The Way to BE

Why What You Eat Before Bed Affects Your Sleep

Is late night snacking healthy for you?

Eating late at night - a large dinner or something small to snack on while watching your favorite television program - may help you fall asleep but can affect your overall metabolism and ultimately create stress inside the body. 

What does the sun have to do with metabolism?

During the dark hours of the night, a hormone called norepinephrine is released. It tells the brain to make melatonin. Think of melatonin as the chemical that dominates sleep cycles. A couple of things need to be in place for the production of melatonin.

  • Norepinephrine is one essential element necessary for melatonin production.
  • Actual darkness is needed for norepinephrine release and for melatonin production. This means that bright lights, including the light from a television, can inhibit this process.
  • Excess of cortisol, a chemical tied to stress, will also inhibit the release of norepinephrine and the production of melatonin.
  • Melatonin and cortisol have an inverse relationship. When cortisol is high, melatonin will be low. Likewise, when cortisol is low, melatonin will be high.

Causes of Stress That Will Affect Your Sleep

  • Anything that engages strong, reactive emotions.
  • Over-thinking and worrying.
  • Trauma, both physical and emotional.
  • Adrenal stimulants, like coffee.
  • Overworking.
  • Lack of sleep.
  • Unhealthy fats, which release pro-inflammatory chemicals.
  • Irregular blood sugar levels. 

A Vicious Stress Cycle: Too Much and Too Little Blood Sugar

Eating late at night will initially raise your blood sugar. While sleeping, your body goes into a light fast. If you eat before sleeping, you are more likely to experience a crash in blood sugar while asleep.

Eating before bed will cause your blood sugar to spike and crash before you even wake up. This blood sugar crash will put stress on the body, weaken the digestive system, and lead to adrenal exhaustion.

The mechanism goes like this:

  • Blood sugar spikes.
  • The pancreas releases insulin to get the sugar out of the blood and into cells.
  • If the blood sugar spike happens frequently (as it does for most of us), the pancreas delivers too much insulin into the bloodstream.
  • This causes a drastic drop in blood sugar, or a crash.
  • A blood sugar crash alerts the adrenals that there is an emergency.
  • The adrenals secrete the stress hormone cortisol.
  • Cortisol inflames the body and weakens digestive function.
  • Constant sugar crashes exhaust adrenal function.

Skipping meals or frequently eating foods that are starchy or sugary cause blood sugar spikes, and both lead to the same thing: adrenal exhaustion. What’s interesting is that people who skip meals will often use adrenal stimulants or excessively sugary foods to get a quick lift of energy.

This blood sugar yo-yo effect in the body will pull on the adrenal glands for cortisol. This pulling on the adrenal glands does something else in the body. Eventually, it will exhaust other elements of the endocrine system. The endocrine system is the system in charge of regulating hormones in the body. 

Cortisol Lowers Your Melatonin

Sleep is an activity that is all about relaxation and restoration. Thus, cortisol, the stress hormone, should be at its lowest at night. When blood sugar crashes in the middle of the night, cortisol levels rise, and melatonin production diminishes.

  • The natural cycles of cortisol and melatonin are part of your circadian rhythm.
  • Chronically high cortisol levels suppress human growth hormone.
  • Chronically high cortisol levels suppress immune function.
  • Chronically high cortisol levels also open the door to a series of inflammatory cascades in the body.
Does this mean that taking a melatonin supplement will restore the circadian rhythm?

No, supplementing with melatonin is not recommended. Short-term, emergency use may be tolerated. But keep in mind that ultimately you want your body to remember its own natural ebb and flow of hormones. Melatonin is a hormone and giving your body this hormone over time will actually lead to a deeper and more pathological imbalance.

More Magnesium, Deeper Sleep

Most people do well with magnesium supplementation, and it is best to try magnesium first before using melatonin. Magnesium does have a laxative effect, so keep this in mind if you decide to use it as a sleep aid. A full-spectrum mineral supplement, like Body Ecology Ancient Earth Minerals, is another good way to not only restore levels of magnesium in the body but to also bring the body fully into mineral balance.

What to Remember Most About This Article:

  • Make your last meal of the day around or shortly after nightfall.
  • Your natural production of melatonin depends on low levels of cortisol.
  • Stress will increase cortisol levels in the body.
  • The foods that you eat, depending on what they are, can be a significant stressor in the body.
  • Supplementing with a full-spectrum mineral supplement, like Body Ecology Ancient Earth Minerals, will alkalize your body, dampen the inflammatory cascade, and create a more restful sleep.

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  • Barbara

    See, that may be good informaiton, but what about the empirical data suggesting that if I don''t have something to eat before bed, I won't sleep well and/or will take longer to fall asleep and so will not get enough sleep, no matter when I go to bed. Lack of sleep also causes stress. Is there no weighing of the impact from opposing causes of stress in this context? Is there no suggestion for food to eat if one MUST have a snack before bed?

    If this is a target what steps are the of successive approximation to get there? The chasm between here and there must be bridged and not leapt. How do you suggest getting from one place to the other. This article begs more questions than it answers by the very nature of its black and white statements. We live in the shadowlands and this article is full day vs full night. thanks bz

  • Donna

    Please provide the reference for you statement: Melatonin is a hormone and giving your body this hormone over time will actually lead to a deeper and more pathological imbalance.

  • Michelle D

    Here is what I found, which is consistent with the article above, which never states what the precursor to Melatonin is, only that Norepinephrine is necessary for Melatonin production. It seems very complex to me & I'm in the medical field! :)
    "Melatonin, the major hormone produced by the pineal gland, displays characteristic daily and seasonal patterns of secretion. These robust and predictable rhythms in circulating melatonin are strong synchronizers for the expression of numerous physiological processes in photoperiodic species. In mammals, the nighttime production of melatonin is mainly driven by the circadian clock, situated in the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus, which controls the release of norepinephrine from the dense pineal sympathetic afferents. The pivotal role of norepinephrine in the nocturnal stimulation of melatonin synthesis has been extensively dissected at the cellular and molecular levels."

  • Lorraine Lott

    Here is what I've read: "The precursor to melatonin is serotonin, a neurotransmitter that itself is derived from the amino acid tryptophan. Within the pineal gland, serotonin is acetylated and then methylated to yield melatonin."
    Norepinephrine - "Like dopamine, norepinephrine has a stimulating effect, fostering alertness, and plays an important regulatory role in long-term memory and learning"
    Hope this helps.

  • Mary Marston

    My doctor said that serotonin is the precursor of melatonin.

  • Sylvie Nalezny

    I am confused by this article. Norepinephrine is like the body's naturaly adrenalin and would cause a person to wake up. I thought serotonin was the precursor to melatonin? Are you sure this is correct information?

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