It’s 11 p.m. You’re done with your nightly yoga stretch, ready to hit the hay, and dream about llamas or the color purple or whatever it is you dream about.
Oh, all right. It’s 11 p.m., and you’ve just finished a 4-hour scroll through your social media pages only to find yourself craving a pack of gummies.
In either scenario, suddenly, you hear a rumbling from the depths. Wait, you can’t be… hungry? It’s so late. The dream llamas are waiting.
So, to eat or not to eat? That really is the question. Is it better to eat before you sleep? Or is sleeping on an empty stomach bad for you? And if it’s “bad” or “good” — whatever that means — what is it “bad” or “good” for?
Well, there are many factors at play. And, as with most questions of diet and sleep, there’s no simple answer. Diet and sleep are not one-size-fits-all.
Let’s chew on the truth for a hot second.
It’s okay to go to bed hungry, and there are plenty of reasons you might do so.
Why you’re going to bed hungry
These might include:
- Sticking to a meal schedule: How often you eat full meals during the day is important — it’s generally three, spread out, with some light snackage filling the gaps in those hungrier moments. If dinner lands in the early evening, you might feel hungry when you doze off.
- Reducing those calories: If you’re on an eating plan that brings down your calorie intake, it could lead to those bedtime hungries.
If you’re undertaking an eating plan that leaves you hungry at bedtime for health reasons or weight management, this is part of the beneficial, sometimes difficult journey.
Eating at specific times is a key part of intermittent fasting, for example. So, if your eating window ends earlier in the day, you may feel those belly rumbles before you hit the hay.
But there are more disruptive or sometimes dangerous reasons that you might be hungry before bed — and you may need to seek assistance if these apply:
- Undersleeping: If you’re not getting enough shut-eye, your body could be producing more of a protein called ghrelin, which can end up stimulating your appetite when you’re most tired — before bed.
Hirotsu C, et al. (2015). Interactions between sleep, stress, and metabolism: From physiological to pathological conditions. DOI: 10.1016/j.slsci.2015.09.002
- Malnutrition: This is where going to bed hungry becomes a whole other problem — you’re getting less than 1,800 calories a day and not enough nutrients. It may be due to a health condition that blocks nutrient absorption, such as Crohn’s disease, or it could be a result not having access to enough food. Either way, it sucks and needs resolving.
Are you dealing with food insecurity?
If you find yourself unable to make sure that everyone in your family or household has enough food to stay active and healthy, you’re not alone — in the United States, millions of households are in the same position.
The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t made it any easier for people to feed their families.
It can be tough. But you have options, including:
- finding your nearest food bank
- applying for assistance from a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
- signing up for both state and federal Unemployment Benefits and knowing what they are in this ever-changing situation
You don’t have to go bed hungry.
Side effects of sleeping hungry
Some people shy away from those nighttime munchies for fear of weight gain.
Hunger pains keep the brain mentally alert, making it more difficult to get a full night’s rest if hunger strikes during the night. So, going to bed with a happy belly and a happy heart may be the answer for you.
(And if you’re looking for foods that are more likely to make you sleepy, we’ve got you covered.)
Not getting enough sleep may actually interfere with the part of your brain that regulates appetite and increases your lust for high calorie foods, according to a 2013 research review.
This research review also found that when participants slept less, they were more likely to demonstrate a desire for weight-gain-promoting foods.
A 2015 research review suggested that, for some people, such as those with type 1 diabetes or glycogen storage disease, eating before bed is a matter of staying alive.
The same 2015 review suggested that having a nibble before bed might help your muscles process protein better and your heart and metabolism run more smoothly.
Going to bed hungry doesn’t just mean less sleep — it may also be bad news for those trying to build muscle. If deprived of nutrients for long enough, your body can start to break down muscle for energy (also called a catabolic state). Looks like Ahhhnold got plenty of shut-eye.
In short, if you’re so peckish before nighty-night time that you can’t drift off and it’s messing with your sleep cycle, or if you’ve got a health condition that means you absolutely have to eat before bedtime, then it’s all good.
