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The Secret Reason You Aren't Sleeping

Updated: Aug 9, 2021

Sleep is an essential part of optimal health, but for many of us, sleep takes a back seat to work, exercise, social life, etc. Because most people do not prioritize sleep, we develop some bad habits that can lead to disrupted sleep, insomnia, and all-around low-quality sleep.

Arguably one of the worst bad habits is eating too soon before you go to sleep. Eating close to your bedtime can lead to disrupted sleep, weight gain, and more.

The importance of good sleep:

Over the past decades, sleep quality has continued to decline; now, in 2021, the majority of people are getting what is considered to be poor sleep. This wreaks havoc on a person’s overall health. Bad sleep can lead to hormone imbalances, decreased athletic performance and brain function, weight gain, and increased risk of disease.

While we are sleeping, the body is actually going through several activities necessary for life.

  • Sleep is vital for brain health. As we sleep, our brain is processing what we have learned throughout the day while also removing waste products from brain cells. Sleep also impacts brain functions like learning, memory, problem-solving skills, focus, concentration, and creativity.

  • Nerve cells communicate and reorganize as we sleep.

  • Cells undergo repair. As you sleep, your muscles repair, proteins synthesize, tissues grow, and hormones are released.

  • Energy is restored and stored for use the next day. 8 hours of sleep produces daily energy savings 35% higher than when awake.

  • Activity increases in the amygdala, striatum, hippocampus, insula, and prefrontal cortex. These regions all heavily regulate emotion, causing emotional health to be heavily dependant on sleep. If you are sleep-deprived, you’re more likely to have emotional overreactions. A lack of sleep can also lead to worsened mental health issues.

  • Sleep supports a healthy heart. While scientists aren’t certain of the connection between the heart and brain, multiple studies have demonstrated poor sleep can lead to worsened heart conditions. Sleep deprivation is associated with high blood pressure, increased inflammation, elevated cortisol, weight gain, and insulin resistance- all factors that lead to heart disease.

Continued poor sleep quality can lead to or exacerbate conditions like:

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Poor memory

  • Poor concentration and focus

  • Fatigue

  • Poor motor skills

  • Weakened immune system

  • Insulin resistance

  • High blood pressure

  • Chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes

  • Risk of early death

Essentially, you need to get a good night’s sleep to ensure a long and healthy life.

Why you should turn down that bedtime snack:

When you eat before bed, you’re disrupting your body’s natural tendencies and circadian rhythm. Evolutionarily, the night was the time when our bodies rested and slowed digestion in order to restore energy and support brain function. That bedtime snack is actually causing more harm than good.

Eating at night can cause your blood sugar to rise, which leads to disrupted sleep. The process goes as follows:

  • Blood sugar spikes following a meal

  • Insulin is released to remove sugar from the blood

  • A large drop in blood sugar causes a “crash”

  • A blood sugar crash alerts adrenal glands of an emergency

  • Adrenal glands secrete cortisol, the stress hormone

  • Cortisol halts melatonin production

  • Disrupted melatonin production causes sleep disturbance

But eating at night can cause more problems than disrupted sleep, it can also lead to weight gain. Throughout the day, your hormones fluctuate to anticipate feeding and other daily processes. So, at nighttime, your hunger hormones are largely not present. This can lead to overeating and a lack of fullness in the absence of the hunger hormones, leptin and ghrelin. Obviously, overeating will lead to weight gain if continued. But overeating at night is especially likely to pack on the pounds, as digestion and metabolism have slowed.

Several studies have backed the claim that eating later in the day can cause weight gain:

  • A 2013 study of 420 overweight or obese people found that those who eat their major meal after 3 pm lost less weight than those who ate their largest meal before 3 pm. Even though the participants ate the same amount of calories, and had the same sleep and exercise routines.

  • A second study on healthy women found that participants who ate lunch after 4:30 pm burned fewer resting calories than they did when they ate at 1 pm. When the women ate a later lunch, they failed to metabolize carbs as well as the earlier lunch. The women also demonstrated a decreased glucose tolerance when eating a late lunch.

  • A 2014 study examined women who had a 150 calorie protein or carbohydrate shake before bed. The researchers found that while the women were less hungry in the morning after a bedtime snack, they had higher levels of insulin and glucose in their blood. Over time, these high levels can lead to weight gain and diabetes.

  • A recent study on healthy men and women found that when participants ate a late dinner, blood sugar levels were higher and the amount of ingested fat burned was lower. The study compared two groups that ate the same dinner at either 6 pm or 10 pm with the same 11 pm bedtime. The late dinner group had a peak glucose level 18% higher and a 10% decrease in overnight fat burn.

