We’ve all heard that going to bed with a full stomach can result in interrupted sleep and poor digestion. Is the rumor true, or is it just an old wives’ tale? Here’s what we know about food, sleep, and the human body.
The Science Behind Somnolence
Preliminary research suggests two chemicals in the body, ghrelin and leptin, create a relationship between sleep and digestion and may encourage active digestion while awake and slower digestion during sleep. Unfortunately, scientists and doctors still understand little about the mechanisms by which ghrelin and leptin work. Research is ongoing on the two substances to help determine their impacts on sleep, weight, and health.
We do know that sleeping on a very full stomach can encourage acid reflux and, over time, gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. The top of the stomach is lined with a ring of muscle tissue known as the lower esophageal sphincter (LES), which usually keeps partially-digested food and stomach acids away from the soft tissue of the esophagus.
When you lie down with a full stomach, food shifts to press against the LES and can cause it to open slightly, allowing stomach acids to seep into the esophagus. Eating three or more hours before bed allows the body to pass food through the stomach before you lie down, minimizing the chances of reflux that can cause discomfort and interrupt sleep.
When You Just Have to Go to Bed on a Full Belly…
Some people simply need to eat before bed. A shift worker who’s up all night may grab “dinner” before catching some early-morning shut-eye. People who get off work at 6 and then commute may eat at 8 or 9 if they want to have time at the dinner table with family. If you need to eat before you crash, here are a few guidelines:
- Make it a light meal. Some sleep experts recommend a light snack (a mix of protein and complex carbs) close to bedtime to help you sleep soundly without waking up hungry. Let your heaviest meal of the day be your lunch, then cut your portion sizes in half at dinner.
- Avoid sugar, caffeine, and alcohol. All three substances affect your body chemistry and can interrupt sleep patterns through a variety of mechanisms. Sugar can cause an insulin spike, caffeine is a stimulant, and alcohol (though it can make you feel sleepy at first) disrupts sleep cycles and can encourage your brain to wake up after you fall asleep. Avoiding the ‘insomnia triad’ at a late dinner can improve your chances of sleeping soundly.
- Prop up. Add an extra pillow or slip a board under your mattress so that your head is slightly higher than your toes. The elevation may give you the edge that lets you keep reflux under control.
- Keep a sleep routine. After dinner, go through a regular routine to help your body prepare for sleep. Good sleep hygiene can help you relax and fall asleep more deeply, so that even an uncomfortable belly is less likely to wake you.
Today’s schedules don’t often bow to the natural needs of the human body. If you simply can’t eat three or more hours before bed, taking care to eat well can allow you to sleep well, maintaining your health even on an unusual schedule.
Follow these recommendations for at least three weeks to find out whether they’ll work for you. If you still suffer interrupted sleep or experience reflux symptoms (heartburn, nausea, discomfort), talk to your doctor to find out what medicines are available to help you.