Did you sleep well last night?

It doesn’t matter if you eat a Big Mac for lunch at midday or for dinner at 10 o’clock it’s still going to contain 490 calories. Nutritional therapists build a career on informing us as the public about what to eat and when to eat it. One major area for discussion is eating in relationship to when we sleep – carbs or no carbs? A large meal or a small snack? 

Now I don’t know about you, but I have absolutely no idea what a nutritional therapist is. On a daily basis I’ll read the advice from dozens of them though. The truth is I’ve never met a nutritional therapist, and I don’t know how seriously I’d take them if I did. It seems people have a tendency to treat information they read online as gospel, often regardless of the source.

I’m sure there are plenty of nutritional therapists with a huge amount of experience who speak complete sense most of the time. The problem is I also have this idea that most of them are just failed medical students.

So what’s the point? Well if you choose to model your health and fitness around the opinions of others, you want to be sure that that person is giving you the right information. Now obviously you shouldn’t rely solely on the opinions of one person. The experience and the advice of others is clearly essential, but a lot of what you do needs to be personal to yourself.

I’ll ask you again – did you sleep well last night?

The way we sleep is determined by a whole number of different factors – factors that can have a major impact on the quality of your sleep. As mentioned above, one of those factors is food. What you eat, when you eat and how much you eat.

Our bodies behave completely differently when we are asleep. For example:

  • Heart rate and breathing is regular
  • Blood pressure drops
  • Body temperature decreases
  • Muscles relax
  • Tissue growth and repair occurs
  • Energy is restored

When you’re focussed on maintaining or improving a healthy lifestyle, you’ll know how important sleep is to aiding your training. So naturally you want that period of rest to be as effective as possible. Food directly impacts that period of rest – so what should you, or should you not, be eating just before you go to sleep.

  • Caffeine

Whether it’s a late night cup of coffee or a can of Coca-Cola, caffeine is a stimulant. Therefore if you drink it prior to sleep you’re likely to over-stimulate your nervous system, and will find it more difficult to sleep

  • Spicy Food

The way in which the stomach acid in our bodies behaves has a significant impact on our sleep. Spicy food in particular produces a greater amount of stomach acid that can cause heartburn before bed

  • Red Meat

Anything that is difficult to digest should really be avoided before sleeping and red meat has high levels of both protein and fat (both of which are difficult to digest). As a result, eating these before bed can cause discomfort and stomach cramping

Other things to avoid include:

  • Overly sugary foods
  • Alcohol
  • Fried food

These are all fairly specific food items though, what we need is a way to know how to categorise foods into 2 distinct categories – what we can eat before bed, and what we can’t.

Where there is a lot of debate is with carbs – should we be eating carbs before bed or not?

When we eat carbs our bodies produce insulin to control blood sugar levels – and it is this insulin spike that we are concerned with. Some would argue it hinders sleep and restricts progress, whereas others say that the insulin helps to ‘clear the bloodstream’ at night.

Carbs before bed won’t kill you – in fact something like a bowl of cereal that is carb-rich is often recommended. This doesn’t mean you can eat anything you want, but eating the right carbs (e.g. cereal, oatcakes) before bed won’t negatively affect you and is recommended by many.

I go back to my first point – if you eat the same food before bed as you do when you wake up, then the amount of calories you intake will be identical. What you need to remember is that the quality of the food is the important thing – regardless of when you eat it. There are some foods you shouldn’t eat at all, whether it’s morning, noon or night.

The best advice I can give you? Get your eight hours starting before midnight and as long as you aren’t eating to excess prior to sleep you won’t go far wrong.

Ollie Lawrence
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