If you feel like you absolutely need a snack after dinner, we recommend stop eating at least 2 hours before bedtime. Moreover, some foods make better bedtime snacks than others and especially those that have a natural ability to raise serotonin or melatonin levels because of their tryptophan content.

Such foods include:

  • Oatmeal

  • Cheese

  • Yogurt

  • Walnuts

  • Almonds

  • Hummus

  • Tea - especially chamomile, ginger, and passionfruit

  • Honey

  • Berries

Other tips to get your best night of sleep ever:

Not eating several hours before going to sleep is only one piece of the puzzle, though. Researchers have long studied the tools and tricks that can encourage a full night of sleep. Here are our top recommendations:

  • Increase bright light in the day:

    • Bright light in the daytime will bolster your body’s circadian rhythm. This natural rhythm influences your brain, body, and hormones as it tells your body when it’s time to stay away and when it’s time to sleep. Bright light will help keep your energy levels high in the day and improve sleep quality at night. One study found that for people with insomnia, bright light in the day reduced the time it took to fall asleep by 83%. Another study demonstrated that 2+ hours of bright light in the day increased sleep time by 2 hours and sleep efficiency by 80%!

  • Reduce blue light in the evenings

    • While exposure to light during the day is beneficial, it is essential that you reduce your bright and blue light exposure once the sun goes down. Too much light in the evenings can trick your circadian rhythm into thinking it’s still daytime. Blue light especially has a reputation for disrupting sleep patterns. Blue light is emitted by your smartphones and computers in large amounts.

    • To reduce evening blue light exposure, we recommend blue light glasses. You can also find apps that will block blue light on your smartphone, laptop, or tablet. You should also stop watching TV and turn off bright lights at least 2 hours before bed.

  • Avoid caffeine in the afternoon:

    • When you drink caffeine, you stimulate your nervous system. This can stop your body from entering relaxation mode at night. One study found that consuming caffeine 6 hours before bed significantly negatively impacted sleep quality. This is because caffeine can stay in your body for 6-8 hours, depending on what kind of metabolizer you are.

    • To be safe, you should avoid caffeine after 3-4 pm to ensure it will not interfere with your sleep.

  • Don’t take long or irregular daytime naps:

    • While short, “power” naps have proven to be beneficial, irregular or long naps can worsen your sleep at night. Daytime naps can confuse your body’s internal clock, leading to insomnia or frequent wake-ups at night. One study found that daytime naps can cause people to feel sleepier.

    • If you need to nap during the day, keep your naps under 30 minutes, as studies have demonstrated that power naps can enhance brain function.

  • Avoid alcohol at night:

    • Unfortunately, alcohol can cause or increase symptoms of snoring, disrupted sleep, and sleep apnea. Alcohol also alters your circadian rhythm by disrupting melatonin production. One study found that nighttime alcohol consumption decreases natural elevations in human growth hormone, which impacts your circadian rhythm and helps to build muscle, burn fat, and build healthy tissues.

    • You should stop drinking alcohol at least 2 hours before bed in order to avoid sleep disruptions.

  • Keep your bedroom cool:

    • Setting your thermostat to a lower temperature at night greatly impacts your sleep quality and amount of sleep disruptions. A high bedroom temperature has been found to disrupt sleep more than external noises. Studies have found that when you and your bedroom are hot, sleep quality will decrease and wakefulness will increase.

    • The ideal temperature for sleeping is around 70°F or 20°C. Although it depends on personal habits and preferences. To avoid a high electricity bill, we recommend keeping your windows open throughout the fall and spring to invite in a nice cool breeze.

  • Keep your exercise during the day:

    • Exercise during the day is very beneficial for your sleep habits. Studies have found that exercise can enhance all sleep aspects and reduce symptoms of insomnia. For those with severe insomnia, exercise works better than most sleeping aids. One study demonstrated that daytime exercise reduced time to fall asleep by 55%, anxiety by 15%, and wakefulness by 30%. The same study found that daytime exercise increased total sleep time by 18%. However, exercise in the evenings can cause cortisol levels to spike, causing sleep to be difficult.

    • We recommend exercising before it gets dark. Dr. Johnson’s favorite time to exercise is in the morning, before your first meal of the day.

With these tips, we hope you can hack your way to your best night of sleep ever!

The Johnson Center for Health services patients in-person in our Blacksburg and Virginia Beach / Norfolk locations. We also offer telemedicine for residents of Virginia and North Carolina!


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