(But, as you’ll see a little later on, this doesn’t mean reaching straight for the Swedish Fish. You’re welcome to dream about fish that speak Swedish, though, if that’s your thing.)
Some studies suggest that eating before bedtime, especially if the meal contains protein, can improve muscle mass and strength when you incorporate exercise into your lifestyle.
Going to bed hungry doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you’ll shift pounds, but eating too much before bedtime may correlate with weight gain and related health problems.
Even though it may suit some people and be downright necessary for others, going to town on a cheesecake and then tucking yourself in may be a recipe for weight gain and some health problems.
For example, a Japanese study that tracked participants between 2009 and 2014 found associations between nighttime eating and metabolic syndrome in women.
Another study found links between eating late at night, overweight, and obesity.
It’s not the act of eating late in the evening itself that contributes to that association, but late night eating may be linked to a less healthy diet and meal skipping, according to research from 2010.
If you’re hungry all the time, the problem may be what you’re eating as well as when you’re eating — we explain more here.
While it’s best to avoid eating a full gourmet meal right before bedtime, it’s not always as simple as not eating before you’ve counted your sheep.
Based on the studies, here’s the advice we’d give:
- Avoid skipping meals. This can leave you feeling hungry before bedtime, which can keep you awake, which robs you of sleep, which may affect how your brain processes appetite, which may lead you to eat less-healthy foods… you get the picture.
- Pick healthy, low energy foods that fill you up. If you need to eat close to bedtime to keep hunger at bay, choose healthy chow. Some research suggests eating a small portion of food that’s high in nutrients but doesn’t provide a huge amount of energy — i.e., it’s low in carbs and calories.
Kinsey AW, et al. (2015). The health impact of nighttime eating: Old and new perspectives. https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/7/4/2648/htmSimple nutrients are easy for your body to process even when it’s recharging.
- Eat smaller meals, more often. If you often get hungry before bed, you may benefit from eating smaller meals more often throughout the day than you currently do, according to a 2008 study.
Smeets AJ, et al. (2008). Acute effects on metabolism and appetite profile of one meal difference in the lower range of meal frequency. DOI: 10.1017/S0007114507877646This could help your body use fat for energy overnight instead of lean muscle.
Healthy pre-bedtime snacks
If you really don’t feel comfortable with that feeling of hunger before bed, here are some snack options for you.
- Foods with tryptophan, a potentially sleep-promoting amino acid, can be great options. These might include turkey, chicken, fish, eggs, and nuts.
- Whole-grains can be great options too. They digest slowly and are gentle on the stomach. You might want to grab yourself some whole-grain bread, oatmeal, or crackers.
- Avoid greasy, fried foods, as well as overtly spicy or sugary snacks. These are a one-way ticket to either bundles of energy or Tummy-turmoil Town.
- Drinking too much might have you continually tripping to the toilet in the middle of the night, which isn’t great for ensuring a continuous chunk of snooze time. So, try to limit your fluid intake.
One thing is for sure: If you’re frequently exceeding your daily calorie needs, reaching for high calorie treats late at night can contribute to weight gain.
Going to bed on a full stomach might also lead to heartburn, which could prevent a good night’s sleep.
Picking a smaller, lighter snack before bed could be your best bet for sleeping soundly without putting on extra pounds.
As with anything else, it’s about balance and moderation.
Going to bed feeling like sh*t because you’re hungry doesn’t do you any favors, but you also have to be kind to your body to get the best out of both sleep and food.
Ultimately, your body will tell you what’s best. If eating before bed gives you heartburn, don’t do it. If not eating before bed keeps you up at night, a light, healthy snack should settle your stomach and your mind before you catch those Zzz’s.
And if you’ve got a health condition that may require it, like type 1 diabetes, for heck’s sake don’t be skipping a pre-snooze snack.
We also looked at the complete opposite situation — whether you should exercise on an empty stomach.