Going to bed hungry – A burden or a blessing for sleep?

Sleep is essential for maintaining proper immune health, restoring energy levels and memory consolidation. Going to bed hungry - A burden or a blessing for sleep? Achieving a good quality sleep is important for general health and well-being.1

The concurrent levels of metabolic activity control the state of wakefulness and satiety. Quality sleep and meal pattern are involved in energy homeostasis.2 Breakfast, lunch and dinner are the three main meals of the day for most of people.3

It is a common notion that unusual eating habits and sleep patterns are generally considered as predisposing factors for the cardio-metabolic conditions such as obesity and diabetes.4 Several studies have stated that eating before going to bed can lead to weight gain and obesity.

However, going to bed hungry is equally harmful.

“The main factor which influence the quality and quantity of sleep is not just meal or no meal rather the timing, quantity and the nutritive value of the last meal taken before going to bed.”

This article mainly focuses on the benefits and adverse effects of meal before going to bed, effects of meal timing on the sleep and some beneficial meal options before going to bed.

Sleep and meal pattern – circadian rhythm

The circadian system controls the metabolism, physiology and behavior in a daily cycle of circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythm is generated endogenously that is within the body. It organizes metabolic cycles of catabolism, anabolism and anticipates the feeding-fasting cycles to optimize metabolic efficiency. The circadian system is also influenced by environmental and behavioral factors such as light, sleep and meal timings. The misalignment and mistiming of these three external factors can affect the metabolic health.5

The meal timings substantially influence and entrain the circadian clocks in the neural and peripheral tissues and organs. Acute and chronic restrictions in the diet can cause a well-known behavioral and physiological response to maintain the metabolic homeostasis. A short-term food deprivation can promote an arousal and food seeking behavior. On the other hand, long-term dietary restrictions can induce physiological adaptations to extract and store energy from the ingested nutrients and reduce the expenditure.6

Meal or no meal

The amount of slow wave sleep (SWS) and rapid eye movement (REM) represents the sleep quality. SWS is the deep Going to bed hungry - A burden or a blessing for sleep? sleep and helps in restorative function, whereas REM along with SWS function as memory consolidation.

A relationship is proposed between sleep duration, quality and metabolic disorders such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. The impact of caloric intakes on sleep quality and quantity has been assessed.7

Benefits of eating before going to sleep

Prevents night time snacking and aids in weight loss:  recent evidence suggests that rather than causing weight gain, eating an adequate bed time snack/meal may help some individuals in weight loss/ management.

Instead of taking high carbohydrate meal or big portion of high caloric food during the night, having a protein rich snack can help control the desire for night time snacking. Waller SM et al. In 2004, observed eating low calorie cereal after evening meal may attenuate caloric intake in night snackers and promote weight loss.8 Although the mechanism linking the meal timings and weight loss is still unknown, change in the levels of circulating satiety hormones, such as ghrelin or leptin could influence the circadian system of energy intake and expenditure.9

Improves the sleep quality: getting enough sleep is extremely important. Improper sleep patterns and sleep deprivation has been linked to overeating and weight gain. A healthy snack/meal before bedtime helps to sleep better, satisfied and prevents waking up hungry during the night.10

Stabilizes the morning sugar: fasting overnight may lead to lower glucose levels or hypoglycaemia in some healthy individuals. Some can experience low blood sugar during the night that can also disturb the night sleep. A snack before bedtime may help controlling these changes in the blood sugar levels and can provide an extra source of energy.11

Helps with muscle mass synthesis: practising late evening high intensity workout can cause an increase in the wear and tear of the muscles in the body. A single session of resistance workout can stimulate both protein synthesis and degradation. Protein ingested before going to bed after an intense workout can stimulate muscle mass synthesis, improve whole body protein balance with an effective digestion and absorption leading to an overnight post-exercise recovery.12

Side effects of eating before going to bed

Development of unhealthy habits/ overeating: this can cause cycle of eating too much before bed and thus too full to eat in the morning and again becoming overly hungry before bed the next morning. This can easily lead to overeating Going to bed hungry - A burden or a blessing for sleep? and weight gain.

Weight gain: several studies have reported a link between high carbohydrate diets at night, weight gain and disturbed sleep. A bedtime meal or snack should be healthy and low in calories as it is even more likely that a bedtime snack results in increasing the calorie intake over the daily calorie needs.13

Slower metabolism and lower energy levels: it has been postulated that eating near to bedtime, late night meals or high carbohydrate meals can lead to high calorie intake, which in turn causes increased weight and lowers the basal metabolic rate and increases the body mass index.13 Reid KJ et al. In 2014 studied the relationship between meal pattern, weight regulation and body mass index (BMI). They observed eating close to sleep, could lead to weight gain due to increased frequency and higher daily calorie intake.14

Disturbed sleep pattern: high carbohydrate or high fat food at night or before bedtime can disturb the sleep. Crispim CA et al. in 2004 observed a disturbed REM sleep pattern following a high fat meal before going to bed. This also caused disturbances in  efficiency, latency of sleep along with REM latency and wake after sleep onset.15

Worsen the metabolic disorders: it is not advisable to eat just before going to bed for the individuals having digestive problems or gastrointestinal reflux disease. A bedtime snack/meal can worsen the symptoms such as heartburn, difficulty in swallowing or acidity. It is better to avoid anything for at least 3 hours before lying down to prevent worsening of reflux symptoms.16

Sleep promoting foods and sleep quality

The availability of evidence on research related to beneficial food items for sleep is less.  Daily intake of some foods are documented for their usefulness in immediate and acute sleep improvement without large changes in the dietary patterns.

Avoid desserts and junk food: Although eating before bed time or sleep is not necessarily a bad thing, but eating traditional desserts or high calorie foods such as ice cream, pie or chips is not a good idea. These foods are high in unhealthy fats and added sugars and have a tendency to trigger cravings and overeating. That can lead to development of unhealthy habits and weight gain.

Combine carbohydrates with proteins: pairing of complex carbs and protein or a little fat such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables provide a steady source of energy after falling asleep and helps to keep blood sugar stable. Carbs can improve the transport of amino acid tryptophan, which can be converted into neurotransmitters that can help regulate sleep.17 Going to bed hungry - A burden or a blessing for sleep?

Fatty foods rich in tryptophan: the same effect may be true for foods rich in tryptophan itself such as dairy, fish, poultry or red meat. Consumption of fatty fish is recommended in moderation as it is a good source of vitamin D and omega-3, the nutrients important for regulation of serotonin and sleep regulation.17,18,19

Milk: the current available research on the consumption of warm malted milk suggests that it enables reduced restless sleep in individuals of all ages.18

Fruits: Although the mechanism of action of fruits is still unclear for the regulation of sleep, some studies have concluded that consumption of 2 kiwi fruits/day, 1 hour before bed time for 4 weeks helps in sleep improvement in adults. Similarly, intake of 8 ounces of tart cherry juice in the morning and night for 2 weeks resulted in improvement of insomnia.18


Sleep is important for maintaining proper health, recovery and restoring energy levels. To conclude, it is bad for health to go to bed empty or full stomach. The answer to the question, is it good or bad for sleep lies somewhere in between. The body needs energy so a small low-calorie healthy snack is recommendable before going to sleep. It is important to get proper nutrients during the day and not to starve yourself or eat unhealthy.


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