral for sleep. Low levels are associated with poor sleep quality and insomnia. There may be multiple mechanisms at work here; not only can magnesium deficiency compromise sleep directly, but it’s also correlated with anxiety and depression — both of which can also contribute to an inability to fall and stay asleep.

Consuming more magnesium can improve subjective measures of insomnia such as sleep efficiency, sleep duration, and sleep onset latency (which just means how long it takes you to fall asleep). For various reasons most of us don’t get enough magnesium in our diets, making it a “usual suspect” nutrient to increase in people who are struggling with sleep.

The facts are in: The right foods and drinks can support your ability to enjoy a sound night’s sleep, and good recipes can help!

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