Is it bad to eat right before bedtime?

That late night snack might mean you'll end up sharing your bed with acid reflux. 
That late night snack might mean you'll end up sharing your bed with acid reflux. 
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The list of things we're not supposed to do before bedtime is getting longer all the time. If the folks at the National Sleep Foundation had their way, we'd all spend the hours before bedtime in a stress-free, dimly lit room with all forms of electronic stimuli turned off (airplane mode, not vibrate) [source: National Sleep Foundation]. But what about food — is it bad to eat right before bedtime, too?

Here's a quick review of what happens to food once you've swallowed it. It passes through the esophagus into the stomach, where it's ground into small particles in a cocktail of digestive juices [source: GI Kids]. Food then spends the next few hours churning in bile as it makes its way through the 22 feet (nearly 7 meters) of your small intestine [source: Kids Health]. Similarly pleasant activities take place in the large intestine.

The main problem with eating before bedtime is that it can cause acid reflux. Simply being horizontal worsens acid reflux, which is why the condition is also associated with reclining to watch television after a big meal [source: Koufman] People with asthma are especially susceptible to sleep disturbances caused by eating before lying down [source: Sontag].

Another reason why dining late can be a sleep stealer is that many of us pair our dinner with a drink, as is the habit of approximately 30 percent of Americans [source: Ingraham]. While alcohol may initially help bring on sleep, it can also be the cause of waking up too early and other sleep problems [source: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism].

Some have proposed that eating before bedtime is a bad idea because rich foods are somehow more tempting in the dark of night and that people are more likely to overindulge later in the day. There is also some support for the idea that animals (including humans) are better equipped to metabolize calories when consumed earlier in the day. These are both important considerations for anyone trying to lose weight.

A distinction should made between eating a heavy meal before bedtime versus having a light snack, which is much less likely to cause acid reflux. Moreover, a small snack will balance blood sugar levels throughout the night, which may help you sleep more soundly.

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Sources

  • GI Kids. "What happens to your food after you eat it." NASPGHAN. (April 18, 2015) http://www.gikids.org/files/documents/resources/Eat-E.pdf
  • Hatori, Megumi, et al. "Time-restricted feeding without reducing caloric intake prevents metabolic disease in mice fed a high-fat diet." Cell Metabolism. June 6, 2012. (April 18, 2015) http://www.cell.com/cell-metabolism/abstract/S1550-4131(12)00189-1?cc=y
  • Ingraham, Christopher. "Think you drink a lot? This chart will tell you." Washington Post. Sept. 25, 2014 (April 18, 2015) http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/09/25/think-you-drink-a-lot-this-chart-will-tell-you/
  • Koufman, Jamie A. "The dangers of eating late at night." The New York Times. Oct. 25, 2014. (April 18, 2015) http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/26/opinion/sunday/the-dangers-of-eating-late-at-night.html?_r=0
  • Kids Health. "Your digestive system." (April 18, 2015) http://kidshealth.org/kid/htbw/digestive_system.html
  • National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "Alcohol and sleep." July 1998. (April 18, 2015) http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa41.htm
  • National Sleep Foundation. "Caffeine and sleep." (April 18, 2015) http://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-topics/caffeine-and-sleep
  • National Sleep Foundation. "No need to go on a yoga retreat: beat stress with some easy techniques." (April 18, 2015) https://sleep.org/articles/learning-relax/
  • Sontag, Stephen, et al. "Asthmatics have more nocturnal gasping and reflux symptoms than nonasthmatics, and they are related to bedtime eating." American Journal of Gastroenterology. 2004. (April 18, 2015) http://www.nature.com/ajg/journal/v99/n5/abs/ajg2004152a.html